Fake news and the magic bullet

Image c/o Mike Maguire on Flickr.

A few months back (unbelievable seven months as it turns out), I wrote a piece about the whole “fake news” phenomena and how I see it as a thing. The post generated a bit of discussion online and a fair few tweets drawing attention to it. Such was the interest that I was recently interviewed by a LIS student about my take on the topic for their dissertation following a bit of signposting by someone at their university. This discussion provoked some additional thoughts in me about the emergence of “fake news”, not least in terms of how we understand and critique information sources.

In my previous post I referenced Chomsky and Herman’s Manufacturing Consent, a book that I feel is a key title for anyone wishing to understand the way the media operates and the process of gathering and publishing news. Since then I came across this concise video (narrated by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!) explaining the five filters of Chomsky and Herman’s “propaganda model”. For those of you who haven’t read the book (or seen the film) the following provides a nice overview of their work:

In summary, Chomsky and Herman identify five filters that determine the news that is presented in the media:

  1. Ownership – the bias created by the ownership of media by large corporations leads to a bias in output.
  2. Advertising – the need for the media to attract advertisers to generate revenue and ensure its survival.
  3. Sourcing –  the sources that media rely on for news content, sources that provide privileged access to government, business etc.
  4. Flak – the efforts by the powerful to discredit those who disagree or cast doubt on prevailing assumptions.
  5. Fear – the mechanism to rally the public around perceived threats that could undermine the interests of the elites.

In many ways, what these filters have traditionally created is “fake news”. As soon as any kind of filter is applied, the information ceases to be a purely factual representation of events and becomes, to a certain extent, “fake”. Fake not because it is wholly untrue, but fake because it doesn’t reflect the reality of a particular situation, merely a reality that has been filtered to represent a particular truth. In the context of a media operating in this way, it is hardly surprising that there has been a growing focus on “fake news” led by the established media which has long filtered news to present a certain truth that chimes with the interests of the elites.

“Fake news” as it’s presented also offers a number of simplifications. For example, it offers the opportunity to present some simple solutions to identify news that is untrustworthy. When the traditional media talk about “fake news” they are establishing themselves as “real news”. They are the voices of authority and only they can be trusted to provide news that is wholly truthful.

Step one in solving the phenomenon: only engage with authoritative sources.

There also comes the question of information literacy: how do we equip people to cast a more critical eye over the growing number of alternative news sources online? The standard response is to reach for the CRAAP test, again, a nice neat solution to a troubling issue:

Currency: the timeliness of the information

Relevance: the importance of the information for your needs

Authority: the source of the information

Accuracy: the reliability, truthfulness, and correctness of the content

Purpose: the reason the information exists

Step two in solving the phenomenon: follow a set of guidelines to evaluate the information.

But this is a rather inadequate way of evaluating information and, for me, rather plays into the notion that the quality of the information can be assessed by following a simple check-box exercise. I don’t think this is realistic, useful or a desirable approach to take when critically appraising an information source.

One of the problems I associate with the way of thinking about news and inaccurate information is that many of those that produces information for the public have been seriously discredited in recent years. Government, the media and the security services (including the police) have all suffered from a collapse in public trust. The Iraq War, phone hacking, Hillsborough…all have contributed to the sense that the establishment is not to be trusted. Pointing out that one media outlet is better than an other will be meaningless to those who see the media as discredited and will therefore only trust sources that reinforce their existing worldviews. Equally information published by government will also be seen as untrustworthy because it is associated with a discredited political elite. Under these conditions, where trust is at a serious low with so many producers of information, is it little wonder that people prioritise sources that reinforce their own views and prejudices?

Rather than CRAAP tests and assorted “this is good, that is bad” approaches, I would argue that a more sophisticated approach is required. Rather than focusing on the sources, shouldn’t a focus on social, cultural and economic capital be fundamental in how people critique and understand information? Would not a focus on these areas play a key role in tackling their prejudices and, therefore, undermine a key element that contributes towards a failure to critically appraise information? Is it less about evaluating the sources and more about people’s lived experiences? When lived experience trumps “authoritative information”, will reinforcing authoritative sources of information not simply be ineffective?

Of course, focusing on social conditions rather than on those disseminating propaganda is more difficult. There’s not a simple answer that provides a sense that we are dealing with the issue at hand. A complex solution also undermines a sense that the “information professional” has the solution, when in reality it is a problem that can only be tackled as a society. As with everything in our society, it’s reassuring to know that problems have readily identifiable solutions. The reality, in my view, is that very often the problems require a certain complexity in their solution. There is no magic bullet.

Making the case for privacy in libraries after an atrocity

We must continue to defend civil liberties, no matter how difficult it seems

There is never a harder time to argue in defence of civil liberties than in the aftermath of a horrific and deadly terrorist attack. It’s easy to argue for universal rights during periods of relative stability, after all, what harm could possibly come to pass? But during times of bloodshed, of anger and of disgust, it’s somewhat harder to step back and make the case for civil liberties, even when that case appears to suggest a lack of will to tackle the cause of the bloodshed. But it is important that we do so, because we can be sure that those that are the enemies of liberty and freedom will be seizing the opportunity (whilst simultaneously failing to see who they share that cause with).

The suicide bombing in Manchester was truly horrific. Words seem inconsequential in these circumstances. What can you possibly say to the friends and family of the victims? There are no words. Only horror and sorrow.

Not everyone is without words, however. As is the case with every prior terrorist attack in the West, attention turns to the motivations of the perpetrator, the beliefs of the perpetrator, the intentions of the perpetrator. Sadly, for some, this consideration of the motives and intentions leads them to consider that it is necessary to curtail civil liberties to prevent further atrocities. We hear this argument made time and time again. We cannot permit a safe space for terrorists, we cannot allow them to communicate and plot away from the gaze of the security services. We must permit mass surveillance if we wish to put an end to the terrorism on Western streets. The reality is that this chipping away of civil liberties will have no effect whatsoever, other than to degrade our civil liberties, limit intellectual freedom and subject us all to state scrutiny.

When I write/talk about surveillance and its effects, I always make it very clear that I am talking about mass surveillance, not targeted surveillance. It’s an important distinction for me. No-one in their rights minds would oppose targeted surveillance. Whilst the targets of such surveillance may often be unwarranted, we accept as a society that the security services should monitor activity where there is a suspicion that a violent act will be perpetrated. Mass surveillance is quite different. It places us all as suspects. It places all of our actions under scrutiny, regardless of whether there is an objective reason to monitor us or not. It is indiscriminate, and it’s an invasion of our civil liberties. It is not a strategy that will have any substantive impact on tackling the wave of terrorism that has affected the West in recent years (not that we should solely be concerned with the relatively low amount of terrorism in the West). Indeed, we will be surrendering our civil liberties on spurious grounds with no material benefit for the state other than to provide it with a wealth of information about every single citizen. A dangerous thing indeed when crisis hit democracies turn to unstable demagogues like Trump.

