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.

Jigsaw – the missing piece in policing the internet?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Impostor syndrome” – a product of indoctrination?


Edited image c/o Tom Woodward on Flickr (CC-BY-SA)

Ever since #radlib15, I’ve been considering“impostor syndrome” and some of the issues that emerge as a result of its existence (read Andrew Preater’s more thoughtful take if you want to skip to the end of this). First, I want to begin by challenging and reframing the term, because it raises issues around the notion of it being a “syndrome” that, by extension, can be treated. I think the reality is that rather than a “syndrome” it could equally be considered as a form of indoctrination and perhaps should be more appropriately termed “impostor indoctrination”. Indoctrination, because I would argue this is a feeling that is imposed upon us we are supposed to have, rather than something that emerges due to an irrational thought process. It is a constructed state of mind, rather than the naturalised one that the term “syndrome” implies.

During #radlib15 I identified my own personal experience of this feeling. I come from a working class background, was educated in Kent (a county which still has selection at 11), I didn’t go to the grammar school and instead went to the state comprehensive – because, effectively, I “wasn’t good enough” to go to the local grammar school (it was argued in a tribunal that I would probably “struggle” at the grammar school, whereas I would perform well at the state comprehensive). This was followed by average grades at school, followed by below average university (for my chosen field) and several years of working in retail. I then had the fortune to meet my partner, who is a trained medical professional. Through her financial support, I was able to partake in postgraduate study, get my LIS qualification and, now, practice as a professionally qualified librarian.

The manifestations of “impostor syndrome”

My feeling that has emerged from this experience is one of “I do not belong here”. I come from what I consider to be a working class background, and yet I find myself in a professional that appears to be dominated by the middle class. No matter how my career develops from now on, I will always have that sense that I don’t belong here, because I was led to believe from the age of 11 that this is not for me. I’ll come back to this point later.

What was particularly interesting for me in this session is the perspective of someone who self-identified as middle class in the same session. Their sense was not that they didn’t belong, more that they didn’t measure up to some idealised version of a library professional. Their “indoctrination”, if you like, emerged from some marketised ideal of what a professional should do and behave like. The impostor indoctrination had imposed an ideal. You should be here, and now you are, here is the standard you should attain. I should add at this point that this feeling is not restricted to librarianship, it affects all manifestations of labour.

I think this feeling and how it manifests itself varies according to class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality etc. How I as a white male of working class origin interprets this feeling is perhaps different from a white middle class woman and, likewise, a black working class man. There is no single definition of what this feeling is or how it manifests itself. This is also why I feel unifying such different and varying experiences and feelings as a “syndrome” is not quite an accurate representation of the sense that one is an “impostor”.

The Ideological State Apparatus

I would argue that the feeling is part of an indoctrination process, an effort to control and ensure discipline amongst a broad base. Indeed, I think that Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) theory could be used as a framework for understanding how this emerges. Althusser argued in 1970 that the ISA operated as a way to disseminate ideology amongst the general populace. ISAs exist in all aspects of society, but Althusser argues that the education ISA is the predominant one. Althusser argues:

“It takes children from every class at infant-school age, and then for years, the years in which the child is most ‘vulnerable’, squeezed between the Family State Apparatus and the Educational State Apparatus, it drums into them, whether it uses new or old methods, a certain amount of ‘know-how’ wrapped in the ruling ideology (French, arithmetic, natural history, the sciences, literature) or simply the ruling ideology in its pure state (ethics, civic instruction, philosophy). Somewhere around the age of sixteen, a huge mass of children are ejected ‘into production’: these are the workers or small peasants. Another portion of scholastically adapted youth carries on: and, for better or worse, it goes somewhat further, until it falls by the wayside and fills the posts of small and middle technicians, white-collar workers, small and middle executives, petty bourgeois of all kinds. A last portion reaches the summit, either to fall into intellectual semi-employment, or to provide, as well as the ‘intellectuals of the collective labourer’, the agents of exploitation (capitalists, managers), the agents of repression (soldiers, policemen, politicians, administrators, etc.) and the professional ideologists (priests of all sorts, most of whom are convinced ‘laymen’).”

