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.

Extremism, nudge theory and access to information

Image c/o Albert on Flickr.

What constitutes extremism? Is it espousing views that threaten the lives of fellow citizens? Is it the performance of individual acts of violence? Is it merely holding views that are outside the mainstream? One person’s extremist is, after all, a moderate to others. Extremism is, to some degree, a subjective position. This hasn’t stopped, naturally, the Tory party seeking to define the boundaries of acceptable extremism. Which is, of course, hugely problematic on any number of levels.

Such an approach to extremism could be seen as part of an attempt to ‘nudge’ people to an acceptable (as defined by one party political mindset, with all the dangers that entails) range for public discourse. By defining what is an ‘acceptable extremist’, one is virtually determining the acceptable range of political thought. It is this acceptable range that the Tory party seem to be keen to ‘nudge’ people towards. (‘Nudge’ theory is, of course, a very illiberal perspective, setting out an ‘acceptable norm’ and then developing strategies to push people towards that acceptable norm.)

The theorists behind nudge theory (for more on this, see the end of the post) are certainly untroubled by its use to close down discussion and to water down entirely legitimate, non-mainstream opinion. In a piece on The Atlantic,  Evan Selinger explored the possibility of ‘nudging’ people towards civil engagement online using specialist software. Richard Thaler, one of the architects of ‘nudge’ theory, embraced the concept, tweeting: “A Nudge dream come true”. A dream come true for nudge advocates  perhaps, a nightmare for anyone who opposes any effort to narrow debate to a government approved ‘norm’. With such moves by the government to expand on its definition of terrorism, can we expect such ‘nudges’ in increasing areas of public debate and discussion?

This rush to define extremes has implications in terms of access to information. Information is, after all, a key factor in radicalising individuals. Expect, with such a policy as outlined by Theresa May, that this will come coupled with the shutting down of ‘extremist’ websites, as well as restrictions on public speech. As the terms of what is regarded ‘unacceptable extremism’ are extended, does this mean that literature on the fringes of mainstream thought may be susceptible to pressure to remove by the general public? Will books once considered ‘extremist’ yet ‘harmless’ suddenly be found to be unacceptable and unsuitable for public consumption? What would be the consequences of this shift in public perception of what is ‘extremist’?

Libraries are, of course, hugely important repositories of information. They contain written materials that are purchased free from political prejudice (to an extent, one might argue that the collections reflect a Western liberal, neo-classical economic model, rather than an entirely balanced political outlook – bit we’ve gone over this ground before). The bulwark against any kind of censorship of such materials are professional librarians. Any attempts to influence or control the purchase of collections would, one would hope, be met with stiff resistance by the profession (both individually and through the professional body). Whether such professional opposition would be successful is a different matter. It would not, however, go without being vehemently challenged. What would happen if professional librarians were stripped away and an alternative model for delivering library services was pursued. We may not have to wait long to discover the answer…

We already know that libraries are being hollowed out. Professional stuff are culled and replaced with volunteers (often forced to take on the role of amateur librarian because their council has threatened them to do it or lose the service – blackmail that is laughably painted as local people taking control of their services), libraries are increasingly falling into private hands, or the hands of local groups. What would be the consequence of government encouraging an environment where certain ideas are considered outside of the norm? Would this create a climate in local communities where certain ideas (and therefore resources) are unacceptable? Where a Trust is in place (an alternative that is becoming increasingly popular), would the Trust be able to resist pressure from the local community and stick to the principles of free and open access to information for all?  There is a particular additional problem for charitable trusts – that of being in any way openly political.

In recent years, charities have come under increasing pressure from central government regarding their political activities. Charities have been attacked by such senior political figures as Iain Duncan Smith, Eric Pickles and Chris Grayling. This has been followed by new legislation restricting campaign spending by charities during election periods. A charitable trust would, it appears, be vulnerable to any attempt by government to clamp down on ‘extremist’ (ie non-mainstream political) works that they hold within their collections.

Librarians should be able to resist such pressures (to an extent). So long as the pressure comes from local communities rather than the government (we’re unlikely to see the government calling for outright bans of books, at least it seems unlikely at present), librarians will be in a position to resist. However, information access in libraries isn’t just about books. A shift in what defines extremism (and therefore what is mainstream and ‘acceptable’) would have an impact in terms of internet use and filters employed online. This is where it becomes more difficult for librarians to have any say in ensuring equitable access to information.