To date, there is no evidence that mass surveillance would have prevented a single terrorist attack. As Ryan Gallagher outlines here, the perpetrators of a number of terrorists attacks between 2013-2015 were known to the police and/or security services. Post-2015 it continues to be the case. The Brussels attackers of 2016 were known to the police. Khalid Masood was known to the police. The Stockholm attacker was known to the police. Abu Yousif al-Bajiki was known to the police. And Salman Abedi was known to the police.

Despite the fact that they were all known to the security services, the government continues to press ahead with its assault on civil liberties. Following the Manchester attack earlier this week, it has been revealed that:

UK government ministers are planning to enforce new powers that would compel tech companies like WhatsApp and Apple to hand over encrypted messages, according to a report in The Sun.

The report was published less than 24 hours after Salman Abedi blew himself up at the Manchester Arena, killing 22 people in the process.

The UK government reportedly intends to lobby MPs to ensure that new rules — being referred to as Technical Capability Notices — get passed through Parliament soon as the general election is over on June 8.

It is hard to see how this is justified. When it is clear that these individuals are known to the security services, it is unclear why there is a need to facilitate access to encrypted messages (effectively ensuring a backdoor), particularly when it places all of us at risk. (And when I say “all”, I should more accurately point out that it will affect us all disproportionately, particularly in terms of race.)

Many people working in libraries get jumpy about the argument that we should be encouraging the use of encryption in libraries, not least because they argue we should not impede attempts to apprehend those engaging in criminal activity. But it’s important to remember that these tools only really offer protection for the average member of the public, they do not protect those that are of interest to the security services. If you are a target of the state, no amount of privacy orientated tools will protect you. They will protect you against mass harvesting of data, but they will not hide all of your activities from the state.

In all of the incidents referred to above, better targeted surveillance is the answer. Forcing the tech companies to install backdoors, or to “ban encryption“, is not a solution. It merely places at all at risk. Indeed, given the tacit acceptance that there are rogue forces operating online, it seems the height of irresponsibility to make everyone more vulnerable rather than ensuring our security to protect against such elements.

Making the case for civil liberties in the aftermath of any terrorist attack is difficult. Arguing for greater privacy in our libraries is not an easy case to make when government and media argue that such privacy is an impediment to preventing terrorist attacks. The reality is that ensuring privacy protects the most vulnerable, it does not protect those that seek to commit atrocities. The alternative to mass surveillance is not no surveillance at all, rather it is better targeted surveillance. When it comes to protecting library users, we need to ensure we don’t fall into the trap of believing the former, no matter how hard the government or media try to persuade us otherwise.

The Manifestos 2017 – a library and information studies perspective

Parliament

Houses of Parliament. (CC-BY ijclark)

You may have noticed there’s an election on the way (hands up if you are fed up with it already *raises hands*). Although it is only a few weeks away now, it already feels like a depressing long slog towards a grimly predictable outcome. There is one reason and one reason only why we are having an election, and that’s because Theresa May wants to shore up her government as we enter into negotiations with the EU (negotiations that we won’t have a say in, despite the fact the referendum last year offered no mandate for any particular outcome) – so much for the Fixed Term Parliament Act.

Anyway, I decided now the Tory manifesto has been published, it would be a good idea to scan through all of the three main parties’ programmes to see how they look from a LIS (library and information sciences) perspective. Of course, no-one is going to vote purely on the basis of policies related to LIS (at least I hope not), but I thought it would be interesting nonetheless. Identifying a few key terms, I scanned each of the manifestos across five key areas: libraries, data, privacy, freedom of information and research. I may have missed some key elements in running these in-text searches, so they aren’t fool-proof (please say in the comments if I have missed anything obvious!).  The policies are presented below with direct quotes from the individual manifestos.

Libraries

Labour Manifesto

Libraries are vital social assets, valued by communities across the country. We will ensure libraries are preserved for future generations and updated with wi-fi and computers to meet modern needs. We will reintroduce library standards so that government can assess and guide councils in delivering the best possible service.

Conservative Manifesto

N/A

Liberal Democrat Manifesto

Set up a £2 billion Rural Services Fund of capital investment to enable communities to establish a local base from which to co-locate services such as council offices, post offices, children’s centres, libraries and visiting healthcare professionals.

Data

Labour Manifesto

Labour is committed to growing the digital economy and ensuring that trade agreements do not impede cross-border data flows, whilst maintaining strong data protection rules to protect personal privacy.

We all need to work harder to keep children safe online. Labour will ensure that tech companies are obliged to take measures that further protect children and tackle online abuse. We will ensure that young people understand and are able to easily remove any content they shared on the internet before they turned 18.

Conservative Manifesto

Where we believe people need more protections to keep them safe, we will act to protect them. We will give people new rights to ensure they are in control of their own data, including the ability to require major social media platforms to delete information held about them at the age of 18, the ability to access and export personal data, and an expectation that personal data held should be stored in a secure way. To create a sound ethical framework for how data is used, we will institute an expert Data Use and Ethics Commission to advise regulators and parliament on the nature of data use and how best to prevent its abuse. The Commission will help us to develop the principles and rules that will give people confidence that their data is being handled properly. Alongside this commission, we will bring forward a new data protection law, fit for our new data age, to ensure the very best standards for the safe, flexible and dynamic use of data and enshrining our global leadership in the ethical and proportionate regulation of data. We will put the National Data Guardian for Health and Social Care on a statutory footing to ensure data security standards are properly enforced. We will continue with our £1.9 billion investment in cyber security and build on the successful establishment of the National Cyber Security Centre through our worldleading cyber security strategy. We will make sure that our public services, businesses, charities and individual users are protected from cyber risks. We will further strengthen cyber security standards for government and public services, requiring all public services to follow the most up to date cyber security techniques appropriate.

And we will take up leadership in a new arena, where concern is shared around the world: we will be the global leader in the regulation of the use of personal data and the internet.

Liberal Democrats Manifesto

N/A

Privacy

Labour

Labour is committed to growing the digital economy and ensuring that trade agreements do not impede cross-border data flows, whilst maintaining strong data protection rules to protect personal privacy.

Conservative

In addition, we do not believe that there should be a safe space for terrorists to be able to communicate online and will work to prevent them from having this capability.

For the sake of our economy and our society, we need to harness the power of fast-changing technology, while ensuring that our security and personal privacy – and the welfare of children and younger people – are protected.

It is in no-one’s interest for the foundations of strong societies and stable democracies – the rule of law, privacy and security – to be undermined.

If we are going to respond to rapid changes in technology, we need government to make Britain the best place in the world to set up and run modern businesses,
bringing the jobs of the future to our country; but we also need government to create the right regulatory frameworks that will protect our security and personal privacy, and ensure the welfare of children and younger people in an age when so much of life is conducted online.

Liberal Democrats

Oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption.

Notify innocent people who have been placed under targeted surveillance where this can be done without jeopardising ongoing investigations.

