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.

Why I think we need to speak out against media assaults on public libraries

Image c/o Stew Dean on Flickr.

Another day, another attack in the media on public libraries. This time by Tim Worstall, fellow at the Adam Smith Institute (so you can pretty much already guess which line he will take), in an article provocatively titled “Close The Libraries And Buy Everyone An Amazon Kindle Unlimited Subscription“. I’m not going to dwell too much on the article itself – suffice it to say it contains the usual logical failings (it is clearly not cheaper to give everyone an Amazon subscription and purchase all the equipment needed for those who are not connected etc etc – frankly it’s astounding a fellow of the Adam Smith Institute is advocating greater public spending). But it did bring to mind, once more, the constant refrain of “ignore this, it’s not worth engaging in”. Which, I think, is a mistake.

Every now and then, a piece arguing for the closure of public libraries emerges that causes consternation and outrage. In some respects, this is what the author intends. Whip up a frenzy, get your name out there, ego stroked, job done, who really cares about libraries? This frenzy, however, results in a kind of split in the library world. There are those who, for example, argue that a counter-attack on such a piece is a sign of a lack of confidence, a sign of weakness. By arguing against such assaults we are overly defensive and we would be better not engaging with these kinds of attack. I, unsurprisingly, disagree.

The problem is that such assaults aren’t really attacks on libraries. Look closer at the arguments and you see this is part of a broader pattern. Often the argument is that libraries are no longer required, that they are irrelevant as everyone is online. Worse, that the amount of money spent maintaining them could be more ‘efficiently’ utilised elsewhere. Is this really a specific attack on libraries? Irrelevance and inefficiency? Is that argument only deployed in relation to public libraries? Of course not. This is a standard strategy when it comes to attacking all public services. They are not required any more, there are more efficient ways of delivering what this service delivers. You see this argument deployed in relation to many public services. And here is the problem: it’s a strategic assault on public services. It is a mistake, I believe, to characterise such attacks as “attacks on public libraries”. It’s a very narrow interpretation of an over-arching political strategy.

I won’t go over the nature of this political ideology as such (see previous posts on this topic). But we need to be clear that an ideological war is being conducted here. It is not a war on libraries. It is a war on public services. Ideological warfare is being conducted and we (by ‘we’ I don’t just mean librarians) must confront this ideological assault. Pretending that these sorts of attacks will go away if we ignore them is equivalent to an ideological war with one side disarmed. The consequences are stark. Ideological wars are not, generally, won with silence. Yes, we need to express our “value” with confidence, but we also need to confront this ideological war head on.

These assaults are not even restricted to public services, they are also an assault on those that rely on public services: the most vulnerable in our society. As professionals (again, I’m talking about all professionals, not just librarians here) we know that there are many that rely on our expertise. We know that there are many who, without our expertise, would suffer even greater hardship. We know, also, that the most vulnerable are often voiceless. As librarians, we are well aware that there is a large minority of people who rely on us and yet also do not have a platform to express that reliance. I strongly believe that it is our responsibility as a profession to speak up in defence of those without a voice. I would argue this applies to all professionals and, I would also argue, this is something that the professional class have largely failed at in the current political climate (it’s amazing, in fact, the extent to which the professional class will remain silent in the face of an assault upon those they should protect). Rather than speaking out strongly on behalf of those who rely on us, we have been largely complicit or unwiling to speak out.

None of this is to say that everyone needs to speak out. What I am saying is that we shouldn’t suggest that collective silence is an option. That turning the other cheek is a logical choice. That if we just ignore these assaults the problems will go away and public libraries will continue as before, unaffected by the words of someone writing a provocative piece on a website that is bound to host such views. This is not about public libraries. This is about an ideological assault with multiple targets determined to undermine and weaken our public services. Libraries are one of these targets, but to think it is a target in isolation is a mistake. The arguments against libraries are variations of the same as those used against other public services. Likewise the arguments for libraries are the same as for other public services. By speaking up, we are not only defending public libraries but the entire notion of public services. Silence is not how we defend ourselves against an ideological battle, it is how we surrender.

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one
left to speak up for me.

Martin Niemöller

Is there a class divide in reading habits?

There’s more to reading than books… (image c/o nate bolt on Flickr).

There was a flurry of tweets and comments this morning in relation to the media coverage of a survey commissioned by the Booktrust on the reading habits of 1,500 adults across England. The Guardian claimed that:

New research shows a stark and “worrying” cultural divide in the UK when it comes to reading, with half the country picking up a book at least once a week for pleasure, and 45% preferring television.

