Attention is limited, and unevenly distributed. That creates bottlenecks that can be overwhelmed and exploited. For example a $100,000 bulk purchase by the Republican National Committee was enough to land Donald Trump’s book on the New York Times Bestseller List. In 2020, 17 books on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction best-seller list scored their spots by dint of bulk buys. Quality is a relative measure and largely perceived based on accolades that come from achieving quantity. If you understand this mechanism, you know if you produce enough volume you can crowd out competing ideas. Advertisers call this the “mere exposure” effect: simply showing your ad with more frequency is enough to convince people of its message. Familiarity breeds trust. Steve Bannon, the former Trump strategist, famously called this strategy “flooding the zone with shit.”
This technique clearly worked for Trump, as news organizations gave him billions of dollars are free airtime. This strategy is insidious as it implores your enemy to do you a favor: complain about the latest crazy thing Trump said or did, and you’re playing into his hands by continuing the news cycle. Avoid commenting and others fill the void, making you quickly irrelevant. This is also a technique that works in digital PR, where flooding the search results page with lots of positive or neutral stories can bury a negative story off the first page. The vast majority of people who search will only see the top few results, and less than 6% click to the second page: as they say “The best place to hide a dead body is page two of Google”. This is true of every media channel: all it takes to kill a story is to knock it out of the limelight. The same effect explains why companies tend to bury bad earnings reports by releasing them late on a Friday afternoon, or during a holiday or other important event, when most analysts and reporters have their attention turned elsewhere. One particularly clever example I saw in the wild was Uber’s attempt to wash away the #DeleteUber PR nightmare. Googling the term brings up 5 different help articles on how to delete the app, 3 articles on third party websites showing the same, and one article on an advertising campaign they ran urging racists to “delete uber”. The New York Times coverage of the actual event where 200,000 people deleted Uber after the company operated its service at JFK airport during the strike against Trump’s immigration policies, appears only on the second page.
Leaving no information vacuum available for your opponents – essentially being the source of so many stories they can’t break their bad news about you – is an effective strategy than can be used by actors good or bad. Most notably it can be used to counter disinformation, as was shown by the US’s response to the Ukraine-Russia war. They declassified and proactively released intelligence information that showed Putin was planning an attack, an unusual move that discredited any attempts to provide false justification for the war. The information war ramped up from there, with Ukraine’s President Zelensky refusing to capitulate or leave the capital city, and therefore holding the high ground in the court of social media opinion. The regular citizens of Ukraine took up arms both literally in the form of AK-47s, but also figuratively in sharing photos of their defiant stand against Russian aggression. Many of the early stories like the ghost of Kyiv, the old lady with sunflower seeds, the heroes of snake island, were quickly debunked, but the impression remained and the information gap filled. “If you don't like what's being said, change the conversation.”
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I have no idea how Ukraine is going to end, but the US has played this beautifully.
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