Roll back state surveillance powers by ending the indiscriminate bulk collection of communications data, bulk hacking, and the collection of internet connection records.

Freedom of Information

Labour

We will extend the Freedom of Information Act to private companies that run public services.

Conservatives

N/A

Liberal Democrats

End the ministerial veto on release of information under the Freedom of Information Act, and take steps to reduce the proportion of FOI requests where information is withheld by government departments.

Research

Labour

A Labour government will ensure that the UK maintains our leading research role by seeking to stay part of Horizon 2020 and its successor programmes and by welcoming research staff to the UK. We will seek to maintain membership of (or equivalent relationships with) European organisations which offer benefits to the UK such as Euratom and the European Medicines Agency. We will seek to ensure that Britain remains part of the Erasmus scheme so that British students have the same educational opportunities after we leave the EU.

Conservative

We will deliver this and ensure further growth so that overall, as a nation, we meet the current OECD average for investment in R&D – that is, 2.4 per cent of GDP – within ten years, with a longer-term goal of three percent. We will increase the number of scientists working in the UK and enable leading scientists from around the world to work here. We will work hard to ensure we have a regulatory environment that encourages innovation.

Our world-beating universities will lead the expansion of our R&D capacity. We must help them make a success of their discoveries – while they have a number of growing investment funds specialising in spin-outs, we have more to do to replicate the success of similar university funds in the United States.

To fix that, we will work to build up the investment funds of our universities across the UK. We want larger, aggregated funds to increase significantly the amounts invested in and by universities. We want universities to enjoy the commercial fruits of their research, through funds that are large enough to list, thereby giving British investors a chance to share in their success.

Liberal Democrats

Protect the science budget, including the recent £2 billion increase, by continuing to raise it at least in line with inflation. Our long-term goal is to double innovation and research spending across the economy. We would guarantee to underwrite funding for British partners in EU-funded projects such as Horizon 2020 who would suffer from cancellation of income on Brexit.

Internationalism: is international solidarity a more potent weapon than info lit?

Could internationalism have halted the rise of fascism in the 1930s? (Image c/o on Flickr.)

In my last post I wrote about information literacy and the extent to which I believe it is effective in dealing with the rise of the far-right across the globe. As I argued there, I believe that the issue we have at present is that a large section of society in Western liberal democracies feel disconnected from the political elites and have seen recent votes as a chance for them to tear down the edifice. In the UK, it has led to a vote to leave the EU. In the United States it has led to the election of a candidate who stood firmly on an anti-establishment platform. What connects these two events is, in my view, a collective wish by electorates to give the establishment a kicking, stirred up by a cynical right-wing that seeks to advance a political philosophy that seeks to further the divide between the richest and the poorest.

I said in my previous post that I didn’t want to get into answers that can lead us on the path to salvation. I was criticised for doing so. I still do not want to get into the business of providing answers, but I do want to explore some of the issues a bit more from a historical context, in the hope that it might provide me with some answers, as well as perhaps highlight some of the lessons of the past.

Of course, in some respects it’s very lazy to return to the 1930s to seek lessons to learn in order to understand the world as it increasingly is now. It’s relatively recent, it’s an aspect of history that every school pupil studying the subject is bombarded with, and it’s a period that has become somewhat of an obsession. Putting all that to one side, however, it’s a good point to start exploring the rise of the far-right and the circumstances around it.

As I noted in my previous post, the Nazis rose to power not on the back of a coherent programme that garnered mass support, rather they threatened to smash the whole system down and start afresh. They wanted to tear the system down and build Germany from afresh. What for them had become “rotten” they did not wish to fix or patch up, they wanted to smash it down and construct something new. It wasn’t about reform, it was about destruction and re-building. This led to growing support as the communist “threat” hovered in the background, as Kershaw notes:

“Panic at the growing support for the communist party (largely at the expense of the Social Democrats), and the wildly exaggerated prospect of a communist revolution, had gripped the middles classes. The ‘bourgeois’ parties of the centre and right duly collapsed, along with over thirty small regional or interest parties (their proliferation facilitated by an electoral system of unrestricted proportional representation). The Nazis hoovered up the bulk of their dwindling support.” (Kershaw, 2015)

The centre collapsed under the strain and, ultimately, people fled to the extremes, whether that be the communists or the fascists. The centre was no longer tenable as a political position. Arguably, given those circumstances, only a strong communist party would have been enough to prevent the Nazi rise to power internally (emphasis on arguably). But to what extent would internationalism limited the rise of the fascists in the 1930s?

Orwell’s Lion and the Unicorn, an essay published in 1941, highlight the extent to which there was a lack of international solidarity to tackle the rise of fascism. Orwell writes:

“Economically, England is certainly two nations, if not three or four. But at the same time the vast majority of the people feel themselves to be a single nation and are conscious of resembling one another more than they resemble foreigners. Patriotism is usually stronger than class-hatred, and always stronger than any kind of internationalism. Except for a brief moment in 1920 (the ‘Hands off Russia’ movement) the British working class have never thought or acted internationally. For two and a half years they watched their comrades in Spain slowly strangled, and never aided them by even a single strike.” (Orwell, 2000)

This lack of internationalism was also reflected by the late Jack Jones, a trade unionist and a member of the XV International Brigade. In a collection of reflections on the Spanish Civil War, Jones recalled the lack of interest in foreign affairs by his fellow workers:

“Day after day at the dock I tried to draw my mates’ attention to what was happening in the world. It wasn’t easy, for the order of debate was sport, sex, beer and, of course, the job. But Hitler had come to power in Germany and their trade union movement was in tatters. The trade unionists, Socialists and Communists were being pushed into concentration camps along with the Jews. Early in 1934 the Austrian trade unionists had been brutally suppressed by Dollfuss. Older trades unionists on the Trades Council were apprehensive and coveted their fears to me, but, to my workmates, Germany and Austria were far-off countries.” (Arthur, 2009)

One wonders to what extent the rise of fascism would have been halted had there been a united, large-scale internationalist response to its rise. I’m of the school of thought that believes that if the “allies” had taken a stronger line with Franco in the Spanish Civil War, indeed, if they had fought for the Republic, the rise of fascism would have been checked (it’s a dangerous game playing “what ifs…” with history mind you). Whether you believe it would have made a difference or not, it seems evident to me that internationalism, a true sense of international solidarity, would have made a significant difference.

Is this an answer to our current situation? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Maybe there are a whole host of answers, complex, multi-faceted answers that we need to consider (yes). There is no magic bullet, no single answer that will reverse the rise of the far-right. But I can’t help but think that working internationally, in solidarity, not treating the problems of one Western liberal democracy as entirely distinct from other Western liberal democracies, might help. That maybe, instead of creating answers for our own backyard, we need to work together with our neighbours to ensure all our communities are safe.