This is a problem that will extend beyond public libraries, of course. Academic libraries also have to contend with the issue of internet filtering, often down to arbitrary decisions made with no recourse to the library itself. When what is considered ‘dangerous extremism’ is expanded, there is potential for universities to expand filtering of the internet to prevent dissemination of materials which the state has argued now falls under the definition of extremist. This raises huge questions in terms of access to information for academic study, as well as academic freedom and freedom of expression (something that universities should be at the forefront of, for the good of not just academia, but society in general).

As the government ‘nudges’ individuals towards a predetermined ‘norm’, so we face greater threats in terms of access to information and free expression. As public libraries face de-professionalisation, they become vulnerable to environmental shifts that are hostile to the core ethics of the professional librarian (ie the free and open exchange of information, without prejudice). This nudging towards a norm limits free expression, debate and access to information. The impact of nudging people towards this government approved norm extends beyond public libraries and towards higher education. Cynical efforts to create ‘acceptable’ terms of opinion and public discourse ultimately limits individual freedoms and threatens to restrict our exposure to non-mainstream ideas (with all the dangers that entails). The consequences of government ‘nudging’ us towards what it defines as civil engagement (with apparent due deference to our democratic system) will lead to greater censorship and a restriction on free expression. Not only does this threaten our individual liberties, but it is also a threat to the values that librarians seek to defend and consequently threatens the existence of any meaningful library service.


 

What is nudge theory? Nudge theory proposes that people can be subtly persuaded to change their behaviour by influencing the choices individuals make. The school cafeteria is an oft used example positing that if healthier food is placed at eye-level, individuals may be more likely to choose that over junk food, even though the junk food is readily available.

Who originated the theory? Nudge theory first came to prominence in the book Nudge, written by the behavioural economist Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar who acted as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under Barack Obama.

Who have they influenced? Both David Cameron and George Osborne are big advocates of nudge theory. Whilst both are believers in the power of ‘nudge’, even they found some ideas proposed by behavioural economists a step too far, particularly in terms of healthcare (a proposal to move away from free healthcare by ‘nudging’ individuals caused even Cameron to re-asses his opinion).

It sounds a little problematic. What do critics say? Critics of ‘nudge’ theory argue that it is somewhat cynical, particularly as nudges can “infantilise individuals by taking away their moral maturity”. A psychologist named Gerd Gigerenzer, director of the Centre for Cognition and Adaptive Behaviour at the Max Planck institute in Berlin, has been one of the key (and persistent) critics of ‘nudge’. Gigerenzer argues that rather than manipulating people, they should be taught and given the tools to inform their decisions. Gigerenzer argues that ‘nudge’ theory frames people as “basically hopeless when it comes to understanding risk”. Gigerenzer takes a more optimistic view that provided with the information and the tools to understand it, people will make the ‘right’ choices. I tend to side with Gigerenzer rather than Thaler and Sunstein.

Why are behavioural economists viewed as having a better insight into human behaviour than psychologists? Good question.


 

Woolwich, surveillance, politics and extremism

I wasn’t going to write a post on this initially. Even at this early stage, there will be a million other blog posts on the topic (a million better written blog posts on the topic). But there are some things I felt I could not ignore or not pass comment on. Sometimes the urge to share a perspective on events is too strong not to ignore, or to bury away for fear of being seen to make political points on the back of what is a very tragic and distressing event. Given that, this may come across as a somewhat confused and stumbling post.

Whilst still coming to terms with an event that has shocked everyone, there are already the familiar rumblings about How This Must Not Happen Again. As is to be expected, the talk of legislation has once more reared its head, in particular the Draft Communications Data Bill has been put forward as a necessary step to ensure such events are prevented. Unsurprisingly, this has been proposed by the usual authoritarian figures, principally John Reid, a man who was and remains a keen believer in invasive state power (and is, incidentally, a spokesman for the security industry in the House of Lords – being a director of security firm G4S).

But, as we know, the Draft Communications Data Bill would have made no discernible difference in this case. Both suspects were, apparently, known to the security services before this terrible event took place. They already had their suspicions about these individuals without the power of the Draft Communications Data Bill, so it is unclear how much difference the powers behind the proposed bill would make in this particular case. Even Eric Pickles, not one I am keen to cast in a positive light in normal circumstances, argued that it would have made no difference whatsoever in this case.

