Charlie Warzel is an Opinion writer at large at The New York Times, where he writes about the intersection of technology, media, and politics. For the Times and in his prior role as a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News, Warzel has covered a wide array of issues related to the creation and dissemination of misinformation in the social media era. He is the author, with his partner Anne Helen Peterson, of the forthcoming book “Out of the Office: The Big Problem and Bigger Promise of Working from Home” (Knopf, December 2021).
Warzel, who is based in Missoula, Montana, spoke with the Nieman Foundation in February about the attention economy, coverage of QAnon, and more. Edited excerpts:
On the attention economy
Charlie Warzel: I’m really interested in this idea of attention as a skeleton key for understanding so many of the broader issues that we’re dealing with right now. That’s mostly because I was listening to somebody talk about this in late 2020. They mentioned that a lot of the speech fights that we’ve having on platforms — about who to take down, is it censorship, etc. — are really issues of attention. They’re issues of amplification. It’s mostly access to a large audience and having your voice amplified, as opposed to being completely shut out.
And I started looking into attention a lot more. I found this 1997 essay by Michael Goldhaber in Wired, and it was one of those things that when you read it, my jaw was just on the floor.
He predicts online influencers, and he says he does it in this framework he says he developed in 1980s of the attention economy. We use that now as a shorthand for advertising; today, everyone’s trying to get your attention. But for him, it’s a very literal term, in the sense that you wake up every morning, and you have an amount of attention to give to things. Everything that you pay attention to is a transaction. It’s a zero‑sum transaction, so if I wake up, and I immediately start paying attention to my phone while my dogs are sitting there whining in the crate, wanting to be let out, that’s attention I cannot pay to them now. I have made my choice, which means that it is a truly scarce resource. You cannot generate more attention for yourself.
Goldhaber took that little kernel of a principle and just blew it out and said, “OK, if this is our scarcest resource, then people are going to A, want to get as much of that as possible, and B, the people who do get it are going to have something akin to very real power.”
Immediately, I thought about Donald Trump. I thought about all the Internet, online influencers. I called Goldhaber up — this was probably mid‑late January when I reached him and he was pretty fixated on the events of 1/6, the Capitol siege. I see all the elements there, and what was really fascinating to him was this notion that all those people inside the chamber, taking selfies and documenting and making their own media. He said, “This is just an army of people whose attention has not only been co‑opted but who are also trying to grab other people’s attention … They’re documenting this and vying for this attention.” This is the current that runs through so much of this.
There was this real attention that was being paid to this group of people who were “forgotten Americans,” and that’s the base, but a little bit below that Goldhaber … said that the racism, the misogyny, all these things, even the cancel culture stuff, it’s all about pandering to a group of people who really feel that at this moment, attention is being paid to others. Diversity initiatives are attention being paid to people at the expense of white American men who feel that their standing in the country is being taken away.
You don’t have to even remotely agree with that to understand that there’s a power there when you feel that. That feeling you’ve been thinking about alienation so much, that feeling that no one’s paying attention to you anymore. If you feel that from multiple directions, it’s profoundly isolating and enraging.
On how Trump took advantage of the attention economy
There are two things. There’s the way in which you will see the attention, which you are taking around towards a specific group of people, the way Trump chooses to make them — even if he holds a lot of contempt for them — feel listened to, understood, or respected. The other is the way that he truly understands the greater dynamics of our attention economy, the notion that we all have a certain amount of attention to pay in a given day and a given time.
He’s very good at wielding it, and he’s very good innately. I don’t want to give him too much mastermind credit or anything like that, but naturally, he cares so much about the media, he consumes so much of a certain media that he instinctively understood how to program it.
When we think about the platforms, the true innovation of Donald Trump is honestly, his natural ability to piss people off on Twitter. He’s calling into Fox and friends, his ability to take up airtime. For whatever reason, he understood the ways in which they’re able to command attention with this audience, and he did it. It has the two effects. It draws people in to support. Then it creates a situation like you say something incredibly inflammatory.
The media was completely unprepared for somebody who’s going to defy norms at the rate that he did. Saying, for example, that Ted Cruz’s father, or whatever, was the Zodiac killer. All these things, they’re so outrageous that they must be talked about. He knows that if they must be talked about, what we’re doing is we’re paying attention to him at the expense of other people, and this is all the way through. From 2015 to, honestly, the day they took away his Twitter account.
Trump stumbled into a system that made a lot of sense because these platforms are aggregators of attention. There are ways to track and direct that.
Donald Trump for better or worse, getting banned from Twitter presents this interesting theory of counterfactuals. He is truly neutered without it. His absence does create this interesting vacuum. You’re trying to see other people fill it. I’d say the person who’s doing the best job of that is Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. She appeals to a lot of people simply because she drives a certain group of people insane.
It tells you a lot about what [Trump’s] presidency really was. There are certain real policies that affected a lot of people, but … there’s an online term called “shit‑posting.” It’s essentially this idea that by doing something a little outrageous, trying to get a reaction. I think that was how his administration governed to some degree. It was this game of creating, attracting attention, staying in the spotlight, making his enemies mad. Then in turn, making his followers love him even more for that, and I think that was the essential part of his governing.