Which begs the question, if you are expected to have been one of those “ejected” at 16, ie sent down a particular path which made an alternative outcome less likely (eg to become of the petit bourgeois or a “professional ideologist”), would that not instil a sense of being an “impostor” once you emerge as a member of the petit bourgeois or “professional ideologists”? After all, you were identified as not being suitable material for such a position, so to arrive there regardless of the barriers placed in your way must surely create a sense of unease that you had somehow cheated the system and are at risk of being found out?

Althusser goes on to argue:

Each mass ejected en route is practically provided with the ideology which suits the role it has to fulfil in class society: the role of the exploited (with a ‘highly-developed’ ‘professional’, ‘ethical’, ‘civic’, ‘national’ and a-political consciousness); the role of the agent of exploitation (ability to give the workers orders and speak to them: ‘human relations’), of the agent of repression (ability to give orders and enforce obedience ‘without discussion’, or ability to manipulate the demagogy of a political leader’s rhetoric), or of the professional ideologist (ability to treat consciousnesses with the respect, i.e. with the contempt, blackmail, and demagogy they deserve, adapted to the accents of Morality, of Virtue, of ‘Transcendence’, of the Nation, of France’s World Role, etc.).

The education ISA is fundamental in schooling individuals in the dominant ideology but also in providing them with the ideology that suits the role they have to fulfil in society. If we then find ourselves in a position that we were not destined to fulfil, ie we were put on a path that pre-supposes you were more likely to be ejected “into production”, that would surely create a tension – a tension that ultimately emerges as a rejection of the indoctrination process thus it becomes a feeling of being out of place that emerges from a condition of indoctrination?

Likewise, there are those for whom  arrival at “the summit” is planned and expected. For this group, certain ideological expectations are placed upon them. They are expected and destined to exist at the summit, to act as “agents of exploitation”, “repression” and “professional ideologists”. Those that reject or do not exhibit the expected behavioural norms of the position, or who do not feel that they measure up to these expectations, are then also subjected to a sense that they are in the wrong place, because they do not feel they can measure up to that standard. Rather than feeling “I do not belong”, there is a sense that they are not fulfilling the expectations of those at “the summit”.

Ultimately, this tension is a desired effect of the educational ISA and ISAs in general. Indeed, this state of tension, of anxiety, the feeling of being an “impostor” is desired because it is a disciplinary technique. So long as people worry about whether they are in the right place or whether they are worrying about the standard/expectations that the educational ISA has inculcated within them, they will not challenge or upset the status quo. A precarious, anxious class is easier to control than one that is confident and assured. They will not challenge the status quo because their concerns are focused on development, on eradicating that feeling of being an “impostor”.

Precarity and anxiety

This feeling, as previously stated, affects us all. A feeling of insecurity is necessary, if not vital, to ensure discipline and maintain the status quo. As Richard Seymour puts it:

“For precarity is something that isn’t reserved for a small, specialised group of people – “the precariat” or whoever. It spreads. It affects us all. The whip of insecurity disciplines even those who were recently comfortable.”

The impostor indoctrination affects all of us, it ensures a widespread sense of insecurity in a variety of manifestation, all of which ensure discipline and help to maintain the status quo. Late capitalism has made us all “the precariat”, not just in the sense of creating a sense that our jobs our vulnerable, but also in creating a permanent sense of doubt about our capabilities, about our skills and knowledge. This unease, emerging from the indoctrination process through the educational ISA that either sets up an unobtainable ideal or that creates anxiety in those that have somehow cheated the system, ensures order and equilibrium in the system are maintained.

This creation of anxiety to maintain order has been a strategy throughout the history of capitalism. As Esme Choonara notes in “Is there a precariat?”:

“Over a hundred years ago Karl Marx explained how bosses use the threat of a ‘reserve army’ of unemployed workers to attempt to discipline those in work.”

To maintain order and compliance, one merely needs to create anxiety. Anxious labour is compliant labour. Compliant labour is, in the eyes of the elite, productive labour. Labour that is confident and engaged is ultimately a threat to the established order, because confident labour will seek to influence and challenge the established order. Better to create anxiety and unease than to risk disrupting the status quo which benefits the elite. Throughout history we find examples of regimes that use anxiety and fear to assert their authority and to ensure labour produces that which the leaders require.

