Attention Engineering: What it is, How it is Used, and Why Warfighters Need it

By: J. Z. Conger 

Estimated Read Time: 10 Minutes

 Your sworn adversaries work in a building next to a public sidewalk. How would you disrupt their decision-making? Would you throw rocks at the building? Would you start a protest, or drop leaflets on the ground? A pilot might agree with the first option; a psychological operations officer (PSYOP) with the second. However, there is a sneakier method that could yield greater effects: mining an adversary’s information, then targeting his or her vulnerabilities. Traditionally, this would mean somehow accessing the adversary (clandestine, cyber, etc. operations), handing the information to a PSYOP planner, then handing the plan to the original operators (or new operators) for insertion. However, there is an emerging method that is even better. It involves developing strategies that manipulate a recent phenomenon: attention engineering. By either researching existing publically available information (such as social media accounts) or developing nascent programs (such as phishing operations) that employ attention engineering, a planner could discover an exploitable pattern of life, rather than just a handful of mundane factoids.

Attention engineering is the product of two recent historical developments: marketing and the internet. Attention engineering is exacerbated by social media and news outlets and has applications in the emerging security environment for influencing adversary decision-making.

Traditional marketing has been around, more or less, since the Industrial Revolution and the expansion of product variety and availability. It is easy to imagine the days before the Industrial Revolution: you likely had one local store, one tea supplier, one butcher, etc. There was little choice in products. As similar, mass-produced products (such as Coke and Pepsi) became more readily available, marketing became a necessity and developed as its own field of work. Behavioral psychologists paved the way for modern marketing by exploring concepts like conditioning in the early 1900s. During the 1950s-1980s, attention and persuasion psychology greatly expanded marketing techniques and theory. Just when marketers were becoming experts in their field, the most important development of the 20th century revolutionized everything.

Enter, the internet. The near-instant access to unlimited information changed the world forever. The “old” internet was a beautiful thing; the lack of ads and information collection made surfing the web easy and stress-free (Does anyone remember the old YouTube?). However, marketers and businesses soon realized that selling ad space and user information could significantly increase profits, and modern social media sites like Myspace and Facebook followed suit. The mid-to-late 2000s and 2010s saw enormous increases in ad production and the selling of user information. Today, we are dealing with a new marketing strategy: attention engineering. The phrase likely first appeared in 2013, but its use has expanded greatly since late 2017. I define attention engineering as using psychological techniques – such as creating dopamine feedback loops and fueling primal emotions – to retain platform user attention as long as possible in order to maximize advertising revenue and information collection.

Here’s how Facebook engineers your attention. Facebook algorithms choose and schedule content and ads optimally. Based on your media use, cookies, browser history, and myriad other factors, they present you with the most engaging content at the best possible time. For example, if I (Facebook) track enough data to know you consistently use Facebook every morning between 0700 and 0900, and I correctly identify you hate mornings and love puppies based on your previous posts and browser history, I will recommend a cute, viral puppy video at 0715. You consume the video, and it makes you feel good. You only had to watch one ad, but your morning is better now! But wait . . . the video auto-plays. Now, you find yourself watching a funny cat video compilation. And then an ad. And then another video! You eventually break the video chain.

Happy from the 20 minutes you spent, you decide to post your daughter’s kindergarten graduation pictures at 0735. Four hours later, you check the post . . . you only have 5 likes. I (Facebook) recognize this. I know you love your daughter, and I know you will feel upset and invalidated if you do not receive more likes. Therefore, I am going to make your Facebook post more visible than it was before. Now, every single friend you have logs in and sees your post at the top of their news feed. Even if they’ve seen the post in the morning, they are more likely to “like” it now. Suddenly, you have a resurgence of likes! Throughout the evening, you receive over 20 notifications. The feel-good dopamine flows through your brain! You use Facebook more. You post to Facebook more. You scroll through the ads and newsfeeds. You “like” the ad-ridden viral video your friend posted. Your friend likes you back. Good feelings all around!

