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.

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.)

On Radical Library Camp and my session pitch

Poster commenting on the media coverage of the Occupy movement. (Image c/o freestylee on Flickr.)

You may have seen some reference to a Radical Library Camp on Twitter recently. Well, I hope you have otherwise we’ve not been doing a good job of making you aware of it! Seeing as I have pitched a session on the wiki, I thought it would be good to take an opportunity to explain a bit more about my pitch, as well as give a little background and personal perspective on the idea of a ‘Radical Library Camp’. First, I should probably explain how I see the word ‘radical’ in the context of this Camp.

I think, probably, the word ‘radical’ causes some problems for librarians and information professionals. Is what we do ‘radical’? If not, what exactly would make us so? Can a librarian ever truly be radical? And is the word ‘radical’ just a synonym for ‘far-left’? In some respects, I guess the term ‘radical’ is a synonym for the radical left, but I prefer to think of it in somewhat broader terms (albeit terms that some might term as ‘radical left’ regardless).

I was asked this question fairly recently, “what do you mean by ‘radical’?”, which prompted a lot of reflection on my part and a lot of searching to try to find the answer I felt comfortable with. Lucky for me, a quick scan through my Chomsky Library (everyone should have one!) provided an answer that satisfied me in a way that my own ruminations couldn’t quite manage. In Power Systems, a series of published conversations between Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian, they discuss what it is to be radical:

One of the things you say about yourself, which often stuns people, is that you’re an old-fashioned conservative. What do you mean by that?

For example, I think Magna Carta and the whole legal tradition that grew out of it made some sense. I think the expansion of the moral horizon over the centuries, particularly since the Enlightenment, is important. I think there’s nothing wrong with those ideals. A conservative, at least as it used to be understood, is somebody who cares about traditional values. Today those values are regularly being thrown out the window. We should condemn that.

Then why are you seen as a wide-eyed radical?

Because holding on to traditional values is a very radical position. It threatens and undermines power.

And I think that fits with what I view a ‘Radical Library Camp’ to be about (note: this is my personal perspective and does not necessarily reflect the views of my fellow collaborators). In other words, it is about focusing on our core, traditional values, values that have, in these neo-liberal times, become ‘radical’ by nature of our changing environment. So, for example, we as a profession traditionally champion the right of everyone, without discrimination, to access information. In these times of increasing commodification of information, adhering to a view that everyone should have access to information has become a somewhat radical position. The mainstream position now is that information has to be paid for. It has to sit behind paywalls on the internet or be subject to a fee before the equipment can be used to access it (see the move towards charging library users to access the internet – resulting in discriminating against those least able to pay).

(Image c/o Stian Eikeland on Flickr.)

It’s not just in terms of charging for access to information, but also the controls placed on the information itself. Whereas once the internet was a place where information was exchanged openly and freely, it is now increasingly becoming a place where the state has to place controls and restrictions, limiting this flow of information. We see that not only in traditionally repressive regimes such as China etc, but also in supposed free societies such as America and the United Kingdom in a multitude of ways (although the latter has a long-standing reputation for secrecy and restrictions on the right to know of its citizens). This is the conservative, dominant position we find ourselves in. What was once an extreme view (access to information unimpeded should be restricted and subject to the ability to pay) has now become mainstream and pervasive whereas the traditional view (information should be made accessible to all) has become ‘radical’ and subversive. So, it is in opposition to this mainstream view that I see the term ‘radical’ being used in this context. It is, in my view, a traditionalist position embracing our core values, at odds with the present neo-liberal orthodoxy.

Why did I get involved in a radical library camp? Well, I tend to believe that there is a bit of a gap in professional conferences and general professional discussion. There doesn’t seem to be much discussion in the way of certain informational issues, issues that touch on our ethical principles, and I know from speaking to many others that I am not alone in feeling this way. I personally believe that there is a need for something a little different, a space to discuss issues such as the marketisation of libraries, the commodification of information, censorship, transparency and a range of other issues that are closely associated with our profession.  The world is increasingly shifting towards a more restrictive, commercial and exclusive environment for the exchange of information. As a profession concerned with access to information, we should confront these issues and, where possible, come up with solutions to not just preserve, but expand the principles of open, accessible and free information exchange. Again, these are all my perspectives on radical library camp and do not necessarily reflect the views of my fellow organisers (I feel I must emphasise that!).

As for my pitch, well, I’ve written a brief summary of the area I would like to engage with other attendees on. It is basically a natural progression from the session I intended to do at theLondon Library Camp before events got in the way. The idea emerged from the very same book I referred to earlier when quoting Chomsky’s perspective on radicalism. I was intrigued by one particular passage in the book, picking up on a quote by Howard Zinn:

“There is a basic weakness in governments – however massive their armies, however wealthy their treasuries, however they control the information given to the public – because their power depends on the obedience of citizens, of soldiers, of civil servants, of journalists and writers and teachers and artists. When these people begin to suspect they have been deceived, and when they withdraw their support, the government loses its legitimacy, and its power.”

