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Wars, Information Overload and our Diminishing “Attention Currency”

Today’s feverish demands also open the way for disinformation and fake news

By: /
18 March, 2024
The Ukrainian government has worked miracles to capture and retain our limited "attention currency". Here President Zelenskyy meets the press with President Biden during a working visit to Washington in December 2023. Image: Government of Ukraine
Nguyen Quoc Tan Trung
By: Nguyen Quoc Tan Trung
Doctoral Researcher at the University of Victoria, Canada.

As the Russia-Ukraine war enters its third year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 – even longer considering the seizure of Crimea by Russia in 2014 – there have been times when the conflict has fallen off the front pages and from our social media feeds. A recent, and understandable example of this occurring was the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas, and the subsequent war in Gaza that is now front and centre.

In the language of David Lowenthal, forgetting, overlooking or ignoring seem to be the nature of “today’s feverish demands” where “the sensory-laden penchant for computer gaming, coupled with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, betoken a here-and-now environment dominated by raw sensations in which we live perpetually in the present.” Indeed, the media worldwide has a very short news cycle, while its audience often experiences a loss of attention simply through information overload.

But how exactly does “attention currency” affect war narratives and the importance of seeking international peace, security and justice? And is there any way that we can meaningfully ensure public opinion is well informed, free from information overload, in particular disinformation overload?

Unravelling “Attention Currency” in International Affairs

The concept of “attention currency” coined by this article derives from the term “attention economy” first used by Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Simon in the 1960s to describe an economic phenomenon of information overload. He prophetically argued  that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention,” which soon became a societal reality with the appearance of the internet and its infinite content. Today, information is increasingly abundant and immediately available, while human attention turns into the deciding factor of content consumption. Heading into the new millennium, the economic view that human attention should be treated as a scarce commodity rose in prominence.

Although firstly an economic phenomenon, the “attention” concept slowly made its way into public policies and international relations, problematizing the theory of democratically formed public opinions. This original argument of the democratic theory could be explained as follows: As long as a country has freedom of speech, liberty of the press, and the abundant flow of information, that country can ensure the formation of sound and constructive public opinion. It is not to say that the citizenry could always reach a common consensus, but it assumes that with freedom of information political differences could be overcome. The idea of “attention economy” reminds us that this is never the case. 

Indeed, average citizens will never be sufficiently interested in all questions, local, national, or international. They don’t have the time to inform themselves adequately by reading and listening to facts and arguments on every side of every issue. And without enough “attention currency” to invest in one issue, people can temporarily lose their reasoning capability and become creatures of habit and impulse.

However, the literature has not settled on how the public losing attention on one particular issue can influence a government’s decisions concerning foreign policy.  Some rare works on the topic, like Thomas Knecht’s Paying Attention to Foreign Affairs, published in 2010, painstakingly looked at chosen case studies like the 1990–1991 Persian Gulf war to reach the relative conclusion that less attention from the public provided the U.S. government more decision leeway when going to war. Contrarily, when media coverage of the conflict peaked, and people became much more knowledgeable, the administration’s policy options were constrained. In this case, less public attention seems more favourable for a government’s optimal strategies when formulating foreign policy. 

Yet, in the 1982–1986 Ethiopian famine, when international foreign aid was required to alleviate the crisis, more public attention meant more chance of government’s coming to the rescue. Knecht followed his theoretical model and found that the Reagan administration’s aid policy during this period followed the expected pattern: a record amount of aid donated to Ethiopia when public attention peaked. Unfortunately, as soon as attention faded, foreign aid returned to a position more in line with previous aid levels. 

The practical evidence, although bounded by U.S. generated data, allows an educated assumption that the competition for the limited attention of national and international communities is accurate. More substantial attention could lead to more public scrutiny, but it also guarantees a response whether it is financial aid, time to fact-check, legal/political mobilisation or emotional investment. 

Without attention, however, the support for a particular cause becomes optional or de-prioritised. People also become much more prone to fake news and information manipulation and with no spare time to investigate often follow their political habits and impulses to consume any available information fed to them.