This feeling, impostor indoctrination/syndrome however you wish to define it, is not only widespread, it’s also part of a deliberate tactic to ensure that the dominant ideology is not only maintained, but reinforced. Inward looking anxieties ensure control and discipline. If we are concerned about the precarity of our jobs, or focused on concerns around with whether we should be in a certain place, or whether we are measuring up to a standard that has been defined for us, we are distracted from the structures we exist within. For if we do not believe we are where we should be, or that we measure up to some standard, how can we hope to challenge and change the system? We cannot, and that is exactly what the system is designed to do.


GCHQ and American attitudes to surveillance…

(Image c/o Christian Payne on Flickr.)

From Wired:

GCHQ’s hacking operations are conducted with little to no oversight and risk “undermining the security of the internet”, leading online privacy experts have warned. Even when oversight is required, GCHQ has revealed that ministers don’t have the technical knowledge to understand what it is doing. Privacy campaigners today described the issue as “a major scandal”.

Details of GCHQ’s hacking operations and attempts to weaken encryption were revealed in a parliamentary committee report into the UK’s surveillance capabilities. The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) review, published last week, revealed GCHQ makes the majority of decisions about hacking, and its operations to weaken encryption, internally and without telling ministers exactly what it is doing.

In a passage quoted by the Open Rights Group, the ISC review found that:

No additional Ministerial Authorisation is required for these activities. There are internal procedures: ***. There is no legal requirement to inform Ministers: however, GCHQ have said that they would ask the Foreign Secretary to approve a specific operation of this kind “where the political or economic risks were sufficiently high” (although, in practice, they manage their operations to avoid this level of risk). GCHQ told the Committee that:

The FCO is aware of the activity and the possible political risk, but individual legal authorisations are not required for each operation. The FCO could assess the political risk of a compromise, it is not well‐placed to assess the complex technical risk. Whilst not formally overseen by a Commissioner, the Intelligence Services Commissioner has been briefed on this type of activity where it relates to individual approved operations.

A very disturbing admission about the state of digital surveillance in the UK. And the timing of the statement from ORG could not be more apposite. Whilst we are only just starting to come to terms with the consequences of this, a study in the US has been published that explores the fall-out from the Snowden revelations in terms of how it has affected behaviours as well as how it has impacted upon the relationship between the state and the individual.

The Pew Research Center’s report, Americans’ Privacy Strategies Post-Snowden, provides a comprehensive and fascination exploration of how these revelations have affected US citizens. There is a lot to plough through, but a few things stand out on an initial reading (and, by the way, wouldn’t it be nice if someone in the UK produced the kind of reports that Pew produce on a regular basis, particularly with respect to the Snowden revelations). Top line stuff:

Overall, nearly nine-in-ten respondents say they have heard at least a bit about the government surveillance programs to monitor phone use and internet use. Some 31% say they have heard a lot about the government surveillance programs and another 56% say they had heard a little. Just 6% suggested that they have heard “nothing at all” about the programs. The 87% of those who had heard at least something about the programs were asked follow-up questions about their own behaviors and privacy strategies:

34% of those who are aware of the surveillance programs (30% of all adults) have taken at least one step to hide or shield their information from the government. For instance, 17% changed their privacy settings on social media; 15% use social media less often; 15% have avoided certain apps and 13% have uninstalled apps; 14% say they speak more in person instead of communicating online or on the phone; and 13% have avoided using certain terms in online communications. 

1 in 3 people changing their behaviours is quite significant, and would explain why there are increasing moves to shut down the methods by which people protect themselves. One might also ask how Cameron would deal with 14% of people speaking in person rather than communicating online (given he thinks no form of communication should be free from surveillance).


…the public generally believes it is acceptable for the government to monitor many others, including foreign citizens, foreign leaders, and American leaders:

82% say it is acceptable to monitor communications of suspected terrorists

60% believe it is acceptable to monitor the communications of American leaders.

