Propaganda, ethics and the information profession

Just over a week ago, I headed up to London to visit the Propaganda: Power and Persuasion exhibition at the British Library with a bunch of friends and fellow professionals. I had been eagerly anticipating the exhibition ever since I caught the live stream of an audience with Noam Chomsky and Jonathan Freedland a couple of months prior to its opening.  Needless to say, the exhibition was right up my street and thoroughly enjoyable. Indeed, it could have been twice the size and I still would have been left wanting more.  In short, if you can get there before it closes in September, I would seriously recommend making every effort to do so.  As well as providing much thought provoking material on the nature of propaganda, it also led to much pondering on critical thinking and its importance both in terms of the profession in which I belong, and in a broader context.

Critical thinking has been a crucial part of my educational life. History was perhaps my strongest subject at both GCSE and A-level and went on to form part of my degree (alongside English Literature – although the head of history did make repeated attempts to get me to switch my major from literature to history, to no avail). Critical thinking is a crucial component of the study of history. At a basic level, history requires that you analyse and evaluate source material. This evaluation and analysis then informs any research into particular historical events or historic social conditions.  If you are unable to process information in a critical way, you will not excel in the study of history. This is not to say that other subjects do not place equal importance in the ability to apply critical thinking (that would be absurd), but I do know that through studying history I have developed a good standard of critical analysis skills. Of course, when it comes to evaluating information in a historical context, the role and impact of propaganda must be a key consideration.

The Oxford dictionary defines propaganda as:

…information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.

Typically propaganda is politically skewed information designed to persuade or educate the populace, normally in an effort to disseminate a particular ideology. Generally when one considers the impact of propaganda throughout modern history, one tends to think of figures such as Lord Kitchener, Norman Rockwell, Josef Goebbels or Leni Riefenstahl (albeit in slightly different ways). Each in their own way helped to communicate a particular set of ideas, whether it be mobilising support for war or by demonising an ‘enemy within’ to consolidate political power, propaganda is a crucial weapon in winning ‘hearts and minds’.

Propaganda itself is, obviously, not solely restricted to the political sphere.  Whilst governments churn out propaganda by default (one need only look at the propaganda being forced upon us every day regarding the need for ‘austerity’), corporations are also responsible for a large volume of propaganda, more commonly known as advertisements.  Propaganda can be used to influence people’s perceptions of a product or brand, subverting existing realities to present a positive brand image that then encourages people to purchase such products. There are many examples one can call upon in examining this type of propaganda. The rebrand exercise conducted by BP is one such example.

Back in 2000, BP embarked on a rebranding exercise.  The aim was to present BP as an “environmentally aware energy and general services company.” As they put it on their website:

Since ‘BP’ petrol first went on sale in Britain in the 1920s, the brand has grown to become recognised worldwide for quality gasoline, transport fuels, chemicals and alternative sources of energy such as wind and biofuels. We are committed to making a real difference in providing better energy that is needed today and in the changing world of tomorrow.

The reason for its need to rebrand? The emergence of the global environmental movement. The rise of this movement resulted in increased scrutiny of energy companies and their actions across the world. Not least because of the damaging effect of resource extraction by the industry in countries across the world. Needless to say, the rebrand had little effect on the global environmental movement but it did appear to have an effect on consumers:

After the rebrand exercise, research revealed that BP was seen as the most “environmental” oil brand with more than half the market now agreeing that BP had become “more green” in the past five years. BP’s brand awareness shot up and in a poll of UK marketers BP was rated one of the top 10 green brands, finishing higher up the ranking than Greenpeace.

Pretty effective propagandising. Of course, the effect of such propaganda can be somewhat undermined by very visible, and environmentally damaging, short-comings.

Of course, the BP example is a relatively crude one in demonstrating the ways in which propaganda is utilised by large multinationals. Know-more, for example, is perhaps a slightly more worrying example of corporate propaganda used to mobilise public support in the face of potential government legislation. Know-more is a website sponsored by Philip Morris and is designed to share ‘information’ about the impact of legislation upon smokers. Philip Morris is, of course, a large tobacco company with a vested interest in halting government legislation that might impact upon its business model. The tobacco industry has a long history of lobbying law makers to prevent legislation that would impact upon its customer base (to adopt their parlance), Know-more is just the latest example of the determined efforts by corporate interests to protect their bottom lines.