(Image c/o Travelin’ Librarian on Flickr.)

What I am particularly interested in here is where librarians and information professionals fit into this equation. The state controls much of the flow of information (and increasingly the corporate sector) which reinforces their power. As a result of their historic position of control, the internet is a serious threat to state power as it provides a space for ideas and information to be exchanged freely and without impediment. However, the state is increasingly seeking to place limits on this communications medium, proposing various censorship laws ostensibly designed to protect the individual but which also impede upon their freedoms. Furthermore, as well as trying to limit the exchange of information, the state is making increased efforts to monitor communications through bodies such as the NSA and GCHQ. The internet is victim to threats of both increased censorship of information, and the growing surveillance of the information we exchange.

It’s not just an issue in terms of accessing information via the internet. Freedom of information laws were long resisted in the UK, often seen as one of the most secretive governments in the western democratic world. Their introduction was described as a mistake by Blair shortly after the legislation was passed. Ever since the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, efforts have been made towater it down and restrict its power. Across all aspects of our life, the state (and corporate interests) are seeking to simultaneously limit access to information whilst also harvesting data from our exchanges of information.

Not only am I interested in the control of information and how it is used by those in positions of  power, I am also interested in the other element of Zinn’s quote: obedience. If the state and corporate interests control the flow of information, restricting it and preventing equal access, how do we square that with our professional ethics? Do we accept it? Or do we, in Zinn’s words “withdraw our support”? And if we are to “withdraw our support”, what would this look like? What is our role in opening up information, taking control away from state and corporate interests and making it open, accessible and public? Do we even have a role in challenging the control of information? Or is our role simply to ensure that government and corporate interests maintain control of the information given to the public?

What I am particularly interested in here is the discussion I hope will develop around this. I have no idea of the answers to these questions. I don’t even know if there are answers or whether the questions are even “the right ones”. And whilst this might sound like there’s a structure I wish to adhere to in the discussion, I have no such structure in mind. I am simply interested in taking Zinn’s quote and using that as a starting point for discussion because I believe that who controls information and how it is controlled is one of the great issues facing not only our profession, but society as a whole. Sounds a bit grand, but I hope it will be an interesting discussion.

Propaganda, ethics and the information profession

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

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

The Oxford dictionary defines propaganda as:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Opening the floodgates – Library Land and the perils of the free market

Lauren Smith recently wrote an excellent post on the “political elephant in the room” in libraryland.  She hits the nail bang on the head in terms of the need to be conscious of the language that is used and how this impacts upon both the profession and beyond.  For me, one of the biggest concerns in this regard is the influence and power of the rhetoric of the market, particularly the creeping impact of free market ideologies and where this will ultimately lead.

 

It is important to be clear that the free market is not a benign force that can be easily manipulated.  On the contrary, it is a dangerous force that threatens to destroy professions and create a culture of amateurism.   The profit motive is not one that drives up standards, instead it diminishes them substituting the ideals of quality for “cost-effectiveness” and supposed ‘efficiency’.  Some might argue that, handled with care, free market ideology can be ‘humanised’ and adapted to make it benign and acceptable.  I would argue, however, that this is at best naive and at worst highly dangerous, particularly in the field of information production and consumption.  There is a pressing need to be aware of the nature of market forces and be prepared to confront them, but adopting the mannerisms and ideologies of the free market is not the way to do so.

In his recent book, What Money Can’t Buy, Michael Sandel provides a number of examples of the consequences of permitting the market to gain a foothold in areas where it was previously anonymous. For example, Sandel points to the impact the market has had on baseball paraphernalia and memorabilia.  According to Sandel, the collection of baseball memorabilia and autographs went from being an innocent activity to satisfy an individual collector, to a ruthless marketplace where people literally fought for the right to own highly marketable and valuable property.

The turning point came in the 1980s when such memorabilia became viewed as “marketable goods”, bought and sold by a growing number of collectors. Seeing the growth of this market, baseball players jumped in and began offering their autographs for a fee (sometimes for as much as $20 per autograph).  By the end of the century, the market was such that fans literally fought over memorabilia.  In one case, a ball hit for a record breaking home run led to a mass brawl and months of legal wrangling in the courts.

It is unlikely that baseball players trading their autographs knew the consequences of their actions, but they certainly hastened the extent to which baseball memorabilia became a highly lucrative business.  It is interesting to note that whilst many baseball players did play the game of selling their autographs for money, a minority did not.  That minority found the notion of selling their autographs for money obscene and undermined the relationship between themselves and their fans.  However, it is clear that due to the actions of the majority, the market corrupted this relationship and those who did refuse to open up to the market were unable to stem the tide.  Those who did “play the market” very quickly found that the market ended up playing them.