I tend to hark on about Orwell a lot, but there are some words of his that provide some distant hope as to the future. Reflecting on the Spanish Civil War he wrote:

“Too ignorant to see through the trick that is being played on them, [the working class] easily swallow the promises of Fascism, yet sooner or later they always take up the struggle again. They must do so, because in their own bodies they always discover that the promises of Fascism cannot be fulfilled. To win over the working class permanently, the Fascists would have to raise the general standard of living, which they are unable and probably unwilling to do.” (Orwell, 2000)

Those are not the terms I would use, but there seems to be to be a truth there about Brexit, Trump and the far-right across the Western world. Their promises to the workers cannot ever be fulfilled. They cannot bring the utopia that the workers desire. They cannot close the gap between the richest and the poorest. They cannot lift the standards of living of the poorest in our communities. Why? Because it is in contravention to their own political philosophy. By working internationally in solidarity, perhaps we can bring about this realisation a little earlier, and hasten the decline of the far-right.

References

Jones, J. (2009). Jack Jones. In M. Arthur (Ed.), The real band of brothers. London: Collins.

Kershaw, I. (2015). To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949. UK: Allen Lane.

Orwell, G. (2000). Lion and the Unicorn. In G. Orwell, Essays. London: Penguin. (Original work published 1941.)

Orwell, G. (2000). Looking back on the Spanish War. In G. Orwell, Essays. London: Penguin. (Original work published 1943.)

Information Literacy Won’t Save Us; or, Fight Fascism, Don’t Create A LibGuide

“Some men just want to watch the world burn.” (Image c/o Patrik Theander on Flickr.)

In the wake of both the EU referendum and the election of Trump in the United States, there has been a growing concern about the proliferation of “fake news” and the rise of post-truth politics. As William Davies puts it in The New York Times, facts are “losing their ability to support consensus” as we enter “an age of post-truth politics”. This kind of talk is, of course, catnip for library workers because it plays into certain narratives that have dominated the discourse in recent years, specifically the rising importance of information literacy.

Although I would not dismiss the importance of information literacy in terms of education and providing the tools individuals need to think critically about the information they find, we need to be careful not to overplay its effects. Alarmed as I am about the current political environment, I am not wholly convinced that raising the standard of information literacy in our communities will see our way through the rising white nationalist mood that has gripped Western democracies. Well, I’m not convinced at all. Certainly history suggests that a belief that if only people could better interpret the facts we could find our way out of this mess is misplaced.

One of the issues I have with the term “post-truth” is inherent in the phrase itself – that if the current situation represents post-truth, then the period before must therefore be characterised as one where truth was primary and dominated our political and social landscape. There is nothing unique about the notion that fact takes a back seat to narratives. It has been apparent in our politics, in our understanding of history and in our journalism for some time.

In his renowned work of historical theory, What is history?, Carr explores the role of “fact” in historical works. Carr writes:

“The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context…The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy…” (Carr, 1990, p.11-12)

He continues with regards to our understanding of 5th century BC Greece:

“Our picture has been preselected and predetermined for us, not so much by accident as by people who were consciously or unconsciously imbued with a particular view and thought the facts which supported that view worth preserving.” (Carr, 1990, p.13)

In essence, although fact has a place in the historical record, it is secondary to a particular narrative that the historian wishes to present. Our understanding of Greece, as Carr explains, is not strictly factual, the facts are secondary to the narrative the historian sets out. The narrative will contain fact (of course), but it will not primarily be factual. As Professor Barraclough (quoted in Carr) argued, historical narratives are “strictly speaking, not factual at all, but a series of accepted judgements” (p.14).

To a certain extent, Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent comes to a similar conclusion about journalists. Much like the historian, the journalist applies filters and reinforces particular narratives, either consciously or unconsciously. In the book’s conclusion, the authors argue that:

“In contrast to the standard conception of the media as cantankerous, obstinate, and ubiquitous in their search for truth and their independence of authority, we have spelled out and applied a propaganda model that indeed sees the media as serving a ‘societal purpose,’ but not that of enabling the public to assert meaningful control over the political process by providing them with the information needed for the intelligent discharge of political responsibilities.” (Chomsky & Herman, 2008)

In the afterword to the 2008 edition of the text, the authors argue that the rise of technology, increased commercialisation and more competition for advertising revenues have resulted in:

“…more compromises on behalf of advertisers, including more friendly editorial policy, more product placements, more intrusive ads, more cautious news policy, a shrinkage in investigative reporting and greater dependence on wire service and public relations offerings, and a reduced willingness to challenge establishment positions and party lines. This has made for a diminished public sphere and facilitated media management by government and powerful corporate and other lobbying entities.” (Chomsky & Herman, 2008)

On the basis of the arguments of Carr, Herman and Chomsky it is clear that public discourse and debate is rarely informed by fact, rather it is informed by the narrative preferences of the individuals disseminating information (this also links in with Nietzschean philosophy – the one philosopher I am familiar with – who questioned the very notion of there being an “objective truth”). This was fine when the media landscape was relatively small-scale, it becomes a different matter when the landscape becomes a vast, unregulated space populated by individuals who reject the responsibilities that come with the narratives they disseminate.

Although Herman and Chomsky’s theory doesn’t exactly fit with the notion of “post-truth” politics, it does have some relevance here. The growing hand-wringing over “post-truth politics” by the mainstream media has been a handy weapon for them to utilise, and one that has helped to mask their own culpability for the current political and social crisis. Under the cover of “post-truth” the media are able to differentiate themselves from the vast swathe of media out there pushing alternative narratives that sit outside the mainstream of post-war public discourse, thus masking their culpability for our current environs.

As Herman and Chomsky have pointed out, the media do not have a good history when it comes to presenting facts or in being “ubiquitous in the search for truth”. Rather it has a history of presenting information that fails to challenge the status quo and rather than speaking out against power they are complicit in power structures and in reinforcing a very narrow economic perspective. This narrowing of public discourse and failure to challenge the orthodoxy has resulted in the media increasingly being seen as part of the political elite. They are no longer holding power to account, they are engaged in a symbiotic relationship where the two feed off each other, one reinforcing the other. When the media and the state become intertwined, loss of faith in the latter also results in a loss of faith in the former, because they have become virtually indistinguishable. Hence we find ourselves in a situation where even were the media to try to hold individuals like Farage and Trump to account, they will be ineffective. Because the media are simply extensions of the system that those individuals and their followers seek to tear down.

And this is ultimately the key. The problem is not information literacy. The problem is that there is a movement that seeks to tear the entire system down (for a variety of reasons – although primarily its source is racism). What we are encountering is not simply addressed by encouraging people to read more critically (although long term this strategy may help), it requires continuous and persistent challenging of those that seek to tear everything down. It’s this that we must consider when we think about how best to support our communities and tackle the threat that they are facing.

Earlier this year, Steve Bannon (appointed chief strategist for the Trump presidency) gave an interview to The Daily Beast where he declared that:

“Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

Earlier in 2014, Trump himself declared that:

“You know what solves it? When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster. Then you’ll have a [chuckles], you know, you’ll have riots to go back to where we used to be when we were great.”