Seeking International Peace, Security and Justice

While the opening of this article focuses on Ukraine as an example of the public losing attention, it should be noted that the initial extensive media coverage and resulting international support to Ukraine has been perceived by some to be the result of a “white supremacist, capitalistic system” where Ukrainian lives are worth protecting, but not others. Yet, the fact that Ukrainians are now being somewhat forgotten given waves of Israel-Palestine headlines and social posts allows us to question this highly racialized and post-colonial approach. 

Should it be more reasonable to attribute the selective attitude of the public when discussing international affairs to their own limited time? When their attention has become the most valuable asset that every major actor, public or private, is fighting over?

For example, while the Syrian civil-war received extensive screentime and had substantial impact on the theory and practice of international law concerning humanitarian, migration and refugee law plus the illegal use of chemical weapons, the crisis in Yemen, on the other hand and with relatively similar challenges was unable to gather similar public attention. 

Likewise, the Ukraine conflict resulted in almost twenty United Nations General Assembly resolutions, with six emergency session resolutions, while the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which reached the threshold of ethnic cleansing against the local Armenian Christian community, never found its way to this collective international forum.

Fortunately, a UN-led initiative on a fair and geographically equitable news supply concerning ongoing conflicts and human catastrophes has shown the general public its collective commitment to providing a more inclusive discussion of international conflicts. However, and even though the UN News outlet is well operated, its content and news cycles are very similar to the “trending” system of social media platforms such as X (formerly Twitter), TikTok, or Facebook. 

For example, much of the current news, including a special banner link, is focused on the “Israel-Gaza Crisis”. Such practice clearly does not bring about fairness and a better way to address the attention deficit of the public when it comes to overall international peace, security, and justice. 

To maintain a focus on underreported crises the international aid group CARE suggests that media outlets should find creative ways, despite the pressure on budgets and fewer international correspondents, to ensure the public is kept informed. One way to do so would be through funding local journalists.

Another approach to counter the lack of “attention currency” is to deal with the radicalisation and sensationalisation found on many digital apps and platforms. For example, Russia’s information operations were disrupted soon after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine when the U.S. and the European Union restricted or banned RT and the Sputnik news outlets. 

As noted by Andrew Hoskins, co-author of Radical War: Data, Attention & Control in the 21st Century, the current stage of armed conflicts is also the ultimate realisation of “participative war” where everyone is a war participant by virtue of their feeds. This kind of public participation, under the lens of international law, is technically lawful. But should it be monitored?

In the recent 2022 Report of the UN Secretary-General on Countering Disinformation for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (A/77/287), the call for widening access to information with reference to the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information, and the right to participate in public affairs was identified. While this is reasonable, as observed in this article, maximizing access to information is not always the answer. 

Fake news, disinformation, including, for example, the spontaneous promotion of Osama Bin Laden’s 20-year old letter to America justifying the September 11 attacks on TikTok during the Israel–Gaza conflict is unequivocal evidence that more information does not necessarily equate to sounder public opinion. If a reliable international framework for fighting disinformation cannot be achieved, the scarce commodity of our “attention currency” will quickly be claimed by so-called “information operations” and fake news especially in democratic countries. To this end, fairness and geographical equitable representation in news reporting and distribution, and decisive actions against disinformation are some elements needed to counter the “attention currency” issue.

On a positive note, since the Russia-Ukraine war began, a small army of internet sleuths, have turned their valuable “attention currency” for international justice, by “sifting through social media platforms like TikTok and Twitter to gather digital evidence of potential war crimes committed by Russian forces.”

And while the Russia-Ukraine war has not received the same amount of attention prior to the Israel-Gaza war, the Ukrainian government has become very adept at regaining the media spotlight. As Brandon Boatwright wrote last year, the Ukrainian government’s strategic use of social media could serve as a model for other countries trying to capture our limited “attention currency” especially “during war and other times of hardship.” 

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