On media coverage of QAnon and how tech reporters saw it coming
QAnon is super hard to wrap one’s head around not only because is it leaderless but also because it’s hard to take the core tenants seriously in terms of the idea that there are actually going to be mass executions, for example. Also, this is one of those distinctly online type of phenomenon, which is that you’re almost forced to take something incredibly ridiculous very seriously, because if you don’t, at your own peril, things like 1/6 can come up maybe without you thinking about it.
This was stumbled upon by technology reporters. The first QAnon article was written in New York Magazine. It was an explainer by a technology journalist freelancer named Paris Martineau.
People have been paying attention to these fringy, weird, bad racist, whatever message boards, for a really long time. This thing was sticky on it. It kept popping up. It kept staying on board. It’s really technology journalists who saw this coming, who studied these dynamics. They understand them and they know how they’re laced with irony. They understand that they’re vessels for these bigoted, anti‑Semitic tropes and misogynistic tropes, dangerous, violent, right‑think tropes.
It’s become a thing political reporters and people who don’t have context of that origin have to deal with. I think that there’s something that’s good about that. A, this visibility is helpful. The other part of that is it gets flattened to some degree. It becomes a subject that people are talking about. Not really knowing where it came from or what it is. You have the ability to either talk about it too seriously or not seriously enough. It’s hard to find that balance. I worry that in doing so, it will potentially legitimize it in this weird way.
People are drawn to movements because of the people who oppose it less than because they agree with it. Nancy Pelosi was saying, “Oh well, Republicans are the party of QAnon now.” I think that’s a really dangerous thing because in one way, yeah, of course [that’s true in some respects]. You need people to answer for the fringe side of the party. They need to own certain elements of this. They should be held to account.
The other side of that is, if QAnon becomes this thing that triggers Nancy Pelosi, or Chuck Schumer, or Rachel Maddow, or these figures who are seen as the left, a lot of people will be like, “I don’t really know what it is, but I believe it now” or “I’m into it.”
On the ethics of using smartphone location data in reporting
One of the first things that I did when I saw it was ask the person [who leaked smartphone location data, for a New York Times opinion piece] — just out of curiosity, not to dictate the terms of what we’re going to do if we choose to do something with this — “What is your motive here?” They actually didn’t know. They were like, “Well, first, I’m outraged by this. I do want people brought to justice.”
That’s not really our purview. We’re not a law enforcement agency. I’ve written a lot about privacy. I’m not really in the business of hosting public names of these people without giving them their due process. This source was like, “I care deeply about these issues of privacy, as well.” It turned out that the motivation was also similar to the stories that we’ve written previously, which is, “I don’t want this stuff collected.” So it was this really conflicting notion from the source of like, “I don’t even really know why I’ve reached out,” to some degree. Then that’s what we grappled with the entire time. Like, as we wrote in the piece, this tells two stories.
There’s an animation with the piece that, if you watch it, shows beyond a shadow of a doubt a link between the president’s words and this terrible thing that happened. That is literally the point of the impeachment trial. That’s a story that, as journalists, we’re supposed to be doing … and that’s a very important tool to understand the events of the day that’s really confusing and captured via thousands of phones.
On the other side of it, yeah, I believe very strongly that this information should not be collected. I guess you could make a case that it should be collected, but the way in which it is collected is just horribly broken.
There are people who’ve helped design the [the mobile advertising technology] system who don’t know how it works, and they say that that is by design — to make it hard to regulate, to make it difficult, to make it so that the data goes into, basically, a Rube Goldberg machine and pops out dollar signs. There’s no control over it. Most of us don’t really know. We know we’ve signed up for something, we don’t really know exactly what it is that we signed up for.
I talked to 50 people for that story who we found in the data. Only one agreed to have their name used. I don’t know why they did that, but they did. That was the only person we published. We went to difficult degrees to keep people’s data, or their privacy, safe in keeping with the story.
What it illustrates to me is this bad position that we’re in is by design. You and I and these professors and all, we’re all having this conversation, where we’re tied in knots over this thing, trying to do the right thing. Meanwhile, again, these companies are just collecting and making money, every minute, every hour, that we’re having these conversations. It’s us on flat feet while they get to do what they want to do.
On the challenge of covering public figures who promote misinformation
Probably the biggest career revelation I had was I read this report from this Syracuse professor, Whitney Phillips, in 2018. It was called “The Oxygen of Amplification” from Data & Society, [a group focused on research about technology in society].
It was basically talking about what happens when you amplify bad people, and it made me do some soul searching. I have covered these movements. I covered the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for a long time. A lot of that was amplifying things that he said that were ridiculous but also dangerous. The reporting that I did was really critical, deeply sourced. It was impactful to some degree, but also elevating his profile.
The fact that amplifying them or writing about them is naturally sticky and naturally, people are interested, there was an audience. That’s a really uncomfortable phenomenon of this time period. People have to make their peace with it or figure out the way to do it responsibly.
Yeah, it is dangerous. I do think we’re all playing that part in it, and especially when it comes to Marjorie Taylor Greene. I really do think we have to start covering her and issues like her around the notion of power and how much power do they have to do the things that they want to do. Yes, their ideology is dangerous. It’s not something to be ignored completely. There’s a really fine line to walk. We have to continually figure out what it is.
To use her as an example, she is a freshman Congresswoman in the House, in a party that is not in a majority there. The bills she introduces are pretty much not serious, like introducing an article of impeachment for Biden. Treating someone as not a serious lawmaker is maybe one way to think about covering her.