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Media Cocoons

This was going to be an e-mail to eyebeams, after it cropped up as part of a Mage character's paradigm and he asked for my real-world thoughts on the subject. But then, as I was working on it I figured I may as well share it for commentary. The whole thing is split into three sections. If you are only interested in how I see things as they are, you've no need to read further, where I speculate to the point of a premise for a story.

Comments as always are welcome. I'm writing so much because I am a comment whore.

Media Cocoons

How Things Are

Media cocoons aren't a new thing. Since two newspapers have competed, they have held differing viewpoints and people have bought the one that hey agree with. Recent changes in the media paradigm have just given people more ways in which to surround themselves in what amounts in some cases to personalised propaganda. The problem with that is at base that these cocoons allow corruption of incoming information without any means of checking without breaching the cocoon.

For example: Proliferation of news media. I read the Guardian newspaper, well known over here for being the paper of left-wing intellectuals. The same story that's in the Guardian will be in the Daily Mail (right-wing middle class paper) with a whole other spin on it. This applies to more than just newspapers, television news (CNN vs FOX vs BBC vs ITN) offer a surprising range of diversity.

For many years people didn't have this range of choice. It's only within the last ten years that people in the UK have been exposed to American news channels. News websites have grown from a niche market for geeks to a major source of news for a large number of people online. And now blogs are entering into things, but I'll get to them properly later.

Every source of media carries a bias, not just news. Looking at films, let's try The Patriot,or Enigma. News media just makes it easier to identify that bias. And people are going to get the most perceived value out of media which is in line with their biases — a new age book which uses terms such as "both primitive and Western people"[0] is going to appeal to the bastions of institutional racism, but plenty of other people are going to think the author an idiot. Likewise films, video games, every kind of media. This is ultimately an extrapolation of the obvious: People buy/read/play what they like and what they agree with, and they accept more from sources that they agree with.

The increase in both the volume and the types of media is leading to cocoons beins more and more common. People surround themselves with what they like, so they only read the news they like. Thus it becomes easier to gain popular support through lies, astroturfing and propaganda — the SCO vs Linux trial has been big news because people interested in business have cocoons that are set up to be more accepting of "Business sues rival for giving away product" stories than "Business goes mad and launches idiotic lawsuits", and the technical people are more accepting of "Business tries to sue coders for nothing" than "Business tries to defend own IP". Only the involvement of people like IBM and Novell have made businesspeople look twice, and even then they continue to carry stories that are more lies than truth (witness the recent attacks on Groklaw in the IT/business media). It doesn't matter that SCO's statements have little correlation with what they are actually doing and even less with the truth. People only believe what they are going on some level to agree with.

Blogs. I meant to come back to these, so I might as well. Lots of bloggers are touting blogging as "the new revolution of news media", albeit very prematurely. I do think that they are the next leap, but at present they are in the same niche as news websites were when they first opened. And blogs have a couple of strikes against them already. For a young form of media they have a massive proliferation. Five people writing on politics is one thing. Five thousand people is quite another, especially when they each have their own, ever so slightly different, bias. This makes it hard to find a group of blogs which cover a topic that agrees with a reader, and thus we end up with a few major blogs covering the major centres of bias, with individual smaller blogs being specialisations therein that only dedicated readers are likely to find.

The second and more powerful strike against blogs is that they fuck up Google. There's no polite way to put it, the whole Trackback concept couldn't be a better attack on Google if it tried. Considering the big G has replaced encyclopedias for a lot of people online, anything which messes up the search results is harmful to the overall knowledge base.

That said, when people have a better chance at finding blogs which agree with them, and when the perceptual shift that allows most of the online world to tap into the idea that blogs are valid sources of news comes about, it's entirely possible that any idiot who can subscribe to Blogger can call himself a journalist.

Now. I can either end here with that badly-formed but hopefully informative rant, or I can carry on and extrapolate what I see happening in the future.

You expect me not to speculate? Dear reader, you underestimate me.[1]

How Things Could Be

Stage 1: The perceptual shift occurs. People think blogs are good reputable sources of news — provided that one is talking about the blogs that they agree with.