There are clear echoes here of the past. It’s very easy to fall back on Nazi Germany analogies, but here it seems appropriate. Now, as then, we are living in the aftermath of a substantial economic shock, one that has seen the poorest punished hardest whilst the wealthiest continue to prosper. Now, as then, people are turning to extremes for answers. As it was in the 1930s, it is the far-right that have prospered by blaming “the other” and profiting from a clearly stated desire to tear down the whole edifice. As Ian Kershaw, one of the leading historians on Nazi Germany, notes of this period in German history:

“Voters were not for the most part looking for a coherent programme, nor for limited reforms to government. Hitler’s party was attractive to them because it promised a radical new start by clearing out the old system entirely. The nazis did not want to amend what they depicted as moribund or rotten; they claimed they would eradicate it, and build a new Germany out of the ruins. They did not offer to defeat their opponents; they threatened to destroy them completely.” (Kershaw, 2015)

This is where we are in the West. Those that are turning to Trump (or to Farage) are not interested in “truth”, in “facts” or in critical thinking. They simply want to tear the whole thing down. They want to “drain the swamp”. To smash down the system that they feel has abandoned them and create something that puts their interests first. And where there are desperate people searching for someone to speak for them, there are those that are only too willing to exploit them. A defence against exploitation is not information literacy (although this doesn’t mean that we should abandon it, it is still a vital skill to encourage critical thinking). A defence against exploitation is the dismantling of capitalism, the real cause of people’s alienation and abandonment.

In terms of how we tackle this, I have no answers. I’m not going to sit here and bash out some glorious plan that will save us all and reverse the hell that we have allowed to be visited upon us (and let’s not kid ourselves, we have allowed this to happen). But my mind does turn to Orwell (as it often does) and his thoughts when reflecting upon the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism. In his essay, Looking back on the Spanish War, Orwell writes:

“One feature of the Nazi conquest of France was the astonishing defections amongst the intelligentsia. The intelligentsia are the people who squeal loudest against Fascism, and yet a respectable proportion of them collapse into defeatism when the pinch comes.” (Orwell, 2000)

The “pinch” has come. We must continue to “squeal” at every opportunity, we must not give them a moment, we must not for one second normalise a vile politics that seeks to divide and tear apart our communities. And we must not ever, no matter how difficult the fight, collapse into defeatism.

References

Carr, E.H. (1990). What is history? London: Penguin.

Herman, E.S. & Chomsky, N. (2008). Manufacturing Consent. London: Bodley Head.

Kershaw, I. (2015). To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949. UK: Allen Lane.

Orwell, G. (2000). Looking back on the Spanish War. In G. Orwell, Essays. London: Penguin. (Original work published 1943.)

Our communities are under threat, what are we going to do?

Image c/o Paulo Valdivieso.

Image c/o Paulo Valdivieso.

The murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox in the build up to the EU referendum vote was a shocking and disturbing act conducted by a man who appears to be a far-right extremist with a fascination for the Nazi regime (I’m being deliberately careful with my wording due to the ongoing court case – I am no legal expert so I prefer to err on the side of caution). It is impossible to view this act without placing it in the context of a renewed neo-Nazi far-right menace that has grown in Europe and overseas. In some ways, discussing this case in the context of the ethics of library work seems pretty ridiculous. But there is a convergence of issues here that highlight the extent to which we are currently failing our communities and urgently need to take steps to protect them.

As noted above, newspapers reported that the defendant in the court case had accessed a range of resources related to extremist political viewpoints. How did this detail emerge in court? It is claimed that his fascination was identified by investigating his internet usage at his local public library.

The jury was told that the day before Cox was killed, the defendant had gone to the library in Birstall, where he had used a computer to access a number of items, including the Wikipedia page for an online publication called the Occidental Observer.

This is a troubling development, yet unsurprising given the extent to which libraries are not a safe space for anyone (although they certainly should be). Of course, it’s difficult to be concerned about an invasion of privacy against such an individual. He committed a vile, murderous act. But we have to be careful here, particularly in terms of our current environs, not to make exceptions when it comes to what should be core to our ethical principles. We cannot, and must not, pick and choose whose privacy should be invaded in pursuit of justice.

The case will be made that accessing Thomas Muir’s internet browsing history has provided proof of his far-right extremism and murderous intent. But can this really be so? Can murderous intent be deduced from looking at the browsing history of an individual? This is the premise upon which not only the Prevent strategy is built, but also the Investigatory Powers Bill. That if somehow we could observe internet users, see what they are accessing, we (the state) can intervene and prevent a terrorist atrocity. If we accept that accessing Muir’s internet history is necessary in order to prosecute, then we accept that privacy in accessing information is no longer tenable. Indeed, we play into the very hands of those seeking to justify both Prevent and the Investigatory Powers Bill. We need to ask ourselves serious questions here if we believe this act is justifiable, and we need to return to CILIP’s ethical principles and consider to what extent we are serious about upholding them.

If we decide that we are not serious about upholding them, then we are putting our communities at very real, very serious risk. We are living in a period where the far-right are rising to prominence with alarming speed. Where they are gaining ground not only in Europe, but in the United States following the election of Donald Trump. The consequences of this are stark. Minorities are placed in greater danger. Lives are at risk. We are witnessing, once more, the rise of an authoritarian, anti-libertarian strain of right-wing populism dressed up as libertarianism. That the neo-Nazi right have achieved this under the guise of advancing liberty (posing as libertarians) makes their rise to prominence even more cynical and deadly. It is in this context we must consider both Prevent and the Investigatory Powers Bill and the impact they will have upon our work and, more importantly, our communities.

One of the oft used defences of mass surveillance is the illogical maxim that “if you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear”. Such naïve sentiment obscures the obvious: you are not the one that determines whether you have done wrong. The state does. It also obscures another truism – the state is fluid, not fixed. Liberal democracies do not remain in situ for perpetuity. They are always at risk of collapsing. History demonstrates the extent to which this is the case and recent events have demonstrated just how precarious liberal democracies actually are. It is this that should always be kept in mind when we discuss mass surveillance and it’s this we should be alert to when we consider our current environs.

The rise of the far-right in Europe and the United States is a warning sign about the acceptance of mass surveillance. There is no doubt, thanks to the work of the NSA and GCHQ, that we have the infrastructure in place for a truly efficient and ruthless fascist state. In a liberal democracy, you have the luxury of debate over its efficacy and its relationship with ethical concerns. In a fascist state you have no such luxury. It is used to persecute minorities. There is no debate. There will be no dismantling of the surveillance state under the fascist right, rather it will be ramped up and used in ways that make the previous warnings about the dangers of developing a surveillance society seem like stark understatements..

This is why it is vital to consider where we are in relation to the ethical principles clearly stated by the body that represents us. We are tasked with ensuring the intellectual privacy of our patrons. Our failure to do this in a liberal democracy is one thing, our failure with a rising fascist movement is quite another. Our failure to tackle this question firmly and consistently will put lives at risk. If we accept that, in a liberal democracy, it is justifiable to interrogate the internet history of those perpetrating vile crimes, then what precedent is being set for democracy less liberal, less tolerant, more fascistic?