But these are relatively obvious examples of propaganda by large corporations, examples that informed, educated people will spot and dismiss readily.  There are many others, of course, who will not (obviously as some appear to believe that BP is an energy company more identifiable as a “green brand” than Greenpeace), and perhaps others who believe the protestations of the tobacco industry – although that is perhaps a diminishing segment of society as we become more aware of the harm tobacco causes.  What about the examples that are harder to spot, that require more…effort?

Toward the end of the exhibition at the British Library I caught a rolling video clip with various talking heads exploring the growth of social media and the state of propaganda in the 21st century. One anecdote by John Pilger stood out above all others, and underlined to me both the nature of propaganda now and the importance of critical thinking. Pilger referred to a meeting he had with a dissident in the old Czechoslovakia, before the fall of the Iron Curtain.  The dissident noted the difference between how people in the West and in the East process propaganda, telling Pilger that in the West:

“You believe everything you see on the TV or read on the papers, but we’ve learnt to read between the lines.”

And that is what is so crucial in the modern era, the ability to read between the lines (or critical thinking) and it is an ability, I believe, that should be a fundamental skill for information professionals generally, and librarians specifically.

The use of propaganda raises an increasing number of ethical questions in our current economic and social environment. We live in a society where neoliberal economicsdominates political life. As such, the private sector is increasingly creeping into areas that had long been either the domain of the state or, broadly speaking, independent of the state.  As a result, we are seeing the corporate sector increase its influence in both public and academic libraries. This encroachment raises a number of serious concerns. For example, recent tweets from the @voiceslibrary (not by the current tweeter of the account by the way) account highlighted a particular ethical dilemma many of us will increasingly face in just such a neoliberal environment. What if a course was provided by a private sector corporation with a dubious ethical background and if the course materials provided were wholly uncritical of that corporation? Is it ethical for us to provide materials that effectively act as propaganda for the course sponsor? How do we deal with the dilemma presented to us of choosing between pleasing our employer and maintaining an adherence to professional values and ethics?  Should we reluctantly accept propagandising for the company providing the course as part of our obligations to our employer, or place our professional ethics above the perception that it may do harm to our careers?

This question of propagandising for large corporations cuts across both our personal lives and our professional lives. By identifying ourselves as librarians (or information professionals) we are proclaiming an adherence to a certain set of ethical values. Regardless of whether we are acting in a professional or a personal capacity, these values must surely still apply. In the medical profession, for example, your professional and ethical values do not end the minute you leave the surgery/hospital/pharmacy, you carry them with you at all times. As there are serious ethical considerations when asked to prepare uncritical course materials for a corporate funded education programme, so we must be careful about the information we disseminate publicly. This means avoiding propagandising for corporate interests where we receive financial (or other) benefits directly in return, or at least ensuring a disclaimer is clearly provided. For if, as an information professional, we lack transparency in our provision of information, how can we possibly be trusted in providing clear, unbiased information? By propagandising for a corporate entity for either our own benefit or our employers, we have become a conduit for that corporation. And once an information professional acts as a conduit for corporate interests, without doing so in a transparent fashion, our professional ethics are compromised. Once compromised we can no longer be seen as impartial providers of information, but as effectively something little more than a ‘sponsored link’ on a Google web search.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I am fortunate in that critical thinking formed the backbone of most of my educational life. But it did not form a crucial component in the completion of the MSc in Information and Library Studies qualification. Admittedly there was a module requiring critical analysis of a research article for the Research in the Profession module, but there was little to encourage critical thinking, in my view, or to teach the fundamental skills required to do so. As a result, I wonder to what extent critical thinking should be ‘taught’ in a Masters (or a bachelors for that matter) in information science?  Is it adequately covered in existing LIS programmes? Or is there a greater need for learning the tools and skills required to, as the aforementioned Czech dissident put it “read between the lines”?  I’m not convinced that it is, although others may well disagree. Regardless of the extent to which it is or is not covered in existing LIS programmes, critical thinking is absolutely fundamental to the profession and never more so than now, at a time when our values are increasingly challenged and undermined. Ultimately, how can you be an information professional without being able to effectively critically analyse information?

In short, in my personal view, it is a professional duty to ensure that we always “read between the lines” and ensure that those we serve do not have to in their engagements with us. For if we do not challenge and breakdown propaganda and misinformation, who will?