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.

The future for libraries across Europe against a backdrop of ‘austerity’

The following article was originally commissioned by the Russian International Affairs Council (original version here, English version here), who have very kindly given me permission to reproduce it here.

Image c/o Tristam Sparks on Flickr.

Libraries across Europe are currently facing very serious challenges in the face of the wave of austerity sweeping across the continent. As governments sell to their people the notion that public spending needs to be curtailed to overcome the effects of the 2008 economic crisis, public libraries are increasingly seen as an easy target, one that is unlikely to rally the people in quite the same way as cuts to other services where the outcomes of such cuts appear more immediately tangible.

But libraries continue to play an important role in our communities across Europe. They facilitate access to knowledge free at the point of use in a way that is increasingly threatened as we move towards a word where access to information comes at a price. They are the great leveller in democracies, ensuring everyone has access to the same quality of information. Where, for example, those without internet access (around 30% of the European population do not have a broadband internet connection) still have somewhere to go to ensure they have access to the same information as those that do. This provision is not only important to support children in their education but also the unemployed and those who rely on social security, particularly in the UK where those least likely to have a home internet connection are increasingly being forced to use such technology for their own financial security.

But libraries aren’t simply important in terms of providing access to new technologies, they are also vital for helping to raise literacy standards, and encourage children to develop their reading skills. The importance of libraries to children is perhaps best exemplified by the statistics that demonstrate that children are increasingly using public libraries, despite the internet and the proliferation of a range of competing activities. Over the past eight years in the UK, children’s fiction borrowing as risen year upon year, underlining how important public libraries are for supporting the educational development of the next generation.

In terms of the future for the library service, we are already seeing hints of how it might develop and, perhaps, how it should develop. In the UK, there has been a growth in so-called ‘community libraries’. The terminology appears harmless, but the reality is quite different. In order to support the drive to austerity, libraries are increasingly being forced upon communities who are then compelled to run them against their will. Whilst the majority of library users would prefer their public library to be run by the local authority, policy makers are more interested in reducing costs and passing these costs directly onto the community, effectively increasing their tax burden.

This ‘plague’ is sweeping across the UK and has been noticed elsewhere across Europe. In Spain, for example, volunteer run libraries are increasingly being seen as an option, at least in part due to their ‘commonality’ in the UK. Ideas that spring up in one European nation are sure to be experimented with elsewhere, particularly when it appears that the idea helps to support the austerity agenda that is so prevalent across the continent. It seems not far-fetched to say that volunteer libraries could, over the coming years, spread right across Europe and be seen as a standard way of delivering library services, complemented by large city ‘super-libraries’ such as that that opened in Birmingham in 2013.

If this is to be the future for public libraries across Europe, it is fair to say that the future looks bleak and there is likely to be only a small number of libraries fit for purpose across Europe as smaller libraries disappear and community libraries close due to their unsustainable nature. It would appear that one future is to have a well-funded, flagship library in each major city, but a steady decline in the number of small libraries serving local communities. In the UK alone we could see the number of public libraries shift from the thousands to the hundreds between now and the next century.

Whilst this is how things might develop, it is not necessarily how things should develop. Recent elections have shown just how important the internet has been in influencing the results. President Obama’s election campaign in 2008 showed how the internet could be harnessed to drive a successful presidential election. Not only is it the case that elections have become increasingly fought over the internet, but the battle between political parties has increasingly sought to channel the power of the internet as politicians increasingly see the internet as a vital weapon in the information wars. But this ‘war’ is not only being fought between politicians, there are other actors that influence the political information flow. Websites such as Full Fact, What Do They Know? and They Work For You have provided the tools to make it easier for those with an internet connection to hold their elected representatives to account, as well as to get to the truth about their activities. It is far easier to engage in the political process now than it has ever been. Provided you are connected to the internet.

We know that many people do not have an internet connection. We also know that, as with literacy standards, there is always likely to be a minority of the populace who cannot either access or make use of the information and tools that are at our disposal. We know that despite many years of effort to address literacy standards, there are still many who struggle with literacy (one in six according to the UK’s National Literacy Trust). For those that do struggle, the internet will present additional problems. Issues around literacy do not disappear once you sit in front of a computer. They persist, ensuring that a divide remains between those with good levels of literacy and those without.