I put much of the blame of our current malaise at the feet of professionals who have abandoned ethical principles in favour of money and prestige. This cuts across all professions. It’s led to the creeping privatisation of our health service, the academisation of our schools, the erosion of civil liberties and the destruction of our public library network. In many respects, it’s long since passed the point of no return. But if we don’t act on our principles now, if we don’t protect our communities, the far-right will take advantage. They are coming for the people we should be protecting. The success of the far-right in the United States was the latest in a series of lethal blows to our communities. It’s time we stood side-by-side with them and asserted that we can no longer tolerate such incursions and that we will not throw them to the wolves.

Jigsaw – the missing piece in policing the internet?

jigsaw

Should Google and others influence our online behaviours? (Image c/o Cindee Snider Re on Flickr.)

Earlier this month, the results of a pilot project run by Jigsaw (a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc – formerly Google) to send those seeking information on ISIS towards counter-propaganda anti-ISIS materials on YouTube were revealed. Over the course of the two month program, according to Wired, 300,000 people were drawn to the anti-ISIS YouTube channels. Furthermore, “searchers actually clicked on Jigsaw’s three or four times more often than a typical ad campaign”. The success of the programme has led to plans to relaunch the program focusing on North American extremists, targeting white supremacists as well as potential ISIS recruits.

But the efforts of Jigsaw to police the internet doesn’t begin and end with counter-propaganda designed to stop individuals from being sucked into a violent ideology. According to Wired’s Andy Greenberg:

The New York-based think tank and tech incubator aims to build products that use Google’s massive infrastructure and engineering muscle not to advance the best possibilities of the internet but to fix the worst of it: surveillance, extremist indoctrination, censorship. The group sees its work, in part, as taking on the most intractable jobs in Google’s larger mission to make the world’s information “universally accessible and useful”.

Although there are elements of that mission that are to be welcomed, there is much also that is problematic at best and highly unethical at worst.

With regards to the determination to challenge extremist indoctrination, there are very obvious and serious questions that need to be asked here, not least how do we define extremism? Communism and anarchism have, for many decades, been perceived to be “extremist ideologies”, should anyone investigating such ideologies also be exposed to counter-propaganda? Is it Google/Jigsaw who determine whether such ideologies are “extremist”? And, if so, how “neutral” can we expect them to be about ideologies that would see corporations such as themselves broken up and no longer permitted to operate in the ways in which they currently operate? We know that such tech companies are susceptible to state pressure (as with Google, so it is also with Yahoo! and others).

Of course, this is nothing new. Large tech companies are increasingly seeing themselves as a form of global police force that acts as a form of privatised global state department. Much as I value the defence that Apple put up when the FBI demanded access to the infamous San Bernardino phone, is it really appropriate that they refused to do so? My gut instinct is to say, in this particular example, yes (I should add I am an iPhone user so I am somewhat seeing it through the prism of the protection of my communications etc). But should a large multinational corporation get to pick and choose which laws it abides by? If an individual in a liberal Western democracy refused to accede to a request by the security services, you can be sure that both sides wouldn’t be arguing across the media. They’d be arguing through the bars of a jail cell.

This tech company as global internet police force has also been exposed by the revelations that Facebook has been working closely with the Israeli government to “monitor posts that incite violence”. Needless to say, in the context of the long and complicated history of the region, such work opens a whole series of questions about the consequence of such a partnership, particularly given Israel’s questionable attitude towards Arab-Israeli comments on social media. As Freedom House’s 2015 report on Israel notes:

In July 2014, a professor at Bar-Ilan University was publicly rebuked by his dean for sending an e-mail to his students expressing sympathy for victims on both sides of the Israel-Gaza conflict, a rebuke which drew objections from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI). Similarly during the conflict, students at some universities, particularly Arab students, were reportedly subjected to monitoring and sanctions for social-media comments that were deemed offensive or extremist.

One can’t help but wonder whether Facebook will actually make such action significantly easier.

Should multi-national corporations either act as independent arms of the state, policing the internet and tackling censorship or directing individuals to counter-propaganda at will? Aren’t there serious ethical issues at play here when such corporations either act as independent arms of the state, or proxies for the state in which they operate? Are we not effectively making multi-national corporations such as Google, Facebook and Apple as arbiters of liberty and freedom?

Jigsaw intends to “end censorship within a decade” (Wired, Nov 16). A fine goal. But it is also about to launch Conversation AI which intends to “selectively silence” voices to protect the speech of others. Squaring the circle of ending censorship and “selectively silencing” voices is a question for the engineers at Jigsaw. However, the question for all of us must surely be to what extent are we prepared to permit large multi-national corporations to make ethical judgements on behalf of all of us? Should issuing counter-propaganda and tackling abuses of free speech be considered a social good when it is at the whim of a corporation or programs using algorithms created by individuals that work for such corporations? Ultimately, do we really need or should we even permit a (as Greenberg describes it) “Digital Justice League”? Or should corporations stay out of complex ethical issues? It seems to me that such corporations should be responsive to our needs and requests (eg harassment reports on social media) rather than deciding for us. By all means, tackle racism, harassment, misogyny and hatred, but it should be on our terms, not theirs.

Public libraries, police and the normalisation of surveillance

Police presence in libraries, no matter how abstract, normalises state surveillance. (Image c/o Thomas Hawk.)

In an era of unjustified, economically incoherent cuts in investment in public services, there has been an increasing drive to make various parts of the public sector work together to cut costs (“cut costs” in a very superficial sense of course). One such collaboration that keeps popping up is a partnership between the police and public libraries. An idea that should never even be entertained, let alone discussed as a serious and reasonable proposition.

The latest such proposal is one that would see one particular police force close down its inquiry desks and effectively move them to the local public library service, requiring library staff to assist in the reporting of crimes online for those without internet access at home. According to a statement on the Norfolk constabulary’s website:

The six month trial will run from the end of September in Thetford and Gorleston and will involve library staff signposting customers to police services, while also helping them complete online self-reporting forms, a function which will soon be available as part of the Constabulary’s new website.

Such a move changes the library space from a safe one, to one that is subject to a subtle form of surveillance whereby people’s behaviours are modified by the knowledge that the space is one where the police have a presence, even if in abstract. Effectively, it normalises surveillance. The knowledge that it is a space to report crime impedes the library as a space to freely engage in ideas, particularly in the current political climate.

Take Prevent, for example. A racist strategy that demonises non-whites, it has led to a series of actions that have been an affront to the rights of the individual, particularly in terms of intellectual freedom, both directly and via the culture that it has encouraged. The recent detainment of Faizah Shaheen being a good example of the consequences of not only the normalisation of surveillance but the encouragement to “snitch”.