The BBC headlined their piece:

England ‘divided into readers and watchers’

The problem is, the much of the media coverage has been a little confusing. Take this section from The Guardian’s piece:

The England-wide survey of the reading habits of 1,500 adults by the University of Sheffield says that on average, the higher the socio-economic group that someone is in, the more often they read: 27% of DEs never read books themselves, compared with 13% of ABs, while 62% of ABs read daily or weekly, compared with 42% of DEs. Reading charity Booktrust, which commissioned the research, believes its findings should serve as a warning that “Britain’s divided reading culture is a barrier to social mobility”.

This is where I started to question the survey and its reporting. One minute the Guardian claims it reveals how often people read, the next it talks about books. It hardly needs spelling out, but reading does not necessarily equate to reading books.

According to the reporting of this survey’s results, I could read the Guardian (or the BBC) online every day without ever touching a book and yet I would not be considered a ‘reader’. Indeed, I would be considered a ‘watcher’ who would rather watch TV than read. But if I am reading the Guardian’s website on a daily basis, surely that makes me a ‘reader’? Likewise, if I read a magazine, a newspaper or content on any other website, that would also make me a ‘reader’. But according to the reporting of this survey, I am not a reader which seems a bit odd given that I regularly, well, read.

I would guess that, in reality, very few people do not read at all. Of course there are those who cannot read or experience difficulties trying to read, but even then I would imagine the proportion is relatively small. Drawing wide-ranging conclusions and drawing a class division based on the reading of books specifically (and I know people who read but don’t read books) is, in my view, a little simplistic to say the least.

This is not to say that I don’t think there is possibly a problem here that needs addressing. We should certainly be encouraging the reading of books in all their forms, particularly in encouraging children to learn to read. However, as Christopher Warren points out, the report also focuses on book purchasing and does not consider books borrowed from public libraries. This also rather skews the results as it makes the obvious point that those with money buy more books.

So, is there a class divide in reading? Maybe, maybe not. There’s currently no hard evidence to suggest that this is the case, and this survey certainly doesn’t address that particular point. It’s misleading to define reading solely as ‘reading a book’ and it is equally misleading to only draw conclusions based on book buying and not incorporate book borrowing. Despite the media headlines, there is very little to get too worked up about here, other than the media headlines themselves.

Paris Brown and the Daily Mail – a depressing tale…

So, it emerged today that Paris Brown has stepped down as the country’s first youth police commissioner, before she had even really started the job.  I cannot condone the comments that she had made on social media, they were appalling and insulting, but I think it is worthy of note that these comments were made before she was revealed in the post and, crucially, by a teenage girl.  Let’s be clear, this does not mean that I believe all teenagers make stupid public comments, but I think we can all accept that very few people went through their teenage years without saying something they later regretted (not to mention in adult life).  However, there is one thing that stands out for me above all else in the way this story has been reported, and that is the disreputable actions of the Daily Mail.

This tweet (which can no longer be found as the account has been deleted) underlines the disgraceful nature in which the Daily Mail has behaved:paris brown


Note the date. 6th April 2013 (ignore the time on the datestamp, Twitter sometimes gets that wrong for whatever reason).  The very next day, the Mail splashed its exclusive.  Think about that for a moment. On the very day it was planning a story designed to destroy her reputation, it invited her up for a photoshoot and a chat with one of their journalists.  All the while, they must have known what was being planned.  Frankly, I find this absolutely disgraceful behaviour by all those concerned.  I’m not surprised she was devastated with the story.  She had been lulled into believing that the lovely Mail were giving a 17 year old girl some positive coverage for doing something for her community.  Instead, she was being made to look a fool.  I guess we shouldn’t be surprised by this, but still…

I have been trying all day to ask the journalist responsible for the story, Russell Myers, why the Mail acted in this way. Despite having only 400 followers (and therefore fairly unlikely to be inundated with tweets), he has continually ignored my question.  Maybe he feels ashamed.  Maybe he doesn’t give a damn.  But either way, I think both he and his colleagues have behaved disgracefully over this story.  Of course the press are right to investigate and scrutinise.  But to abuse in this way is disrespectful and outrageous.

One last thing I would add, it also emerged that the police are investigating her tweets. This seems to me to be a spectacular waste of time and tax payers’ money (ironic given the Mail’s actions led to the investigation).  And I sincerely hope they do not pursue it any further. (Edit 9/4/13 20:51pm I didn’t make it very clear here but, as pointed out in the comments, the police are obliged to investigate where complaints have been made. The police are not at fault for this, they are merely performing their duties.)