60% think it is okay to monitor the communications of foreign leaders

54% say it is acceptable to monitor communications from foreign citizens

Yet, 57% say it is unacceptable for the government to monitor the communications of U.S. citizens.

In this survey, 17% of Americans said they are “very concerned” about government surveillance of Americans’ data and electronic communication; 35% say they are “somewhat concerned”; 33% say they are “not very concerned” and 13% say they are “not at all” concerned about the surveillance. Those who are more likely than others to say they are very concerned include those who say they have heard a lot about the surveillance efforts (34% express strong concern) and men (21% are very concerned).


Some quotes from those who argue that they are unconcerned about surveillance:

“Law-abiding citizens have nothing to hide and should not be concerned.”

“I am not doing anything wrong so they can monitor me all they want.”

“Small price to pay for maintaining our safe environment from terrorist activities.”

All of which, to my mind, underline a certain failure to grasp the nature of the state and its relationship with individuals. Of course, it is not individuals who determine whether what they are doing is wrong. The lie of “if you have done nothing wrong you have nothing to fear” seems to be one of the hardest to shift, despite its fairly obvious naivety about the state. It also underlines that state propaganda is very effective on large chunks of the populace (I’m not restricting that to the US by the way). So long as you keep talking about threats (which are minimal) and highlighting the importance of “protecting citizens” from “dangerous individuals”, some people will continue to believe that the state will protect them and that sacrifices to their rights must be made to ensure that protection. There’s nothing new in this, states have used that particular strategy for centuries: construct an external enemy, convince the populace that the state has the means to protect them, chip away at individual rights under the guise of protection etc etc.


Sophisticated tools and techniques are widely available and can help online Americans increase the privacy and security of their online activities and personal data sharing. However, thus far, fairly few have adopted these tools since learning about the programs. Among those who have heard about the government surveillance programs:

10% say they have used a search engine that doesn’t keep track of their search history.
5% have added privacy-enhancing browser plug-ins like DoNotTrackMe (now known as Blur) or Privacy Badger.
4% have adopted mobile encryption for calls and text messages.
3% have used proxy servers can help them avoid surveillance.
2% have adopted email encryption programs such as Pretty Good Privacy (PGP).
2% have used anonymity software such as Tor.
1% have used locally-networked communications such as FireChat.

It’s interesting that despite the fears and clear concern about the surveillance programme, many people are not using the most effective tools to protect themselves (I would include myself in that category if there were a UK equivalent study). This suggests there is a lot of work to do to inform the general public about how they can protect themselves online. I would guess that Barclays’ Digital Eagles probably won’t offer much help here. It seems to me that, and I probably would say this, librarians are well placed to provide this kind of assistance (see Library Freedom Project). Certainly given our professional ethics, this is an area that should concern us and that we should seek to provide solutions to for the general public. There is clearly a need as, looking at the figures, there is concern and a need to seek protection. One would assume that this would also be the case in the UK but, again, there is no such study at present.

I’d definitely recommend going through the Pew stats if you get the chance. There is a PDF report you can download, but lots of interesting stats are summarised over 5 web pages. Will such a study be conducted in the UK? It seems unlikely at this stage, but with the revelations about the activities of GCHQ and how ministerial oversight appears to be virtually non-existent, a study equivalent to Pew’s would be very welcome.

Are party political messages ever ok from government departments?

Since government realised that social media could be a useful tool to communicate with the governed, there has been a noticeable trend towards departments espousing political propaganda using the medium. The latest being the following example:


Now, I so happen to disagree with the motivation behind this tweet. I actually think that central government shouldn’t be attempting to overtly influence local government decision making processes.  If a local council decides it would like to increase council tax to make up for the shortfall in government spending, and are prepared to go to a public vote over the matter, then that is their right to do so (see Brighton). But I object more to the overt government propaganda contained within the image. It wouldn’t look out of place on some Tory promotional material, and therein lies the problem.

Messages such as that above should surely only be delivered by party political accounts, not by government departments? The civil service should be politically neutral. It has to serve the government of the day, not advance a particular political agenda (of course, it would be naive to suggest they aren’t complicit in cementing a particular political ideology). I would have no issue (although I would strongly disagree with the message) if such a tweet was sent from a Tory minister. I would expect nothing less from them. I would expect, however, a government department to avoid ideological crusades (I know, how naive am I?).