The experiences of Faizah Shaheen and Mohammed Umar Farooq should serve as a warning to library workers and those providing library services. Where there is a police presence, no matter how abstract it may be, there is a risk to people of colour. Facilitating police reports in libraries has a very obvious and malign consequence. It makes the library a space of authority and control. In an environment whereby people are detained due to their reading habits, using a public library as an extension of the police inquiry desk poses threats not only in terms of people reporting individuals (although this online crime reporting will happen in the library whether the library encourages it or not, the key is the normalisation of the space as a place to interact with the police), but also has an inhibiting effect upon those using the space.

Would a person of colour feel comfortable accessing information or borrowing books if they do so in an environment that encourages and enables the reporting of crime, particularly when reading can lead to detainment under anti-terrorism legislation? Individuals will feel that they cannot access information freely in an environment that has become an extension of the police station (which is partly how surveillance works – controlling and directing individuals, preventing activity from taking place).

This relationship with the police continues to be proposed in authorities across the country. Earlier this week it was revealed that police desks in Angus would be moved into the council’s libraries. And there have also been “community police hubs” (how innocuous sounding) relocating to public libraries. And what’s coming around the corner should very much set alarm bells ringing about the suitability of public libraries and the police sharing space, whether it be abstract or physical.

Earlier this year, it emerged that under Theresa May’s proposed investigatory powers bill, public libraries will be required to store internet users’ records for up to 12 months, again, seriously undermining the library as a safe space for intellectual freedom. Not only does such a move normalise surveillance, making it part and parcel of every aspect of every citizen’s life, but it turns public libraries into a space less about intellectual freedom and more about monitoring citizens on behalf of an authoritarian state. It goes without saying, that this poses a threat to the very notion of intellectual freedom, a notion that public libraries should be actively defending and advancing.

As public libraries increasingly become a place where the state seeks to control and observe the intellectual behaviour of others on the basis of supposed threats posed by organised terror, so public libraries lose their purpose. They cease to become places of exploration and interrogation and become nothing more than repositories of state sanctioned ideas and values. This process of normalisation needs to stop, for the benefit of all the communities we serve.

Post-truth politics and librarianship

To what extent can information literacy address so-called “post-truth politics”? (Image c/o freestocks on Flickr.)

Post-truth politics. Nothing screams zeitgeist quite as much as a blog post about the emergence of “post-truth politics”. At present it seems to be everywhere. Political tweets, articles in national media, analysis by the commentariat. In the aftermath of Brexit and with the emergence of Trump as a presidential candidate in the US, it has almost become a short-hand method by which to describe the current political climate. As someone working in the information profession and being politically engaged, the topic itself is like catnip to me. The notion of “post-truth” as someone who deals in facilitating access to information? How could I not jot down a few thoughts?

A few weeks back I was flicking through a collection of essays by George Orwell (living the stereotype). One essay in particular caught my attention: Looking back on the Spanish War. The Spanish Civil War is a bit of an obsession of mine. Being married to a Spaniard has helped feed this (on top of a history A-level where the study of fascism was the basis of the entire course), and I pretty much seek out as much information as I can on the most romanticised of 20th century conflicts. Orwell, of course, was actively involved in the conflict. Along with many other leftists, he left the UK to join the International Brigades and fight fascism in the truest sense of the phrase.

Reading through his reflections on the Civil War, one passage particularly hit home…forgive me if I reproduce it here in its entirety, but I think it is justified:

Out of the huge pyramid of lies which the Catholic and reactionary press all over the world built up, let me take just one point — the presence in Spain of a Russian army [Note: the Russians provided strategic support and hardware for Republican elements, but did not send in their army]. Devout Franco partisans all believed in this; estimates of its strength went as high as half a million. Now, there was no Russian army in Spain. There may have been a handful of airmen and other technicians, a few hundred at the most, but an army there was not. Some thousands of foreigners who fought in Spain, not to mention millions of Spaniards, were witnesses of this. Well, their testimony made no impression at all upon the Franco propagandists, not one of whom had set foot in Government Spain. Simultaneously these people refused utterly to admit the fact of German or Italian intervention at the same time as the Germany and Italian press were openly boasting about the exploits of their’ legionaries’. I have chosen to mention only one point, but in fact the whole of Fascist propaganda about the war was on this level.

This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history.

Orwell wrote these words in 1943.

Post-truth politics is, ultimately, a fancy new term for an age old…truth. In many ways this is hardly surprising. There is a tendency to re-package old ideas and present them as somehow new challenges for a new generation, when quite often they are old ideas that are re-packaged and presented as somehow new [citation needed].

When it comes to Brexit though, I wonder to what extent the vote to leave can simply be blamed on untruths or a sense of “post-truth politics”. Of course perhaps the prime example of the notion of post-truth politics was the infamous Vote Leave bus that suggested £350m being sent to the EU could be spent on the NHS instead. Despite being dismissed as “misleading” by the Chair of the Statistics Authority, the statement clearly influenced some, as demonstrated in this recent piece by Faisal Islam for The Guardian:

“I would go mad if this money doesn’t go into the NHS, I will go mad. I want to be assured that this money – because that’s why I voted to come out,” says Shirley.

But to what extent was the reality of Brexit really about “post-truth politics”? Certainly there are those that were misled, and there are those that would have been persuaded by falsehoods, but by no means can we paint Brexit as solely the consequence of post-truth politics. It is, for example, undoubtedly true that the European Union has adopted and pursued an extensive and damaging economic agenda across the continent. Casting an eye towards Greece is enough to underline the extent to which the EU is hardly a benign, friendly force for good. Economically speaking it is highly destructive. This is certainly a truth for those on the receiving end of the economic brutality. And a truth that is felt by the working class across the continent, those who do not feel the economic benefits so many of us take for granted (can anyone seriously argue that the working class in Greece have benefitted from the EU’s interventions?).

In this respect I was what might be described as a “reluctant remainer”. For me, if it was purely down to the economics of the European Union, I would have voted out. No-one who cares about the poorest in society could possibly consider the anti-democratic and destructive economic policies of the EU and believe that these are things that should be embraced. But then there are the social aspects. I am pro-immigration (indeed, I’m pro-“no borders”), and for me a vote to leave would have had disastrous implications for not only immigrants at home (which given the rise in racism seems to have very much come to pass), but would have given a powerful shot in the arm for far-right movements across Europe (who wasted no time in celebrating Brexit). That I could not countenance. And it was for that reason I voted to Remain. But, there were strong and powerful reasons to Leave, and they were not about “post-truth politics”, but a deeper truth about the reality of how the EU operates.

In terms of how this fits in with our work, would we make much difference here? Certainly, I think librarians clearly have a key role to play in terms of information literacy. We should be out there presenting the facts and working to ensure greater democratic engagement. And when I say “we should be out there” I mean we should be active, we should not just be waiting for folk to come to us in our libraries or institutions, we should be going out to them. Actively engaging wherever possible, working with communities, helping them to make sense of the huge volume of misinformation that proliferates during any political campaign.