Stage 2: Google filters blogs. In response, a number of blog-only search engines start up, excluding the rest of the web. This allows people to find blogs on a variety of subjects which meet their bias-sets. Somewhere around here, someone works out a feasible micropayment system.

Stage 3: With this in place, the world is looking for more things to customise. Enter Jesus figg's term for the software), a site like Google. But whereas Google has a fixed seed for the PageRank algorithm, Jesus would be customisable. A search engine that plays to your biases. At first only hardcore geeks and weirdos would pick it up. Then people write a nice, easy to use and idiot-proof front end. It slowly gains net-wide acceptance.

Stage 4: News sites reinvent themselves. People don't want to have to trawl through a vast number of blogs to find the ones they want to read. A combination of the blog search engine and Jesus fixes that. Feedsites. Newspapers reinvented. Each caters for a bias-cluster, a broad set containing a fair few media cocoons. They pay bloggers to use individual entries. The sheep can either go to a feed that they generally agree with, or those more in tune can get content straight from the journo him or herself, assuming he or she is any good.

Stage 5: Offline media starts working like the online feeds. News-distributors adapt or die. People don't want the truth. They want their own flavour of the truth, the one that agrees with them anyway.

There isn't much left after this. The world is set up. Each person, whether aware of it or not, is living in their own media cocoon. Inaccuracies spread. Lies and propaganda become truth to people without them knowing it. Unless they are in the subset of interested parties who deliberately challenge their biases, they will never know.

How Things Could Be Broken

The next stage is subversion.

Social engineering is not a new tactic. Crackers were using it to get credit card numbers long before news websites existed. The VX sceners took it and ran with it. They wanted their code to spread, and that meant convincing people to help them spread it. The best tapped into human psychology. Think about it. Why does spam work? Because most of it appeals to the lowest common denominator of net users. Who are likely to be the ones deepest in their media cocoons? Same group.

The real trick involves finding ways to breach the cocoons. That is not a trick for crackers. It is not something cypherpunks can get in on because the message is in plain sight. It is ultimately a task for the linguists, the information theorists and the journalists. It's the communications graduates who will have the best chance with this.

What needs to be done for subversion is obvious: Target the information. Spam targets people's insecurities, and their greed. That is crude. The new tactic is attack from within. Infiltrate the broad cocoon that you are trying to breach. See what gets the most favourable response. Word the news that you are trying to break into the pop-consciousness in such a way that it will be read. Target each cocoon individually, but make it so that the core is unchanged. Targetted information delivery. If people will not look beyond their own barriers, break them. Smash their common perceptions and force them to see the world as it is by sneaking it in with their breakfast cereals and their soap operas.

Ultimately,the media cocoons are harmful to the freedom of information, and they lead to nasty things. Better arm people with the truth than have them wage war for a lie.

But that's just me speaking from my own cocoon.

This has been a manifesto.

[0]: A real quote, from a book I did not buy
[1]: Fuck off. I'm drunk.



( 4 informants — We want information! )
Mar. 25th, 2004 03:20 pm (UTC)
Your "solution" reminded me of a book I read several years ago, and unfortunately I can't remember the title or author, but the book was about these peps trying to revolt against this theocracy - and they had this big organized group thing going and one of their subgroupings was this psych-news department where they would feed stories into the censored news. They example they gave was where they were targeting a newspaper who's readership was very poor. And they were describing a trip to the capital. It made it past the censors because all they talked about was how wonderful the place was - but they kept emphasizing how expensive and lavish and how much luxury the rulers who lived in the capital had.

I can see your proposed future coming to be, although I hope it doesn't. The world we live in already has enough spin - so much it makes me dizzy frequently. But I can't say that I do anything to counter it either, so it's not like I'm not just as guilty as the next guy. : /
Mar. 26th, 2004 05:43 am (UTC)
Great piece, Stew. Of course I'm a bit of a media watchdog, so you knew this would eventually sucker me in. :-)

>>Blogs. I meant to come back to these, so I might as well. Lots of bloggers are touting blogging as "the new revolution of news media", albeit very prematurely. I do think that they are the next leap, but at present they are in the same niche as news websites were when they first opened.<<

The problem with many Blogs is that they more often than not make no pretense at actually being "news" save that they call themselves "news." What I mean by that is that posting an opinion and calling it news does not necessarily make it bona-fide news. There are no journalistic standards, really, and the huge volume of blogging going on makes it damned hard to verify a news flash made blog-style.

