By Yaounde Olu, NNPA Special Correspondent –
(NNPA) - In a bid to ensure Net Neutrality, the Free Press has commissioned the Harmony Institute to develop a strategy that will target poor, rural African- Americans in the South and women to increase support for a Net Neutrality (NN) strategy. Net Neutrality is basically the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. In other words, everyone has access, and all platforms, content, and sites are treated equally. The opposite concept is a system wherein there would be limited or possibly "tiered" access. This could impact small businesses and other individuals without the economic wherewithal to access all sites.
According to the Free Press, the core supporters of Net Neutrality are affluent whites, who, have easy access to broadband and understand the issues. Poor, rural African-Americans and women, however, are the demographic that must be influenced in order to build a secure NN support base.
The Harmony Institute, a self-identified nonprofit organization committed to applying behavioral science to communications, in response to the Free Press' commission, has produced a manual for the purpose of achieving these ends entitled Net Neutrality For the Win: How Entertainment and the Science of Influence Can Save Your Internet. This 40-page document identifies poor, rural African Americans and woman as "persuadable" for Net Neutrality messaging, and lays out very specific strategies for accomplishing their end goal of manipulating this demographic.
The Free Press' own National Poll on Internet Usage and Net Neutrality found that the general public gave generally favorable views regarding their service providers and the reliability and speed of their connection. Though this is the case, in order to move ahead with the strategy of broadening the NN support base, they have offered a number of "what if" scenarios in order to shore up their position that the Internet needs "saving." This is because support for NN depends upon the perception that there is a potential threat to a free Internet.
One of the strategies used in the manual to provoke a response among the target demographic is the use of inflammatory images. A cartoon that brings up painful memories of Jim Crow in the South is offered for this purpose. It depicts two water fountains representing the "fountain network"; one is big and elaborate with sparkly stars representing quality and is labelled "premium users," while the other very small one, connected to it with leaky pipes encrusted with spider webs, is labelled "everyone else."
The Free Press has concluded that the best method of persuasion is behavioral science models that rely on psychological techniques, entertainment, and fictionalized storytelling instead of hard data, information, or real education. The model embeds messages into popular culture. They conclude that... "Understanding the audience helps communicators select the most appropriate behavioral science models to employ. It also helps determine the preferred media channels (mobile phone, Internet, television, film, print) for transmitting the message to a specific audience." (Net Neutrality For the Win: How Entertainment and the Science of Influence Can Save Your Internet, p. 28). It continues..."The long term persuasive power of narrative resides in its 'sleeper effect,' i.e., the impact of an idea increases over time when the one discounting cue, that the source of information is a fictional account, is forgotten." (Net Neutrality For the Win: How Entertainment and the Science of Influence Can Save Your Internet, p.31).
Though a good deal of time and attention has been devoted to manipulating would-be supporters in the document, nowhere are there plans for a campaign to ensure that the targeted population of poor rural African Americans and women have equal access to Internet service. Prominent members of the African American community have expressed serious concerns about the strategy laid out in the Free Press document. Shirley Franklin, a former mayor of Atlanta, offered the following observation, "It troubles me that an organization would target women, African-Americans and other minorities on an issue of such importance as universal broadband services without basing their advocacy on access, affordability and relevance."
Julius Hollis, Chairman and founder of the Alliance for Digital Equality (www.alliancefordigitalequality.org), an organization whose mission is to ensure accessible and affordable broadband to the unders erved and un-served, particularly to communities of color, also weighed in on the issue. He stated, "I am extremely disappointed in the Free Press, not only in its policies and tactics that they are attempting deploy in their strategy paper, but equally disturbing are its attempts to portray the African-American and Latino consumers as expendable in their efforts to promote Net Neutrality. In my opinion, this is going back to the tactics that were used in the Jim Crow era by segregationists. It's no better than what was used in the Willie Horton playbook by Lee Atwater who, upon his deathbed, asked for forgiveness for using such political behavior tactics."
The document, which cites 33 references, offers evaluation methods which include a series of questions for survey development, and concludes, "The key questions asked while assessing the impact of entertainment on audiences will help improve the methods entertainment creators and educators use to support social concerns like NN. Building upon previous work, these studies can contribute to a greater understanding of how people understand and why they take action on an issue. Such insights have the capacity to transform the advocacy world as a whole. (Net Neutrality For the Win: How Entertainment and the Science of Influence Can Save Your Internet, P. 35).
Danny J. Bakewell, Sr., Chairman of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), is taking the lead on fighting the Free Press's NN strategy. He has this to say about it, "... I am outraged. And you should be too. I urge you to get out in your community and tell your friends, tell your neighbors, and tell those you meet at church and other groups about this appalling report. Most importantly, call and email Free Press and tell them you need a broadband connection to your house, not a subliminal message beamed into your subconscious."
The full document is available to the public online at http://www.harmony-institute.org/ftw.
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