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Follow the Filter Bubble

Filter bubbles for democracy


/ June 15th, 2011 /

Speaking on a panel at last week’s PDF Conference, Eli asked: what happens when political campaigns are so successful at micro-targeting their messages that we each experience our own personalized election season?

We like to think that, in a democracy, political campaigns are a time for citizens to engage in a national conversation on the issues.  If those issues are sliced and spun to appeal to ever smaller slivers of voters, it’s hard to imagine what, if anything, a national discussion would be based on. Without a starting point for discussion, there’s no dialogue. And without dialogue, democracy has got to suffer.

But are targeted political messages only bad for democracy? Maybe not. A recent study looking at radio communications in Serbia and Croatia suggests information silos could have a sunny side.

Serbs and Croats, who have a history of animosity, share a common spoken language so can understand each other’s radio broadcasts – although not all villages along the Serb-Croat border have radio access from the other side. Researchers wondered what the effect of being able to tune into Serbian radio would have on Croat villagers. Would listening to broadcasts from a historical enemy make Croats more anti-Serbian?

Factoring out distance from the Serbian border the study found that, indeed, when Croat villagers were able to catch Serbian airwaves, they were more likely to vote for nationalist (ie anti-Serbian) parties and to have anti-Serbian graffiti covering their village walls. The increase in votes for nationalist parties was small – just around 2% – but statistically significant (as in, not a statistical fluke).

The researchers conjecture that in hearing Serb broadcasts Croats were reminded of past Serbian belligerence and became more attuned to a possible resurgence of Serb-Croat violence. Their natural reaction? Vote fear.

Looking at the US, one wonders if hearing political messages from the enemy party has similar effects. Of course, we can’t draw an exact parallel between Democrats and the GOP and Serbs and Croats. Our parties haven’t been gunning each other down recently and we don’t have physical barriers separating broadcasts from either party. But it’s not far off to say the parties are in a perpetual cold war and that targeted media has built virtual walls between liberal and conservative messaging.

Could those virtual walls make us less antagonistic toward our ideological opposites, just as being ignorant of Serbian messaging made Croats less fearful of their historical enemies?

To use a sample size of one: I, like most Americans, read magazines and newspapers that align with my ideology (in my case, center left). On the rare occasions I pick up publications like the National Review or glance at the New York Post’s national news section, I find myself trembling with rage (extreme lefty sources also tick me off, but to a lesser degree). If I were subjected daily to far right theorists and their liberal-jabs, I could easily see myself getting crazed, losing sleep over the prospect of a right-wing take-over and increasing my donations to the ACLU and MoveOn. I might even, like some of my liberal friends, find it impossible to date Republican men. Luckily for me, however, far right messages rarely pierce my bubble; my center-left cocoon leaves me mildly concerned for the future of our nation, but thankfully un-panicked.

Of course, extremists are familiar with the crazing effect of the extreme statements of their counterparts. It is the bread and butter of the Keith Olbermanns of media and Sarah Palins of politics. But it might be that Glenn Beck mediated through the commentary of Keith Olbermann is less hair-raising for a liberal than watching Beck straight up. In other words, we’re protected from enemy-messaging even when it comes to us through our own preferred media.

We certainly need more opportunities to engage in discussion with Americans who do not share our views, not only because dialogue fosters mutual respect, but also because we may all actually learn from each other. But maybe messaging from politicians, particularly on the extremes, is not conducive to true dialogue; perhaps it does more to get our dander up and block dialogue instead. If that is so, then here is one case where the filter bubble is good for democracy.


 


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