Lately I've become a huge fan of citizen journalism sites like iBrattleboro.com. iBratt is part blog and part forum. The gist is that all members of our community -- and by this I mean our local area, as opposed to an e-entity -- are welcome to post news, ideas and topics for discussion. Journalistic integrity is maintained by community members. If someone says "Home Despot is buying up local storefronts in their area for expansion," then local business owners, members of the select board and planning commission, workers at Home Despot and everyone else can put facts and opinion out there to back up or dispute the article. It also helps that when dealing with local issues, discerning between fact and opinion is usually much easier.

The result is a wonderful resource for our area. iBratt gives us local news, often before it hits the "big media"[1] and a chance to ferret out ideas and details that would normally not be available from regular media like the local rags and radio stations. It also fosters a great sense of community involvement. Posters are as diverse as our community is...when you've got people from all over the political, economic and social spectrum putting up articles that interest them personally, there's a great amount of diversity. And feedback allows other points of view to get aired, expanding the cocoon to accommodate a broader spectrum of ideas.

What if every sizable town had such a forum? What if the national media paid attention to sites like that, getting ideas for stories from local sources like this and then verifying the facts before running articles? Originally the API was founded on that concept, on the idea that countless small sources could add up to the largest database for news imaginable. But the API has been largely co-opted by staff writers and subverted by the sheer volume of available information.

I think the paradigm needs to change. But then again you know me well enough to understand that I'm largely in favor of a grass-roots, locally owned movement as the center of the media universe. ;-)

[1] A relative term in our little chunk of the back-woods. :-]
Mar. 26th, 2004 08:51 am (UTC)
"If people will not look beyond their own barriers, break them. Smash their common perceptions and force them to see the world as it is by sneaking it in with their breakfast cereals and their soap operas."

Shit, Up until these lines I though you were talking about advertising strategy. You're talking about an information war. It's an intriguing concept - giving people a message they don't want by phrasing it with language they do want.

It has long been said that the best way to tell a lie is to tell the truth - but make it sound like a lie. What seems to be called for here is a slight variation on this technique: Tell the reader's "truth" in a manner that causes the reader to question their own "conviction."

No doubt there are other techniques as well.

Would it be possible to actually teach people to think critically using such strategy? Better yet - would it be possible to use such a strategy to convince folk to take responsibility for their own actions? If so, it could give a new meaning to the term "logic bomb."
Mar. 26th, 2004 09:39 am (UTC)
>>It's an intriguing concept - giving people a message they don't want by phrasing it with language they do want.<<

Like the FCC's recent proposals regarding "localism" in the backlash of last year's deregulation fiasco. In a nutshell the grass-root movement that overturned the FCC's attempts to allow conglomerates more control of the media also raised a clamor for community access to the airwaves. The FCC has licensing procedures for LPFM stations (>100 watts) but they're derelict in issuing licenses, catering instead to big media like Clear Channel.

So after the roll-back of deregulation, the FCC started talking about this "localism" thing. So far every speech that I've heard from the FCC's chairmen -- and I hear a lot of them, as I'm a community DJ currently fighting the FCC in court -- talks about making it mandatory that big conglomerates broadcast local news, pipe in local public service announcements and conduct local advertising. It doesn't matter if all such news is merely collected from some satellite feed and pumped through the airwaves from a million miles away.

That's not community radio. That's big corporations pretending that they give a rat's ass about communities when they really don't even have a clue what the community's all about. That's "localism." And the vast majority of people just keep sucking it up, thinking that they're getting what they want because all they keep hearing is the "local" in "localism."

There is indeed an information war raging. Every time you hear the government make a statement, every time you see some talking head move its mouth...you're witnessing a skirmish in the information war. 8X

EDIT: an amusing side note. While spell checking this post, LJ's dictionary rejected the possessive acronym "FCC's." Some of the suggestions for correct spellings include "Fuck's...Fag's...[and] Feces." :-]
( 4 informants — We want information! )



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