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Narrowcasting of News Threatens Survival of New Ideas

by Francis P. Koster, Ed.D.

We are a more complex society than most realize - Over 40 languages are routinely spoken in American homes[1].   Almost 7 million Americans speak an Asian language. 35 Million speak Spanish. Almost one million speak Arabic - roughly the same as speak German, and four times more than speak Hebrew.[2] More black Americans attend church regularly than any other subset of our population[3].   Slightly over one quarter of all U.S. citizens saythey are not Christian.[4]   Forty percent of all children born today haveunmarried mothers. [5] One in ten is retired, and lives on an averageincome of $14,000 social security income yearly.[6] In 2009, young men with a bachelor's degree earned $51,000, while their female counterparts earned $40,100.[7] We are a nation of people with very different concerns.

Like the blind people touching the elephant and reporting it to be like atree (touching the leg), like a snake (touching the tail), and as big as a house (touching the body), what you "see" depends on what you experience.   And in our society there is increasing danger in not "seeing the full elephant".

There is a possibility that this common view it being eroded by the "narrowcasting" of communication by modern electronic media.

The job of television is to deliver viewers to advertisers. Sports events delivered beer and truck commercials, Oprah delivered food and fashion. People select the shows they want to watch, and get commercials likelyto appeal to them as a group.

The internet is different because it is not just delivering advertising toa mass audience, it is delivering individually filtered opinion, which contains the potential to cause more friction in our society.

Your computer has an electronic address which is recorded when you visit asite. The receiving web site learns that the user of your machine likessports, or politics, or dating sites.   Over time, your profile is developed.   This then tells which advertisements to pop up, and the rank ordering of the results of your searches.   Items closest to your profile show up on top, those farther away disappear.

The same is true of postings on Facebook, which shuffles the items sent you like cards, based on what it has learned about and your "friends". Without your knowledge, items deemed not likely to interest you are moved down the list shown to you, and seldom seen.

By this "narrowcasting" you are being fed information that confirms youropinion that you are right, and others are wrong - at the same time your spouse, or kids, or neighbors or co-workers are being educated that they areright, and you are wrong. The seeds of self-righteous behavior are sown -on both sides.

For more information on this aspect of our future you would benefit byreading The Filter Bubble, by Eli Pariser.[8] Beginning in 2009 Google use 57 "signals" to prune search results and deliver to you what they think you would like. This targeting process has greatly expanded since then.

Other vendors of information about you have started selling that information to each other, including your divorce records, driving record, and propertytaxes paid. This picture is linked to statistical pictures of similar people based on grocery store purchases ("do you have your little card with you today? If not, just enter your phone number").  Data is gathered on political and charitable donations, and the flowers you ordered for your daughter's birthday. A picture of your socioeconomic and political orientation is developed mathematically.

Internet marketers make their money not because they sold you a widget, but because they sold "you" to the widget maker. For delivering the buyer to the seller, they get a tiny cut off the top - millions and billions of times a day.

Scientific American reported in 2012 that major credit card companies have set up a jointly owned system called Bundle to receive from the credit card companies the spending records of millions of Americans so that what you pay for can be merged with other information they have or buy, including your salary, marital status and household size.(9) When pooled with this other information, a profile of you is developed which can then be used by vendors to create both advertisements and articles which you will be likely to find attractive.

The nation is in the midst of a hot debate about whether birth control should be an insurance company covered item for all insured women in America, or whether abortion should be legal.   Imagine how the shaping of news and information regarding this issue is being shaped when the opinion vendors have access to transactions documenting that a group of people bought a pregnancy testing kit, and/or signed up to a website of either the “right to life” or the “Right to choose” movements. What a stunning opportunity to recruit people to your movement – either movement.   And the volume of the debate rises.

And what is being sold is not always access to product. Increasingly, it is ideas of one slant or another.As a futurist, my roving eye wanders to the increased polarity of our political discussions, and the growing number of people who claim no party affiliation, and report that they are uncomfortable with the strident tone of the "base" on both ends who get a significant amount of their information diet from carefully targeted messages designed to make them comfortable intheir beliefs, and more hostile to differing beliefs of others.

As citizens, we have a new duty - we must actively seek out points of view that make us uncomfortable, and try to overcome the increasingly tailorednews streams that we get.

Our democracy has survived many changes by treasuring the right to free speech. In the electronic age I am wondering if we need to treasure more the right to get balanced information.  

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[1] Table 53, The American Community Survey of Languages Spoken at Home,

2009 U. S. Census Bureau

[2] Table 53, The American Community Survey of Languages Spoken at Home,

2009 U. S. Census Bureau

[3] http://www.pewforum.org/Religion-News/Report-African-Americans-surpass-others-in-religiosity.aspx

[4] http://religions.pewforum.org/reports Summary of key findings

[5] http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/unmarry.htm

[6] http://surveysez.com/joomla/index.php/education-a-employment/96-retired.html 29 January 2011

[7] http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=77

[8] The Filter Bubble - What the Internet is hiding from you; Eli

     Pariser. The Penguin Press 2011

(9) Scientific American March 1, 2012 “It watches your wallet”


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