However, such naivety when it comes to markets is not restricted to sports. Troublesome though that undoubtedly is, there are areas where a failure to grasp the danger of playing with market forces can have an even more serious impact on society.  This is particularly the case in the field of information.  Where the information sector has been opened up to the market, there have been disastrous consequences and where it has not yet had an impact the prospects are bleak.

Education, for example, has increasingly been forced to open up to the marketplace.  Again, Sandel relates the potential impact that commercial interests can have on the education sector.  In relation to its impact in America, Sandel points out that whilst there has been a degree of commercialism in schools for some time (he points to the use of Ivory Soap in soap-carving competitions in the 1920s and ads in high school yearbooks), this influence has steadily risen since the 1990s.  A particularly good example of this is the rise of Channel One.

Channel One was launched in 1989 by Chris Whittle.  Whittle offered schools free television sets and video equipment in return for an agreement that the school will show the program every day and require all students to watch it.  As well as broadcasting a twelve minute news program, Channel One was also packaged with two minutes of commercials.  Due to its reach, it was able to charge corporations such as Pepsi, Taco Bell and the Army up to $200,000 per slot.  According to Sandel, Channel One effectively paved the way for corporations to have a significant presence in US schools, including corporate sponsorships and product placement.

This market ultimately extended to the distribution of “sponsored educational materials” to schools and a host of promotional materials sent to teachers.  As a result, students could learn about nutrition from materials supplied by McDonalds.  This is troublesome in many respects.  Schools should be a space free from bias and a place to encourage critical thinking, this is seriously compromised when the commercial sector has such an influence.  Indeed Sandel points to the example of Proctor and Gamble offering an environmental curriculum explaining that “disposable diapers were good for the earth” (Sandel, pp. 197-198).

Whilst these examples are restricted to the United States, they should cause alarm in terms of the existing plans for the education system in the UK.  The training of professional teachers is already seen as an expensive luxury.  Michael Gove has previously made it clear that a teaching qualification is not necessary to teach in academies.  As far as he and the government are concerned, teaching is not a skill to be acquired.  Whilst some might argue that education in our schools at present is severely lacking in applying critical thought in teaching, the introduction of unqualified teachers will surely exacerbate the extent of the problem.  Without a background in training and an ability to impart critical thinking, the role of the teacher merely becomes one of imparting unfiltered information and providing “crowd control”.  De-professionalisation is the ultimate aim, primarily because professionals are expensive and amateurs are, almost by definition, cheap.  The government are keen to encourage those from business and the private sector to get involved and teach, the removal of the need for a teaching qualification makes this significantly easier.  How long before corporations have members of staff on the payroll teaching in our schools and distributing materials that amount to nothing more than free publicity for our corporate elites?

Of course, the ultimate goal is to significantly reduce the traditional role of the teacher (some might argue to remove the teacher altogether).  The first step in this process is the de-professionalisation enacted by Gove.  The next stage is to automate the teaching process.  Think this is a far-fetched notion that is a long way off into the future?  Think again.  The latest Private Eye reveals that one corporation is already taking steps to make this a reality.

Rupert Murdoch recently announced that he was planning to “take on the education establishment and empower pupils” (words like “empower” are always utilised when the opposite is true).  The aim is to replace teachers with tablet computers in each of the schools with which Amplify (formerly known as Wireless Generation) has a contract.  Indeed, Amplify has announced it is developing its own “tablet-based platform” to “bundle curricular and extracurricular content” and “facilitate personalised instruction and enable anywhere, anytime learning”.  The tablets themselves would be paid for by reducing teacher budgets.  This is all happening in the United States but, of course, with deprofessionalisation a key government education strategy, it is not far-fetched to imagine that the technology would be adopted here at some point in the relatively near future.  With budgets effectively squeezed, pre-loaded digital content provides an attractive and cost-effective alternative. After all, you won’t need a teaching qualification if you are merely presenting pupils with pre-loaded content on a digital device.  As Private Eye comments, this is a “real world nightmare, where digital learning is used to turn schools into closed, captured markets for Murdoch.”

As for advertising in schools, now schools have been granted control over their own budgets, how long before headteachers desperate for money start selling advertising space within their schools?  Indeed, the US experience is instructive and deeply troubling.  Where schools have struggled financially, the market has offered a ‘neat’ solution.  But is this welcome?  And, more importantly, where is the debate?  Rarely is there any real debate or discussion about the impact that such commercialisation will have on our education system.  And yet the consequences of such developments are severe.  Are we really content to allow the commercial sector a significant presence in our school system?  Surely we want our children to experience an education system that encourages critical thinking and debate rather than brainwashing them with commercial messages provided by our school’s sponsors?