Of course, the truth is that the current government have a particular eagerness for politicising the civil service, turning it into a propaganda arm of whoever is in power. It is important that ministers are surrounded by people who are prepared to question government policy, rather than simply parrot it and push forward a particular ideology. Now, I accept that a certain agenda is bound to be pushed (these are government accounts), but it could surely be done without such overt politicisation (say, a tweet pointing out your rights if a council proposes an above 2% council tax rise)?

It seems to me that a government department should be raising awareness of individual rights with respect to government, dealing with queries from members of the public, pointing people to inquiries and reports or bills going through parliament etc. I don’t think they should be used to present a one-sided, highly politicised perspective on council tax increases. Leave that to the political parties and government ministers.  One thing is for certain, government Twitter accounts should be increasingly handled with care. As the information they share becomes increasingly politicised, so their value rapidly diminishes. Information published by government should always be treated with care anyway, but as it increasingly pushes party political propaganda it becomes ever more difficult to determine what is reliable, and what is sheer political opportunism.

The internet: an opportunity missed, or an opportunity lost?

But nothing compares with the revolutionary impact of the internet. The internet has altered drastically the nature of our political campaigns, conventions, constituents, candidates and costs. Some politicians regard it with suspicion, others with pleasure. Some candidates have benefited by using it-others have been advised to avoid it. To the voter and vote-getter alike, the internet offers new opportunities, new challenges and new problems.

The above quote was taken from an article written by a future liberal American president. A highly skilled and cunning operator, he identified early on that this technology would play a crucial role in political life.  Furthermore, it would later be a key factor in electing him to the highest office in the land, leaving his opponents trailing far behind as they failed to grapple with the opportunities this new technology provided.  But this above quote isn’t all that it seems.  For one thing, it was written in 1959.  For another (obviously) the article was not about the internet, but about television.  And, of course, this future liberal American president was, in fact, John F Kennedy.

The emergence of television as a major communications tool had the potential to revolutionise the relationship between politicians and the electorate. Rather than remaining remote and detached from the people who would elect them, politicians could now appear in every constituent’s living room, communicating with them directly in a way they simply were not able to before.  Of course, this development did alter the nature of political campaigns and politics in general, much as Kennedy predicted, but it made no tangible difference to the relationship between the governed and the governors.  If anything, television simply reinforced existing power structures. One only has to see the relationship between commercial television and the political elite, both funded by the same corporate sponsors, both defending the interests of those same sponsors and the economic system which benefits their funding streams.  Television did nothing to challenge existing power structures, it merely reinforced them.

Television’s reinforcement of the status quo is perhaps unsurprising. Whilst it has the potential to reveal truths about our society to a much bigger audience than any other medium has managed (thanks perhaps to the power of the moving image), it has largely been a one-way communication tool. Whilst it has afforded the opportunity for some interaction, and for viewers to engage in populist TV shows, it has done little to engage or empower people in democratic processes. And then came the internet…

The internet certainly has the potential to radically alter the relationship between the governed and the governing. The growth of social media in particular has opened up the potential to enable greater communication between the two. Whereas the flow of communication has primarily been top down, from the governing to the governed, the internet and social media enables a cycle of communication between the two. The internet and social media has, unlike almost every other communications tool that preceded it (like television), the potential to be revolutionary in its impact. Unfortunately, this potential has not, in my view, been realised. Rather than heralding a radically new political environment, the internet has increasingly become just another communications tool for the elite to assert authority over.

Of course, the great “Arab Spring” has often been heralded as a watershed in terms of the ability for social media and the internet to facilitate radical social and political change.  Whilst it undoubtedly had some impact, it was perhaps not the great game changer that many claim it to be. Of course, that hasn’t stopped many of these actions being acclaimed as “Facebook Revolutions”. But there is perhaps a Western-centric view of the influence of these tools, primarily because many of these tools are Western creations. It is perhaps unsurprising that the Western media have latched onto Western technology as a hook to interest their populations in uprisings that happen in parts of the world where they have previously shown little interest.

