Hacking Attention: Media, Technology and Crisis

On Monday at 5pm I’ll be moderating a session at SXSW that explores the way journalists, civic hackers, and local communities are using new technology and social networks to respond to crisis and conflict. What follows is a preview of some of the issues we’ll be grappling with.

What is your attention worth? Online publishers, advertisers and social networks are putting a price on your attention every day. The entire web metrics industry is built on the economy of attention – impressions, clicks, visits, time on site, RTs, likes, shares. These are the atomic elements of attention.

But there are also people who are working to hack attention, to use new networks, new connections and new tools to drive our hearts and minds towards the most important stories of our time. The hope is not that we can turn attention into dollars, but that we can turn attention into action.

Today, images of natural disasters, videos from protests, and reports from war zones reach us almost instantaneously. Carried over the air and across the wires, events around the globe are brought directly into our field of view. They show up in our Twitter feed, on our Facebook walls, or in our Tumblr dashboard.

From the heart of conflict and crisis people are taking to social media to bear witness, find information, and seek aid and assistance. Citizen and pro-journalists are reporting from the front lines, activists are pushing out creative media campaigns, crowds are mapping crises in real time, and governments are watching and tracking us online.

The Internet and other forms of digital technology have always been a double-edged sword, expanding freedom of speech, expression and the press while also enabling surveillance and empowering governments that oppose journalism, transparency, and accountability.

From Attention to Action

globeI saw this first hand working on press freedom issues around protests in the US. Over the course of 2011 and 2012 nearly 100 journalists were arrested while trying to cover Occupy protests around the country. I used a combination of online tools and old school reporting to track every one. Over those two years I watched as journalists livestreamed their own – sometimes violent – arrests or tweeted from the paddy wagon, and sought aid, assistance and solidarity online. 

I was interested not only in how technology was being used to organize these protests and report on them in new ways, but also how media and technology impacted the broader public’s experience of those events. That is, how people found the information they needed, and what they did with that information.

Six months after the Boston marathon bombing a group of journalist, first responders, local Boston residents and staff from technology companies gathered at the Boston Globe to debrief the role that social media played during the bombing and the days afterward. We listened as first responders talk about how they triaged information on the ground and on the web, we heard Boston residents talk about feeling awash in information but too little of it met their needs, we discussed how misinformation spread across mainstream media and social media alike.

But we also spent the afternoon designing new systems that could bring technologists, journalists and first responders closer together to better serve community information needs. In the face of disasters like the Boston bombing and Hurricane Sandy skilled volunteers, innovative journalists and aid workers are increasingly collaborating to build new kinds of tools like crisis maps, online people finders, and participatory aid networks that are challenging the old institutions of both media and disaster relief by giving people more direct, nimble and responsive ways to help responded to conflicts and crisis.

Big Questions

But for all the important new ways social media and technology are changing the face of protests, movements and relief efforts – challenges persist.

  • Misinformation still spreads like wildfire and new media tools demand new ways of verifying the images, videos and details we encounter online.
  • In the human rights context we need to balance the needs of verification with real concern about anonymity and safety.
  • These new networks are challenging old institutions, but do they lack the longevity to sustain long-term change? What happens to our attention when the immediacy is gone?
  • And, we don’t really know if these new networks give us the information we need, in the form we need it, to move us to act, to make change, to help.
  • How does public policy and our journalistic practice need to change to address new threats and opportunities with media, technology and crisis?

We are in the early days and there is a lot we still need to learn.

That’s why I’m excited to moderate this discussion with three people who grapple with these questions every day. These three panelists come at these issues from widely diverse perspectives and backgrounds, and together I hope we’ll move the debate forward, even if just a little.

Adaora Udoji (@ADAORAUDOJI) is the interim President of News Deeply, the parent organization of the amazing news site Syria Deeply. As a producer, correspondent and anchor she has reported from four continents and hundreds of cities working for ABC, CNN, Court TV and WNYC, including award winning reporting on Hurricane Katrina and the South Asian Tsunami.

Madeleine Bair (@MADBAIR) is the curator of the Human Rights Channel on YouTube, a collaboration between her organization WITNESS and the social media newsroom Storyful. She is a talented media trainer and filmmaker and has served as a an I.F. Stone Fellow at Human Rights Watch and a UC Berkeley Human Rights Center Fellow.

Matt Stempeck (@MSTEM) is a civic technologist. He’s studied and built creative technologies in advocacy, politics, startups, news media, and peer-to-peer humanitarian aid. He recently finished a Master’s at the MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media where he built a network for grassroots participatory aid and disaster response. He has worked with groups like Americans for Campaign Reform, the New Organizing Institute.

As part of our panel, we are asking the audience a few questions and we welcome you to join the conversation on Twitter with the #HackAttn hashtag or in the comments below. Here are the questions we are asking for feedback on:

  • When information comes your way about a crisis somewhere else in the world, what motivates you to respond? (for instance: empathy, solidarity, ease of doing something, your networks, etc.)
  • What keeps you from reacting? (overwhelmed by so many crises around the world, inadequate info or mistrust of information, unsure how to respond, unclear if you can make a difference, etc.)


  1. Reblogged this on HEROES NATION BLOG by Joseph Pellerito Jr. and commented:
    Social media could be a powerful tool to unite people with disabilities, especially when dealing with the fall-out of a catastrophic injury or illness.

  2. nswnotes says:

    I enjoyed reading this. Technology is definitely important in emergencies, however it is easy to believe that only new technology has a role to play. It’s equally as important to think about traditional forms of information dissemination tools- most likely people, particularly in war torn or developing countries will have little if any access to online infrastructure. Another issue to consider is trusability of information sources vs. their useability. Check out http://www.cdacnetwork.org for more.

    Also, the Boston Marathon was not a natural disaster.

  3. JT says:

    Reblogged this on 18XRAY MUSIC and commented:
    Lots of great information about what going on at SXSW

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