Whenever such an event as this takes place, security measures are proposed that, so the politicians claim, will make the streets safer and prevent such tragedies from happening again. But will they really? Will any legislation prevent two individuals armed with knives from going out onto the streets and butchering someone in broad daylight? No, the problem of violent extremism, no matter how it manifests itself, needs to be tackled at a far deeper level than just through simple, flawed legislation.

Whilst it is impossible to know their true motivations, or the sequence of events that led to their decision to launch such a vicious attack, one does wonder how violent extremism in general can be tackled effectively. I should emphasise here that I am not talking about the incident in Woolwich, but rather the broader issue of extremism and marginalisation. Could it be, perhaps, that our political culture is so limited as to push individuals ever closer to the fringes of both the political spectrum and of society in general? Where factors such as poverty probably have a far greater impact, perhaps the way political discourse is framed in this country is also a contributory factor?

Over the past fifty or sixty years (perhaps more than that), our political system has increasingly crowded around the so-called ‘centre-ground’. Despite what many of the ‘loyalists’ on either side might argue, there is very little difference between the main political parties. They have been broadly united on a number of key issues in the recent past, from the invasion of Afghanistan to the need for ‘austerity’. There is very little room for discussion on the margins of these issues (how often do you hear a mainstream politician argue against ‘austerity’, for example, considering the number of esteemed economists who argue it is a damaging economic policy?). For those who take a reasonable position in opposition to these policies (reject ‘austerity’ or oppose foreign wars, both entirely reasonable positions), where is there to go? Given the majority of the media and the political discourse doesn’t really enable reasonable arguments in opposition to the governing orthodoxy (or at least very rarely), it is perhaps no surprise the people shift to the fringes to look for answers. And when you shift to the fringes, where you feel that no-one is listening or representing you, desperation sets in – the desperation to be heard.

In my entire voting life, I have never voted for the Labour Party. The first time I was able to vote was in 1997 and I chose not to vote Labour, predominantly because I felt Blair was, in essence, a Tory wrapped in a red cloak (a very flimsy red cloak at that). However, whilst I am not pre-disposed to voting for Labour, this doesn’t mean to say I would never have considered voting Labour had I lived in an earlier era. Take the Attlee government of the immediate post-war period. If the Labour Party adopted the kind of platform Attlee’s government occupied, I would be more inclined to vote for them as it is a great deal closer to my position than the current Labour Party (although perhaps still not as close as I would like). But this is no longer the party of Attlee and Bevin, and it is highly unlikely ever to be so again. They have, in essence, conceded the battle fought in the 1980s and have accepted neo-liberal economic positions that are at odds with the views and positions espoused by those at the heart of the Attlee government (even though that government was itself not as radical as many would have liked).

So what is left for me? I cannot conceivably vote for any of the major parties, and I am left with the fringes (or the Greens) and I fear that many others across our society equally feel that their views have been marginalised and that there is no-one expressing their own particular point of view. People feel that there is no-one speaking for them and consequently that they have little option but to look to the fringes for the answers they crave. Whether that be radical preachers in mosques, or racist thugs. This isolation from the mainstream and marginalisation is not an excuse for violence, one does not have to resort to violence to express a perspective that public discourse has pushed to the fringes. But one wonders whether the marginalisation itself would be minimised if public discourse wasn’t constrained within such tight boundaries. If, for example, it was seen as reasonable to argue that ‘austerity’ is built on a false premise or that the wars in the Middle East are immoral, perhaps those that hold those reasonable views would not feel so marginalised and consequently pushed to the extremes.

Throughout history, a clustering around the centre-ground has resulted in people being pushed to the extremes in ever-increasing numbers. Where the answers provided by the centre seem inadequate, people begin to look elsewhere for answers. Perhaps we should pause for a minute and ponder whether it is healthy for our society to have otherwise reasonable and sensible positions (moral and political) pushed to the margins. Perhaps, and this seems incredibly naive I accept, perhaps our political debate should be more mature, accepting that there are reasonable views outside the orthodoxy. Of course, broadening public discourse would in no way be a panacea in terms of dealing with extremism or marginalisation but perhaps providing that room for alternative voices in the public debate would be a step towards dealing with the problem

As I said at the beginning, these are at present rather confused and incomplete thoughts. There is no doubt that the murder in Woolwich was a deeply shocking and tragic event. I am not convinced, however, that any amount of legislation or ‘snooping’ will prevent such despicable acts from happening again in the future. The only thing I am sure of is that we need to look at our society, our political culture and our public discourse and see if we can find some answers. We certainly should not look to John Reid and his authoritarian acolytes.