Wael Ghonim, a key figure in the use of the internet as a tool to support the revolutionary movement in Egypt, documented his experiences of running a social media campaign in support of the uprising in his book, Revolution 2.0. Whilst it is undoubtedly an interesting read (I’d certainly recommend picking it up if you get the chance), as one reviewer points out:

“…it clearly states that the Kullena Khaled Said page even at its best only reached about one million readers, a large number for an Internet campaign no doubt, but only a small minority in a nation of 81 million people. Ghonim makes scant any reference to, for example, the wave of strikes that begun in Mahalla in late 2006 and which played a major role in mobilising people against the Mubarak regime. Thus, this book represents a rather narrow view of the Egyptian revolution, something Ghonim also asserts himself.”

The exaggeration of the impact of social media appears to be borne out in a report prepared for the Defense Intelligence Agency in the United States. In “The Impact of Social Media on Social Unrest in the Arab Spring” [PDF] the authors investigated the impact of social media upon social unrest and presented three main findings:

1)      Exogenous political and economic shocks served as the necessary underlying drivers of social unrest; without grievances, individuals would have no cause for protest.

2)      The authors did not find a consistent correlation between social media use and successful mass protest, suggesting social media is a useful but not sufficient tool for protest.

3)      Social media boosted international attention to local events by facilitating reporting from places traditional media has limited access to and by providing a bottom-up, decentralized process for generating news stories.

The authors ended on a cautionary note. Social media was increasingly being used by authoritarian governments to “repress opposition movements and stymie democratisation”.

In short, social media made a contribution to the development of the Arab Spring, but it was not the key factor. Unsurprisingly, a number of factors came together which led to the successful overthrow of authoritarian regimes. Social media didn’t change the dynamic between the regimes and the people they controlled, but it did facilitate the protest movement once it began to develop and grow. What is important to note, however, is that the technology is increasingly being used by repressive regimes to reinforce existing power structures, rather than to open up and democratise society. But what about in the West? Has the internet had the revolutionary impact its potential suggested?

Western liberal democracies appear not to have seen the internet as an opportunity to create a more participative democracy, but rather as an opportunity to reinforce existing structures. In terms of using the technology there appears to be two dominant strategies:

1)      Push out information about the state under the auspices of Open Data.

2)      Collect more information about citizens.

(And you could probably add a third as being that of a propaganda weapon*.)

In terms of the first (and I am primarily referring to the UK here) the internet is seen as a tool to push out government data. This is, of course, seen as a way to make public officials accountable to “taxpayers” (so the rhetoric goes) and to create, as David Cameron would have it, a new era of transparency. Of course, data without context is fairly meaningless. Opening up data in the way the UK government has been doing so does not truly empower citizens or radically impact upon the nature of our democracy. It is one-way communication between the governing and the governed, just delivered in a slightly different way. Indeed, an interview with Francis Maude conducted by the Wall Street Journal underlined that this information push is not about changing the relationship between the governed and the governing but about reinforcing the status quo (this is a fairly sizeable extract but I think it is worth extracting this part of the exchange):

Wall Street Journal: In what way does it do this? Open government at the moment seems to be about opening government up so people can see what it does, but I don’t see a lot of evidence that it is about empowering citizens. The power balance doesn’t change.

Francis Maude: What you are starting to see now in terms of opening data up in the health service changes the balance of power because there is less ‘you take what you are given whether you like it or not’. It is more you have a chance to look at what you are getting and exercise some choice, some choice which will be enabled by digital. You can see what different hospitals are offering, you can see the outcomes from different GP practices, you can make decisions based on that. That is changing, in a crucial way, what most people say is the most important public service. That is changing the balance, moving the balance towards the citizen.

WSJ: All of those things are about choosing between pre-existing choices. It is not empowering you to change those choices. How can the citizen, having been empowered to do the business of government in a better way, change the business of government?

FM: Through elections.

WSJ: So technology doesn’t have impact on the relationship? We are still in the business of putting crosses on pieces of paper and putting them in ballot boxes.

FM: Those are essentially political decisions, which are subject to democracy.

WSJ: So how do you empower democracy? How does technology change the nature of democracy?

