Media Cocoons

[This essay was originally written in March 2004]

How Things Are

Media cocoons aren’t a new thing. Since two newspapers have competed, each has held differing viewpoints and people have bought the one that they agree with. Changes in the media paradigm since then have just given people more ways in which to surround themselves in what amounts in some cases to personalised propaganda. This can be a problem; at base such a cocoon allows and indeed encourages the corruption of incoming information. The only way to check the information is to breach the cocoon.

For example: Proliferation of news media. I read the Guardian newspaper, well known in the UK for being the paper of left-wing intellectual hippies. The same story that’s in the Guardian will be in the Daily Mail with a whole other spin on it. This applies to more than just newspapers: television news (CNN vs FOX vs BBC vs ITN) has offered a wide range of viewpoints from different locations on Earth available to just about anyone since at least 1998.

For many years people didn’t have this range of choice. It’s only since 2001 that most people in the UK realised that they could pick up American news channels. News websites have grown from a niche market for geeks to the potential killer of print media. Blogs and citizen journalism” efforts provide a similar service, but without journalistic training or rigour, and often with more implicit biases.

Every source of media carries a bias, not just news. Looking at films, try The Patriot,or Enigma. Both detail historical events without checking facts, portraying lies as truth. It’s easier to identify that bias in news media than elsewhere. People get the most perceived value out of media—all media—which is in line with their biases. A new age book which uses phrases like both primitive and Western people” is going to appeal to people who don’t notice (or even accept) their own institutional racism, but other people will reject everything the author has to say. Likewise films, video games, every kind of media. This is ultimately an extrapolation of the obvious: People buy/read/play what they agree with, and they accept as fact things stated by sources that they agree with.

The increased variety of media has made cocoons 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 tactics like astroturfing (fake grass-roots support for a position) and outright propaganda. The SCO vs Linux controversy that played out in the American courts became big news because of the cocoon effect. People interested in business are naturally more accepting of Business sues rival for unveiling trade secrets” stories than Business goes launches lawsuits with no grounds in reality”. Conversely, technical people are more accepting of Business tries to sue coders for nothing” as a headline than Business tries to defend own IP. Only the involvement of IBM and Novell made business media look twice, and even then they continue to carry stories that are a mixture of lies and truth; witness news articles parroting unfounded attacks on the legal website Groklaw. It doesn’t matter that these attacks have little correlation with the truth; people only believe what they are going to agree with on some level.

Lots of people, most of whom are bloggers, tout blogging as the new revolution of news media”, a very premature announcement. At present, blogs exist in the same niche as news websites were when they first opened. And blogs have a couple of strikes against them already: or 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 coherent group of blogs which cover a topic that agrees with a reader. 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 cause problems for Google. There’s no polite way to put it, the whole Trackback concept could have been designed as an attack on Google’s attempts to build a useful index of the web. Anything that breaks Google breaks the way people see the world, given the standard response to most problems it to find a solution using the search monolith.

At a point when people have a better chance at finding blogs which agree with them, and when the online world honestly believes in 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. That of course leads to the problem that bloggers have as much to do with journalists as mall cops have to do with homicide detectives.

How Things Could Be

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

Stage 2: In response to Google’s cure for blog polution, a number of blog-only search engines start up. These deliberately exclude that part of the web that doesn’t have an associated RSS or ATOM feed. This allows people to find blogs on a variety of subjects which meet their bias-sets. Somewhere around this point, we get a workable micropayment system without Paypal’s obvious problems.

Stage 3: With the infrastructure changes in place, the world is looking for more things to customise. Enter Jesus (Tef’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 techies would pick up on the idea. Then one user-experience expert writes a nice, easy to use and idiot-proof front end. Jesus 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. 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. People can either go to a feed that they generally agree with, or those more in tune can get content straight from the journo herself, assuming 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.

This process sets the world up. Each person, whether aware of it or not, is living in their own media cocoon. Inaccuracies spread. Lies and propaganda become truth without anyone knowing it. Unless a person is in the subset of interested parties who deliberately challenge their biases, she will never even know.

How Things Could Be Broken

The real challenge to this idea is how to subvert the situation.

Social engineering is not a new tactic. Crackers were using it to get credit card numbers long before corporate websites existed. 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 viruses tapped into human psychology to propagate. This is a logical extension of human nature: 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? Anyone who has ever fallen for a Nigerian 419.

The trick involves finding ways to breach a cocoon. That is not a trick for crackers. It is not something cypherpunks can get in on. The message is already in plain sight. Breaking the cocoon is ultimately a task for psychologists, linguists, information theorists, and journalists. Communications scientists have the best chance to breach a media cocoon.

How to subvert the situation? Target the actual facts to people’s biases. Spam targets people’s insecurities and their greed through a layer of trickery. That is fundamentally a crude assault. The new tactic is attack from within. Infiltrate the broad cocoon that you are trying to breach. Use the same techniques ad-people use and 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’s impossible to miss. Everyone has their own cocoon, but there’s enough rough overlap between groups that targeted facts can hit a broad range. The real trick is targeting the information without confusing the core facts. 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 cereal.

Ultimately, media cocoons are harmful to the free exchange of information, and that has nasty consequences. Better to 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.

2009 Addendum

It surprises me just how relevant this essay remains. Jesus doesn’t exist. Instead, Google has started to Wikify search results. Anyone with a Gmail account can set up their own base, tuning Google to their specific media cocoons. Google has positioned itself as the perfect way to generate a web-based media cocoon. This is a natural extension of its core business, targeting advertising to break into each individual’s cocoon.

People still don’t trust blogs. This is, on reflection, a good thing. The above article has the starts of my distaste towards crowdsourced journalism, but over time I’ve become more and more disillusioned with the idea. Bloggers aren’t journalists; journalism is a trade that needs learning just like being an electronic engineer is a trade. Bloggers who think that they’re journalists tend towards the local free paper equivalent, reporting on the town’s latest flower show while the real news happens but passes them by. This cements the idea of the media cocoon being exemplified in blog form. News sites, especially the BBC, have thrown themselves into the online world with both feet. They don’t hook together blogs, instead they’ve got trained journalists who create things set to their own biases. Which is an interesting development that I hadn’t thought of. Subversion is an ongoing project, but at present it actually looks like white-hat SEO specialists are at the cutting edge.