So perhaps this points the way to an alternative role for libraries, how things should develop in the next one hundred years. Perhaps libraries should increasingly become gateways to our democracy, helping people to hold their elected officials to account, ensuring that the electorate are well informed and able to influence the political sphere. As well as supporting them through the provision of access to government portals as governments increasingly adopt a ‘digital by default’ strategy, maybe they can also help to ensure the people can watch over the state and ensure it can be held to account. It may require a different model across Europe, one that is more independent of state and therefore at enough of a distance to ensure it can hold governments to account.

Perhaps the volunteer model that is rapidly being adopted is a hint to a better alternative that is being ignored on the basis of political ideology. Rather than ‘community libraries’ run by people with a gun held to their head, maybe a closer, stronger partnership between the community and the professionally delivered service is the answer. Maybe the example of the University of Mondragon suggests an interesting, more desirable alternative.

Mondragon operates on a co-operative model that is highly de-centralised and engages all partners in the delivery of education. It also has a highly democratic governance structure:

Its supreme body is the general assembly, a 30-strong committee of representatives composed of one-third staff, one-third students and one-third outside interested parties, often other co-ops in Mondragon Corporation. It meets annually to decide on the priorities for the coming year and has significant powers: it can, for example, sack members of the senior management team.

Perhaps this is a model that libraries across Europe should be exploring. A professionally delivered service run in partnership with its users and other co-operative libraries. The potential for such a service is great, but the idea itself could be easily corrupted. Efforts to expand on mutuals in the UK have already raised alarm amongst interested parties such as Co-operatives UK and the Trades Union Congress. As such, this alternative future should perhaps be handled with care and one that advocates should be careful to ensure the idea is not corrupted and abused.

There is certainly the potential to build an alternative future for public (and, indeed, academic) libraries in the future. At present the future appears to be developing in a way that will result in the slow destruction of a public library network across Europe. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Libraries should develop as institutions that can help the people of Europe engage in democratic processes, they should be at the centre of a drive towards transparency across the continent. A well-funded and well-resourced library service should enhance democracies throughout Europe. The future might look bleak, but it should look transparent.

Is the neutrality of the internet under threat in Europe?

It certainly seems that way following the vote yesterday by the European Parliament’s Industry Committee. Jim Killock of The Open Rights Group (ORG) argued that:

‘By allowing ISPs to charge more for “specialised services”, the Regulation would enable telecoms and other companies to buy their way to a faster internet at the expense of individuals, start-ups and small businesses. This threatens the openness and freedom of the internet.’

Effectively, a two-tier internet would ensue, where the big players dominate and control the flow of information online. As Marietje Schaake of the Netherlands (a country which enshrined net neutrality in law in 2012) explains:

“Without legal guarantees for net neutrality internet service providers were able to throttle competitors. And existing online services can make deals to offer faster services at a higher price. This could push players without deep pockets, such as start-ups, hospitals or universities, out of the market.”

Of course, the increased corporatisation of the internet was always likely. The internet is (still) too wild and free a place for corporates and they see greater influence over the way information is delivered as necessary to protect their interests and drive profits.

As is to be expected, the legislation proposed is also rather loose with its wording (what legislation related to technology isn’t?) which raises concerns about the potential for increased internet censorship:

Also of concern are proposals that would allow “reasonable traffic management measures” to “prevent or impede serious crime”. On these, Killock added:

‘It is unclear what “reasonable traffic management measures” are but potentially they could allow ISPs to block or remove content without any judicial oversight. Decisions about what the public can and can’t see online should not be made by commercial organisations and without any legal basis.’

The full European Parliament will vote on this Regulation will take place on 3rd April. It’s still not too late to take action against the proposals. A good place to start is the Save the Internet campaign. And if you want to find out more about net neutrality and what it means, you could do worse than watch the short video below.

If you’ve done nothing wrong…

I caught an interesting blog by Jon Baines over at Information Rights and Wrongs yesterday on data protection and the extent of the “database state”.  Jon writes that a data protection officer he knows is being pushed to “encourage greater sharing of information between their public sector organisation and other public sector bodies.”  As he goes on to point out, this push is not only coming from management, it is coming from central government.