FM: By increasing the level of information and knowledge and the access to it.

WSJ: So what can citizens do once they have been better informed?

FM: Vote in a better way. We are not changing the nature of democracy.

WSJ: Isn’t the logical conclusion of what we have seen elsewhere that digital has the ability to change that relationship? What you seem to be saying is that when it comes to politics, actually no, we are not looking to change. We, the government, will go out to you, the citizens, from whom we derive our legitimacy, we will seek your opinions on these things and then a committee of the great and the good will consider them. But there is no fundamental shift in doing that online or filling in a piece of paper and sending it in.

FM: You could have a continuous participative democracy where decisions are voted on in real time by as many people as are on line and know about it. That is an option. That would be a massive change. You could enable that — you vote for people on Britain’s Got Talent that way.  The technology is not very hard to do. We could do this.

WSJ: This is not something you are suggesting is the policy you are going to have?

FM: No.

The government’s agenda, as the Wall Street Journal point out, will not lead to a fundamental shift in the relationship. Technology is not changing the nature of democracy, it is merely reinforcing old structures.

The second strand is, of course, the collection of information on citizens. The revelations of the activities of the NSA have, thanks to Edward Snowden, shown just what lengths the state is prepared to go to in order to collect information on the governed. In the guise of national security it is prepared to conduct widespread, cross-border electronic surveillance.  Of course, this comes soon after the UK government had attempted to introduce its snoopers’ charter, an attempt that is sure to be repeated regardless of the controversy over surveillance conducted by the NSA. The growth of this new technology appears to be viewed as an opportunity to gather more information on the governed, to reinforce the relationship between them and those that govern them. If there has been a revolution, perhaps it has been in terms of what the governing can learn about us, rather than what we learn about them (despite piecemeal freedom of information legislation – which appears to be a watered down sop to demonstrate that we can conduct our own surveillance on them as much as they can on us…of course we cannot).

Not only is information on citizens being harvested, but it is being done so with the threat of exerting the full force of the state should this be disrupted. See, for example, the case ofDavid Miranda and his nine hour detention. Both here, and in the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement, we can see the lengths the governing will go to in order to protect their own interests and ensure the flow of information remains within their control. As Charlie Beckett, author of Wikileaks – news in the networked eraputs it on the LSE blog:

“…‘outsider journalism’ when combined with the best of mainstream news media and when they exploit the power of new digital networks, create a communications power that is a serious challenge to authority.”

When this one-way, highly controlled flow is disrupted, it presents a challenge to authority, a challenge to governing forces and a shifting in the balance of control of information. Therefore, these same forces will act to protect and ensure that this flow remains within their control. Information, as far as the governing are concerned, should primarily flow in one direction – upwards.

There certainly is a two-way process of communication between the governed and the governing, however the governed do not have an active role in this process. They are to be passive consumers of the data pumped out by the government and a veritable bank of information to be collected by the state. There is no revolution here, the relationship has barely changed, all that has changed is the method by which this relationship is managed. The governing still control the flow of information, in both directions (the recent revelations about Israel underline how social media and the internet is seen as a powerful tool of propaganda – the third main strategy employed by Western, liberal democracies).

Both the internet and social media have the potential to radically alter the nature of our democracy. The truth is that this potential has not (yet?) been realised. Where social media has been hailed as a powerful tool in over-throwing repressive regimes, it merely played a supportive role in strengthening existing revolutionary movements. It helped to challenge the existing relationship between the governed and the governing, but it was an aid not the driving force. Likewise, in Western democracies social media and the internet has not radically changed the relationship between governing and governed. Indeed, it hasn’t changed it at all. Despite the potential for new technology to radically change the dynamic, creating a more open, democratic and participative environment, it has merely been used as a tool to reinforce pre-existing structures. Of course, the potential is still there for the internet to significantly recalibrate our democratic structures. I hope that, for now, this is just an opportunity missed but I fear, as the extent to which the state is prepared to control the flow of information becomes ever clearer, it might well be an opportunity lost.

* I would have liked to have explored all three strategies in greater detail, but I was conscious of the fact I was already running way over a word count that one would reasonably expect people to endure.

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?