Binge-Watching the World Burn

From Afghanistan to Venezuela, countries in crisis have to compete for the world’s short attention span. But to what end?

Photo: Zabi Karimi / AP

It was perhaps during the coverage of the 2014 protests that I became most aware of the squirrel-like attention span of the international community. While students were shot in the streets of Caracas, Valencia, and San Cristóbal, and my carefully crafted little bubble turned into what some of us would jokingly refer to as Carakistán, with police helicopters constantly hovering over residential areas and gusts of tear gas filling the apartment from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., it would seem as if the world would have its attention focused on our failing democracy. And for a moment, it was. Folks were tuning in. 

We always go back to what we call “the Takei Event,” when Star Trek’s George Takei posted this article on his Twitter feed and warped us (yes, pun intended) to over one million views in a couple of hours. We had to scramble to keep CC from falling apart since our very basic blog server plan was never ready for something like that. Interview requests came in by the dozens as well as editors looking for content. For a couple of days there, it felt as if we were the center of the world, and that there was real concern and interest. We were seen. Until Ukraine. Damn, Ukraine. 

As the Ukrainian revolution took off we disappeared from international headlines. There was no gimmick that we could do to get back on prime time. Not even after the government paraded an opposition leader through Caracas, as if he were some sort of political prison carnival queen, did we get the attention back.  

Our little nations and causes keep on competing for the attention of the world, but what’s it for? Rating? Clicks? What is it that we think we’ll get from drawing attention to the injustices happening in our countries in 2021?

What do we expect? And this is a good question to ask. The expectations of the people living under these circumstances tend to be completely in contrast with the reality of the tools and the will at the hands of the international community.

Remember that in most of these cases we’re not talking about the law-abiding pro human rights countries, but about regimes that have gone down a path of corruption, violence, and misery. Those countries that drill at the bottom of the pit. So, how do you control someone who has managed to thrive thanks to extreme conditions? Throw in some sanctions to get them to a table, perhaps.

Take Cuba for example. Once again, after so many years, our attention was drawn to the island for the unprecedented wave of protests challenging a 60-year-old dictatorship. But after a week and a half, while Miguel Díaz-Canel was still hunting down protesters and jailing journalists, it became clear that, again, that 60-year-old regime wouldn’t crumble overnight, and world powers were just looking in just like everybody else (was there something else they could do?). Eventually, interest died and we started looking elsewhere. 

Nicaragua is an even sadder example. No one gave them five minutes. Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, the ruling couple of Nicaragua, led a charge against every single opposing presidential candidate and threw them in jail. They brutally dismantled whatever vestige of democracy was left in the country in just a few days. The international community almost didn’t flinch. And somehow this story didn’t make good TV (or memes). Because, what else is new? 

Today, of course, it’s Afghanistan. And now we’re at the other end of the screen (although I’m still waiting for a Venezuelan passport to pop up somewhere or a Taliban financier who has a yacht parked in Los Roques to appear). We’re all obsessed with what’s happening, it’s novel, it’s interesting, who’s the bad guy? Did Biden fuck up? Or was it Trump? Did you see the mess at the airport? Did you see the people falling from the planes? It’ll be a real-life Gilead, again. You know, like the show. Oh, there’s a book too? “We hope the Taliban include women in their government.” Obama, Bush, the CNN female reporter interviewing the Taliban, until it gets to a point where interest dies. Because people realize there’s no final payoff, these crises just keep going endlessly, and they get boring. And the algorithm doesn’t like boring.

And that happens to us in our own country. We get tired, we need to take a break from our own shitshow and shift our attention elsewhere.

People obsessively consume information about one subject, dive into rabbit holes, become two-minute experts, and suddenly, after everybody has seen that viral tweet or the memes become outdated, interest dissipates.

Just like binge-watching 12 episodes on Netflix during the weekend, on Monday you’re looking for something new.

Are we completely enslaved by the algorithm? No. The media needs to keep recording, not only to preserve history, but because the work we do is useful to inform actionable items. To provide data to help victims and refugees, or to measure the scale of a humanitarian crisis, for example. NGOs and international organizations rely on this kind of information to make decisions and provide aid. But even with this kind of work, which can also be done in the shadows, we still need the attention. Because, otherwise, we’d have no fuel to keep going.

As autocracies do and undo, the world watches as long as it’s entertaining. Will it have a happy ending? Will there be a plot twist to keep us hanging around for a couple more days? Or will the end just be a brutal massacre? Netflix recommends this because you watched Reservoir Dogs. Anything goes. But, God forbid, don’t let it be boring.