The impact of the market has already had a significant impact on the ways in which information is distributed.  One only need cast a glance at the impact the market has had on journalism to see that our access to quality information has been severely compromised.  As commercial pressures have grown, so have the media sought to reduce costs and protect their bottom line.  This has led to a move away from expensive investigative journalism (with the odd honorable exception) and towards a culture of churnalism.  To be a truly informed citizen in the so-called information age, one has to be more than just a consumer, one needs to actively seek out accurate and reliable information.  It is easy, however, to be complacent – to accept the information we are given without question, particularly when it is presented as authoritative and reliable.  Finding accurate, reliable information is time consuming, and that is before we even contemplate the dearth of critical analysis skills.

In short, the extent of the market has had a significant impact upon us in terms of the quality of information that is available to us as adults, and there is a serious threat to the quality available to our children.  Our sources of information are increasingly commercialised and subject to the whims of the market.  As Chomsky wrote in What Uncle Sam Really Wants:

“The media are only one part of a larger doctrinal system; other parts are journals of opinion, the schools and universities, academic scholarship and so on.” (Chomsky, How The World Works, pg 69)

In order to challenge these doctrinal systems and the systems of power, Chomsky reinforces the power of the library to connect people with original sources and thus circumnavigate the doctrinal systems that are in place.  Libraries, as repositories of information and providers without bias, enable the populace (with a bit of work admittedly) to access the materials that the larger doctrinal systems and power structures ignore.  They offer, effectively, the last bulwark against the influence of commercial interests in the dissemination of information and, therefore, the only institution standing that can ensure effective, participatory democracy (that is, true participation of the populace in our democratic institutions rather than the effective fig leaf that presently exists).  However, they only have the potential to do so. As Steven Harris noted back in 1999:

“Librarians should start recognizing that there are inequities in both the production and consumption of information, and that libraries themselves can reinforce those inequalities.”

There are inequalities (created by the doctrinal systems of education and the media) and both libraries and librarians can either reinforce them or challenge them.  It is fair to say, I think, that at present they are failing to challenge them.

The institution of the library and the role of the librarian are now under unprecedented ideological assault.  As the profession has failed to communicate its value, so it has seen its value greatly diminished.  As Lauren points out in her post:

“Agendas have been set and we haven’t acknowledged how political in nature they are. Librarians and information professionals don’t control the discourse around library and information issues. We haven’t made it clear what values we’re espousing, because a lot of the time we aren’t savvy enough to know. We’ve courted private companies and governments whose values directly undermine the values of librarianship, like free expression of thought, privacy, and equity of access.”

This is exactly the problem.  The power elites and the market (private companies) have no interest in the provision of access to information equitably and without bias.  Indeed, they are interested in the opposite, to preserve the status quo and ensure that the existing doctrinal systems are both broadened and consolidated.  It serves the interests of the market to ensure that these doctrinal systems are not undermined.  To ensure this, institutions that presently exist outside the realms of the market need to be brought inside.  Which is why we are witnessing the de-skilling of the library network, both through privatisation and amateurisation (ie volunteer run libraries).  The market cannot function effectively whilst there are elements existing outside it.  Control of all aspects of information dissemination (through education, the media and the public library network) ensures a world in which information is truly controlled by the market and there is no telling where this might lead. Whilst it is true that librarians have been slow to address the inequalities of the production and consumption of information, will the success of the assault on the profession make it more or less likely that these inequalities will be addressed?  The answer is, I think, self-explanatory.

 

The only way to limit the perils of the free market and its entrenchment of the doctrinal system is to ensure that it is confronted head-on.  This means debating openly and honestly about the institutions that we value and confronting the impact that the market will have. As Sandel concludes in his book:

“Such deliberations touch, unavoidably, on competing conceptions of the good life. This is terrain on which we sometimes fear to tread. For fear of disagreement, we hesitate to bring our moral and spiritual convictions into the public square.  But shrinking from these questions does not leave them undecided.  It simply means that markets will decide them for us. This is the lesson of the last three decades.  The era of market triumphalism has coincided with a time when public discourse has been largely empty of moral and spiritual substance.  Our only hope of keeping markets in their place is to deliberate openly and publicly about the meaning of the goods and social practices we prize.” (Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy, pgs 207-208)

But it is not enough to simply deliberate about the meaning of the social practices we prize, we also need to confront and challenge those that seek to control and widen the doctrinal system and consolidate the systems of power.  Again, as Chomsky notes:

“One of the things they want is a passive, quiescent population.  So one of the things that you can do to make life uncomfortable for them is not be passive and quiescent.  There are lots of ways of doing that. Even just asking questions can have an important effect…any system of power, even a fascist dictatorship, is responsive to public dissidence.” (Chomsky, How The World Works, pgs 71-72)

We need to question, we need to stop being passive and quiescent.  We need, ultimately, to confront the elephant in the room.