An Opportunity For Unprecedented Abuse Of Media Power
The New York Times published an article headlined “Times Withholds Web Article in Britain” recently in which they describe their decision to withold publishing an article about a terrorist case in Britain via their print and Internet editions, but which they have published in editions available to the rest of the world. They report that they did this on advice of legal counsel because of “…the requirement in British law that prohibits publication of prejudicial information about the defendants prior to trial.”
The Times goes on to report that they adapted the technology that they have been using for targeted advertising in order to effect the “block” of content to readers who’s computers use IP addresses in Britain. It was a relatively minor programming effort, that apparently they were able to effect while under deadline.
That the technology exists to effect this type of “editing” is not surprising, nor is it surprising that a publisher will yield to local exigencies. This has previously been widely reported when web publishing behemouths have yieled to the censorous dictates of the Peoples Republic of China. This is all part of the conduct of life and business in a diverse world of varying cultures and laws.
What is somewhat troubling, however, is the great potential this type of highly selective targeting of content might be if used as a propagandistic tool in the hands of extremists of any political stripe, or with any radically destructive economic, religious or social agenda. Of course it would be naive to think that the media world has never been an agent of propaganda, to the contrary media publishing companies and media moguls have been quite transparent in their activities and the dissemination of messages to further their respective agendas throughout history. The media consuming public, on one level or another has also been quite aware of the mechanics of this. Consumers of media distribution, at least in the United States, have the ability to elect to receive the messages of any chosen media publisher.
The media consuming public may elect to receive media content from a New York Times or a Washington Times, or a Fox cable distribution channel or the MSNBC cable distribution channel, or anything in between. For some segement of the media consuming public, which of these distribution channels they choose to accept is a conscious decision based on their own value systems and beliefs and educational development. For another segement of the media consuming public, which of these distribution channels they choose to consume may just be a product of happenstance, what ever they come across at the time, but then it might become a habitual choice, if for no other reason than it is convenient and it becomes familiar and part of a comforting, routine ritual environment.
The impact of and upon the second group of consumers is what is troubling in the context of targeted editorial content. Just how “media savvy” is this segement of the population? How discerning are they, are they able to or do they have the desire to expend the effort, to analyze the data they receive, to weigh the pro’s and con’s of the information and opinion they receive? Are they able to distinguish between straight news reporting and opinion/commentary? Do they use multiple sources for fact gathering before they arrive at their own positions in terms of issues of the day, or is their data input single sourced? How “trusting” of their media providers are they?
Consider the concerns above together with the fact that in this age of digital data collection, transmission, archiving, collatiion and analysis coupled with the instant, “wide open” bidirectional communication pathways between individuals and other individuals, and individuals and large, organized entities, all facilitated by the technology of data processing and communications (i.e. “The Internet Age”) and one can begin to understand what can be made of targeted editorial content.
Large media publishers now have the ability to mine public and personal data about the consuming public that is incredibly rich, detailed and all encompassing. The vast array of public records that are retrievable via the Internet is staggering. The explosion of commercial activities, social networking and human interactions via the Internet is enormous. The fact that consumers, every day, are voluntarily and knowingly providing various pieces of personal data as they seek goods and services via the Internet is a reality. The fact that consumers, every day, are voluntarily, and un-knowingly providing pieces of personal data as they seek goods and services via the Interenat is also a reality.
These realilties provide an opportunity for media publishers to drill down in to the demographics of the marketplace much deeper than they have ever been able to before, most likely beyond any depth that they could have conceived in most of the last century. This fact, coupled with the ability of media publishers to leverage targeted editorial content gives a media publisher the potential ability to “fine tune” his message on the most granular of levels with the consuming public. “News stories”, “feature stories”, “information” and “entertainment” could eventually be “customized” for individual consumers, which when considered superficially might be thought to be adding value to the content delivered to the media consumer, but on further consideration, the potential to “shape” the information for digestion by the consumer might be the ultimate method of “thought control”, by subtley and over time, shading the information that is delivered, maybe witholding certain facts, maybe emphasizing or weighting other information disproportionately against opposing information, maybe devising content that plays towards the economic/educational/social/psychological make-up of the consumer, in a way that sends an appealing message to the consumer, that “plays” to the consumer’s emotional triggers to manipulate the consumer in to arriving at a predestined conclusion. All of it “under the table” so to speak, of the consumer’s cognizant awareness. In other words, this might be a technique to drive a consumer to adopt a behavior or a position that a media controller wishes to promote, while the consumer is unaware of the subtle, insidious method that has been used to drive the consumer to that position. The consumer may just, in his conscious thought believe that he has arrived at a value judgement based upon his own gathering of information and analysis, his own personal life experience, when in fact, he has been unconsiously and unwillingly manipulated, possibly to a position that could be a contradiction to any positiion or conclusion he would have arrived at, if left totally to his own devices.
Put another way, someone who is weak of intellect, or deficient of education or lacking of a wide spectrum of social interaction, may be the perfect vessel to receive direction that is contrary to or at odds with any possibility of his own ability of self-determination. For these reasons, then, it seems that we would all be wise to become just a little more skeptical, a little more circumspect in terms of our acceptance of the value and and utility of everything that technology has to offer, a little more cautious in our embrace of technology in to so much of our daily living. If not, we could find ourselves at the mercy of, and existing only to serve at the pleasure of a tyrranical power.