But I don’t think better critical thinking amongst voters would necessarily have made a difference in terms of events such as Brexit. Yes there was inaccurate information from the Leave campaign that appears to have persuaded some to vote to leave, but would it have been any different if people were better equipped to assess the information provided? If you see the economic consequences of the EU in the Mediterranean, would you have been none the less persuaded to vote to Remain if you knew that not only were we not spending £350m per week on the EU that could have been spent on the EU, but that Turkey is unlikely to join any time soon and that we would have to join an EU army? Or would these truths make no difference whatsoever? Would the truth of the economic conditions enforced by the EU outweigh such “truths”? Or would the evident democratic deficit? And there are, of course, the racists and xenophobes who will take a racist position and disregard any “truths” that they are confronted with.

“People have had enough of experts,” said Michael Gove. I think we need to hear the voices of experts now more than ever. One look at the state of our media underlines how little the experts are heard, dominated as they are by commentators who pontificate on what they “reckon”. But experts and professionals can’t change realities or affect the lived experience of others. An individual critically analysing information in the run-up to the referendum could just as easily have voted to leave as voted to remain. Criticality and information literacy are not panaceas, but they help shine a light that can be shone into the darkest corners. Ultimately, it is not truth alone that will determine voting intentions, but how heavy that truth weighs.

Theresa May, The Opposition and the threat to librarianship

Mass surveillance is a serious threat to the ethical principles of librarianship and the communities we serve. (Image c/o Thomas Hawk on Flickr.)

Despite not being a member of the professional body, one of my current favourite documents (there’s a series of words you don’t often see next to each other) is CILIP’s Ethical Principles for Library and Information Professionals (bear with me). Two elements particularly stick out for me and have become key elements of the presentations I have been delivering lately (and will deliver in the future):

3. Commitment to the defence, and the advancement, of access to information, ideas and works of the imagination.

8. Respect for confidentiality and privacy in dealing with information users.

The post-Snowden era has resulted in a very clear and serious threat to these ethical principles. Indeed, I would argue that we have largely failed in this regard following the introduction of internet access in our libraries (in whatever form the library takes). Under conditions of mass surveillance it is clear: we cannot defend access to information and we cannot ensure the privacy of our users without providing the tools to ensure online privacy – whether that be through the availability of privacy enhancing tech in libraries or through working with users to provide them with the skills and knowledge with which to do so.

The current lay of the land politically suggests that this problem is not about to go away, it is actually going to get much worse. The elevation of Theresa May (presented as a kind of softer One Nation Tory – see here for more on One Nation Conservatism) certainly suggests that the threats we face to our ethical principles are not about to be brushed away, but instead become more pressing. We know that May has a particularly strident approach to mass surveillance, not for nothing was May named “internet villain of the year” at last year’s Annual UK Internet Industry Awards. It seems highly unlikely that upon becoming Prime Minister, May will suddenly abandon a long-held belief in mass surveillance, a policy that is a very serious threat to our ethical principles as outlined by CILIP. The question is, how will we as a profession tackle this threat.

The signs from the forming of Theresa May’s new cabinet are already pretty clear that the pursuit of mass surveillance legislation is very much still on the agenda. Her appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary reinforces this threat. As Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson will also head up both GCHQ and MI6. Johnson has been an outspoken supporter of May’s drive towards enshrining mass surveillance into law. Only last year he declared in relation to the Snooper’s Charter:

“You’ve got to have a very tough security solution, you’ve got to be absolutely determined to monitor these people. You’ve got to know where they are and who they are talking to.

“I’m not particularly interested in all this civil liberties stuff when it comes to these people’s emails and mobile phone conversations. If they’re a threat to our society then I want them properly listened to.”

I’m not particularly interested in all this civil liberties stuff. And if we are in any doubt that his words match his actions, a quick look at his voting record suggests that he is very firmly pro a strategy of mass surveillance.

As for Theresa May’s replacement, well, I think it will come as no surprise to learn that Amber Rudd is also supportive of the rush to mass surveillance. Generally speaking, where she has turned up to vote, Rudd has generally voted for the “mass retention of information about communications” (or “mass surveillance” if we are to avoid euphemisms). So, both of the key main positions related to the introduction of mass surveillance legislation are very much in the “pro” camp. There is no doubt whatsoever that the government is shaping up to pose very serious threats to our ethical principles, as has been standard practice on the right for some time, ethics are simply a barrier to “progress”. It’s of little surprise to learn that our ethical principles continue to be threatened by a right-wing government, it’s what they do.

But what of the Opposition? Well, it’s not that much better. However, the current attempted coup against Corbyn could result in a unified threat to the ethical principles outlined. Whilst there is not conformity across the Labour Party on this issue (ha), Corbyn at least seems a bit more sceptical of mass surveillance than many of his colleagues. He at least voted to reject the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act in 2014 for example. What of the plotters in his party though?

Angela Eagle appears to offer little in the way of opposition in the threat against our ethical principles. Generally speaking, she has voted in favour of the mass retention of information about communications. And what of the other challenger, Owen Smith? Well, Smith has voted consistently in favour of mass retention of information about communications. So, should the coup be successful then it seems pretty clear that both sides of the house will be united in the belief that mass surveillance of the population is necessary. Of course, given the lack of party discipline at present, they will be effectively united even if Corbyn remains as leader because he is unable to command so many of his colleagues. There are really only two options I can see in terms of serious opposition to mass surveillance, the party respecting the wishes of the members and uniting around Corbyn, or mass deselection. Otherwise, mass surveillance is a foregone conclusion and CILIP will need to re-write their core ethical principles – because they will be worthless.

(I feel I should add here by way of caveat…I am not a Labour voter. Nor am I a Labour Party member. I’m not sure Corbyn is the right person to take the Labour Party forward, but I do think his politics are right for the future of the Labour Party. Corbyn may not be the right leader, but he holds the “right” politics. Unfortunately for those seeking to unseat Corbyn, they think both his leadership and his politics are wrong. I think this is a strategic error that will likely end the Labour Party for good. For me, a return to the gentrification of the party to ensure its appeal to the middle class will ensure its final demise in a climate where the working class have been hammered hard. But the fight for the party is not my fight, I am merely an observer.)

Whatever the future holds in this uncertain time, I’d recommend that all information professionals take a good look at those ethical principles and ask the question as to whether they are currently holding true to them. I’d also argue that we need to raise awareness of encryption technologies across the profession and beyond (taking the lead from key figures associated with the Radical Librarians Collective), particularly if we hold that our ethics are worth defending and advancing. We particularly need to be aware of what encryption tools will be effective and which will not, given the proposed legislation heading our way. I hope that CILIP batters the doors of government every single day brandishing those key ethical principles and fights for our profession and the communities we serve. These principles are under serious threat, by both sides, and for the sake of our existence and the sake of the people and communities we support, we must not allow them to become redundant.

Useful Links

Library Freedom Project

Open Rights Group

Privacy International