You are the mayor of a town with a serious rat problem. The municipal rat catcher comes by with his report: “I killed a thousand rats this month.” “Well done!” you say, and you write him a check. But this goes on month after month for years. Sometimes more rats, sometimes fewer. One day you think, shouldn’t we be coming to the end of the rats soon? At that moment, you are enlightened: You’re not in the rat extermination business. You’re in the rat FARMING business. Farmers don’t run out of wheat. They help it grow, they harvest it, then they start over again. Until you eliminate the conditions that let rats thrive, you’re just another farmer harvesting regular crops of rats. Chastened by this realization, you look around your town with fresh eyes.
It’s a rat paradise! Piles of food left out to rot, uncovered garbage, and a rat catcher who is more than happy to be fully employed month after month. Only when you clean the place up does the rat population finally start to go down for good.
Eventually you move on from your job in Ratburg. You are now the mayor of Facebookville, and you have a serious meme problem. Toxic fake news memes are running rampant, biting your citizens. You pay meme debunkers to come in every month and spray them with facts and explainers. Mr. Snopes, the municipal debunker, assures you that he is making good progress. “We killed a thousand memes this month!” But one day, as you ponder the meme food chain, it hits you. You’re a freaking MEME FARMER!
Here’s how it works. Humans excrete attention through their eyeballs. Memes feast on it, and then multiply into toxic blooms of fake news. It doesn’t pay to intervene by debunking individual memes. More will keep pouring in. You can never get ahead of the meme population until you control the steaming heaps of waste attention that pollute your streets. You thank Mr. Snopes for his valiant but ultimately misguided work. The real work lies elsewhere.
Advertisers have rewarded Facebook for consolidating all this thinly spread and divergent attention into one convenient pile. They eat their fill and leave behind a filthy mess. Until we address this problem of attention hygiene, fake news will only proliferate. Every time you take the click bait, you delight the meme, the troll who created him, and the debunker who lives for the tiny noiseless take-downs that currently pass for progress. Your untended attention is a menace to society.
So what does attention hygiene look like?
Do a social media fast every other day. Consider not forwarding or re-tweeting that stupid thing the stupid politician did. Know your triggers and steer clear of them. See a headline about a maddening NRA ad? Don’t click! You know nothing good will come of it. Importantly, even the institutions are starting to acknowledge the problem and respond. Facebook has introduced a snooze button that will let you temporarily unfollow a person, page, or group for 30 days. Call it the Snooze Feed.
We’re getting better at this. Eventually we’ll have clean streets and good attention sewers. But for now we’re still in the filthy old London typhoid ‘n cholera stage. Boil your newsfeed, and please, don’t sneeze into your browser!