YouTube does similar attention engineering. The auto-play function and video suggestion tools are spot on (same with Netflix!). The content you love – whether it be country music, TedTalks, or funny cat videos – will appear, and you will likely want to watch it. YouTube even takes risks and suggests brand new, addictive, unrelated content that might send you on another “trip.” YouTube will also intentionally direct you away from those old, 360p music lyric videos that don’t have ads and towards the newest, ad-saturated, high-volume artist VEVO music videos. Recently, YouTube has added two advertisements at the beginning of many popular videos. You either skip them, which takes 10 seconds total, or listen to the ads, which take several minutes. It makes it so you cannot just let YouTube play by itself; you must constantly return to the website to click through the ads. As mentioned before, these companies collect and sell your data to each other and to third parties. These third parties can target you easily for ads, scams, and robocalls (malicious calls should comprise 45% of cellphone calls by 2019). While you can claim immunity to these advertisements, plenty of psychological research has shown that the more exposure you have to information, the more you will respond to it positively (hence propaganda’s effectiveness).

The addictive cycles that Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, Reddit, Netflix, and others proliferate alter your perceptions and change your mental effectiveness. They cause people to easily consume hyperbolic journalism, biased information, misinformation, and disinformation. Individuals receive content that confirms their beliefs and ignores or chastises conflicting beliefs. This confirmation bias can lead to lapses in judgement and vapid, linear thought. Attention engineering strategies, ironically, contribute to scattered attention, less productive work, less critical thinking, and less self-control. Chamath Palihapitiya, the former vice-president of user growth at Facebook, has described Facebook in particular as “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works” and contributing to “no civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, [and] mistruth.” Just imagine taking this power and leveraging it against adversary populations.

Social media and video services are not the only manipulators of attention engineering. The news is jumping on the same bandwagon. Most media sources have become ridden with biased, emotional, addictive coverage that elates or enrages its audience. It is easy to imagine the future of attention engineering. Any digitized screen that can post content has the ability to abuse human psychology. Attention engineering is probably the most effective scam of this century. It robs people of quality time, quality information, and quality thought, and it is nearly impossible to resist. These methods attack our psyche at the most primitive levels. There is no fix except to stop using these apps, websites, and news sources.

Modern warfighters, especially those in the information domains (public affairs, psychological operations, information operations, etc.), should harness this power in order to influence adversary decision-making in the human domain. Perhaps the only way for militaries to take advantage of attention engineering is by exploiting preexisting commercial platforms, such as purchasing ads or developing and sharing inflammatory messages. The warfighter may be able to use attention engineering to great effect in the following areas:

  1. Collecting an adversary’s personal information, habits, and preferences
    1. Creating content to phish (or catfish) users
    2. Identifying a user’s strengths and weaknesses
    3. Identifying a user’s frequented establishments
    4. Identifying a user’s frequented websites
  2. Messaging our allies and adversaries
    1. Spreading information, disinformation, or misinformation (inform, deceive, influence)
    2. Encouraging active consumption of specific media
    3. Changing ally, adversary, and neutral population perceptions
    4. Distracting target audiences
    5. Increasing homogeneity of belief, thought, and action
  3. Conducting psychological operations
    1. Sowing doubt, dissention, and disloyalty
    2. Highlighting insecurities, incompetencies, deficiencies, and other vulnerabilities
    3. Inducing a false sense of security
    4. Inducing feelings of distress (anxiety, anger, frustration, helplessness, fear, etc.)
    5. Inducing schadenfreude (elation at another’s suffering)
    6. Inducing stress and tiredness (adrenaline and cortisol production)
  4. Supplementing military deception operations
    1. Spreading rumors
    2. Vectoring attention away from the operation or operators (false flag, etc.)
    3. Inflating, devaluing, or fabricating content or entities

The ethics and legality of using these techniques are questionable, and one must consider the risks of wartime application. However, some actors are already using the attention engineering phenomenon to their advantage. I believe if a nation wants to succeed in today’s fight, it will likewise adopt this technique. Information warfare is an increasingly important component of the battlespace, and Western nations appear to be falling behind. 

2d Lt J. Z. Conger is an active duty 14F (information operations officer) and behavioral effects analyst. He is currently working on an MS in Applied Psychology at Angelo State University. Email: 

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US Government.

OTH, multi-domain operations, emerging security environment

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