Last month, The Guardian revealed that the government is planning to make it easier for public agencies to share information.  According to the report:

Ministers are planning a shakeup of the law on the use of confidential personal data to make it far easier for government and public-sector organisations to share confidential information supplied by the public.

Proposals to be published next month by the Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, are expected to include fast-track procedures for ministers to license the sharing of data in areas where it is currently prohibited, subject to privacy safeguards.

Before the election, the Tories gave a clear commitment to “roll back the advance of Big Brother”.  Indeed, their manifesto stated:

The database state is a poor substitute for the human judgement essential to the delivery of public services. Worse than that, it gives people false comfort that an infallible central state is looking after their best interests. But the many scandals of lost data, leaked documents and database failures have put millions at risk. It is time for a new approach to protecting our liberty.

It is clear that they have now u-turned on this policy and are actually expanding the extent of the “database state”.  As the aforementioned Guardian article goes on to state:

Despite the coalition government’s pre-election promises to roll back the database state, the growth of internal Whitehall databases has quietly continued apace in the last two years. A newly created “drug data warehouse” has been set up containing anonymised details of more than 1 million individuals who use illicit drugs.

I find these developments deeply concerning in the current economic and political climate.  Such policies may seem harmless and benign in a stable environment, but these are not stable times.

In times of severe depression, there is always a very real risk that people will flock to extremes to seek answers.  If people do not feel that the government is on their side when they are losing their jobs or feeling the effects of the depression, they will look towards those who are on their side (or at least appear to be).  This simple principle has been demonstrated with the recent election in Greece and the rather disturbing results that emerged from a country in the grip of crisis.

Whilst all eyes were on France and the victory of Hollande, in Greece it emerged that a far-right, anti-immigration party had won a large enough percentage of the vote to gain a seat in the Greek parliament.  For 5-7% of voters, Golden Dawn appeared to be on their side.  For this section of Greek society, a far-right party did have the solutions to resolve the economic difficulties the country is experiencing.  Many Greeks felt that the government was not on their side, not listening to their concerns and subsequently they turned to extremists who (apparently) were.

We are, at present, a long way off this situation and certainly there is no immediate sense that a far-right party will gain a seat in parliament (although I often feel we are teetering on the brink).  However, whilst the implications of the economic crisis are not clear, it is difficult to maintain absolute confidence that fascist parties won’t gain a foothold.  Certainly, if people feel that the governments are not on their side through the crisis there is a danger they could be persuaded by extremist parties that are otherwise consigned to the margins.  But what is really concerning is the extent to which recent governments have put the mechanisms in place for a truly efficient fascist state.

For many years now, we have had security cameras on every street corner ostensibly to ‘protect’ us as citizens.  Indeed, there are presently around 2 million CCTV cameras on UK streets, more than any other country in Europe, despite the lack of clear evidence they have had asignificant impact on solving crime.  It is easier than ever before to monitor citizens and track their movements.  Whilst there are movements against the widespread use of CCTV, for many such technology has been broadly accepted (if not welcomed in some cases) as part of the mechanisms required to tackle crime.  The extent of public surveillance and the growth of the “database state” should concern us all in such unstable times.

Going back to the issue of data collection, Jon writes in his excellent blog post:

In a non-liberal state, however, similar information that has possibly been innocently, or naively, collated, can be misused in horrendous ways: so, in 1940s Holland, municipal registers were used by the Nazis to identify and persecute Jews, trade union membership listsused to persecute organised labour and public health and crime records used to persecute the disabled and criminals.

He concludes:

Data-sharing can have enormous and beneficial implications, but we need to exercise caution. We mustn’t amass personal data just because we can. We mustn’t use that data for purposes which were not envisaged when we gathered it. And we mustn’t retain that data just because we can’t be bothered to think what to do with it after its usefulness has passed.

Indeed, data-sharing does provide many benefits, but we must not abandon basic principles designed to protect the individual.  Furthermore, despite the fact that the above principles are enshrined in the statutory Principles in the Data Protection Act 1998 (as Jon states), this does not mean we shouldn’t have concerns about the extent of information held by the state on individuals and the extent to which the database state is expanding.  Many of the mechanisms that are currently in place would make for a highly efficient fascist state.

I have often heard those who defend CCTV and the expansion of the “database state” employ the “if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear” argument.  That’s all well and good but you are not the one that defines what is right or wrong.  They are.