So well done the Mail. You treated a 17 year old girl as a fool and brought about a police investigation into some distasteful tweets. So much for standing up for taxpayers and freedom of speech. Not doing a good job of proving that Leveson recommendations shouldn’t be implemented are you?

I’ve repeatedly contact the author of the story for an explanation as to why they felt it was necessary to invite Paris for a photo shoot and a chat when they were already planning this story.  If I get a response, I will post it here.


EDIT (13/4/2013): This blog post refers to actions that were believed at the time to have been carried out by the Daily Mail. The story was, however, written by a Mail on Sunday reporter and published in the Mail on Sunday, not the Daily Mail.

Ten things I’ve learnt from campaigning…

A poster at the Occupy London camp in 2011.

I’m not normally into writing down my reflections on things, but I thought I’d jot down a few things I’ve learnt over the past couple of years as a result of my involvement in library campaigning.  Whilst it is borne out of my (fairly limited) experience of library campaigning, it might possibly be of interest to those who are thinking of getting involved in campaigning in general.  And with the current climate as it is, the likelihood is that more people will start campaigning for the things they care about…joining existing campaigns or starting new ones.  So, here are some of my thoughts based on my experiences so far…

1)      It’s hard. Well, best get this one out-of-the-way first of all.  I ain’t going to beat around the bush, it is hard work.  Hard and often demoralising.  You deal continually with a drip, drip, drip of bad news.  That’s the nature of the beast unfortunately.  When you are fighting for something that does good, it stands to reason that any attack on that is inherently depressing.    However, this can take you in one of two ways.  It can either galvanise you and make you more determined to push on and fight for what you believe in, or it can slowly grind you down until you can’t take it anymore.  Some people thrive on it, some don’t.  But it would be wise to be conscious of this before you commit to something. Don’t let it stop you, but make sure you are prepared for it and have some kind of coping mechanism.

2)      Some people on your own side will try to shoot you down.  Again, another depressing one I am afraid and one that I have personally been victim to.  No matter how much you fight for people, some people won’t appreciate your efforts.  They will disparage you, they will ridicule you and they will make it quite clear to you that they would rather you went away.  Whether this is borne out of guilt from not doing anything themselves or whether it is simply pure malice, there will be those you are fighting for (yes, fighting for) who will try to bring you down and damage your spirit.  It will hurt and you will dwell on it every time you look for reasons to give up.  But they are best ignored.  The vast majority will be behind you.

3)      Learn the art of compromise. In any campaign you will be dealing with a wide variety of individuals with different outlooks and different political viewpoints.  If you all pull in your own direction and refuse to compromise, your campaign will fall apart quicker than you can blink.  Instead you have to accept that sometimes the group will take decisions that you are not comfortable with.  That’s tough.  You chalk it down as a defeat that time, but there will be times when people will make sacrifices to support your proposals.  If you don’t work as a team and make those concessions, you will not succeed.

4)      Language is important. This is particularly important for when you are engaging in debates with people who either disagree with you entirely, or who are possible converts.  Language and how you use it is absolutely key.  It is the difference between a successful campaign and an unsuccessful one. To take an example from my own experience, I am aware that some people think the phrase “save libraries” is unhelpful.  Perhaps in some respects this is the case, it’s hardly a positive phrase to rally people around.  But then some other options are not much of an improvement.  For example, I’ve seen talk that “support libraries” is an improvement but on closer inspection it is a rather superficial alternative.  When opposing privatised or volunteer run libraries, “support libraries” comes across as a confused rallying call: “we support libraries but not these types of libraries.”  “Save libraries” isn’t perfect by any means, but it doesn’t paint you into a corner like some alternatives.  So, choose your words carefully!

5)      Campaigning is good for you! Ok, this is a little superficial but there have been some heavy points up until now so I wanted to balance it with something that might actually encourage people to campaign!  There is a perception that campaigning will be negative for your career.  You will be seen as a trouble-maker, someone who speaks their mind, a member of the awkward squad.  But the reality is that as well as the satisfaction in fighting for something you believe in, you develop a huge number of skills.  In my time involved in fighting for libraries I have chaired meetings; delivered a speech at a rally; been invited to talk about “breaking out of the echo chamber” for a national librarians’ conference; been interviewed by local radio, national radio, French radio and the national press; built contacts with national media and helped co-ordinate a number of nationwide events.  If you don’t think these things are good for your development, well…you’re way off the mark. So, that’s the superficial one out-of-the-way.

6)      You need to manage your time effectively! As I said at the beginning, campaigning is hard.  It takes up a fair amount of your time if you are not careful.  If you have a family, this can create some serious problems.  So, you need to develop your time management skills like a pro.  Ensure you have time away from doing any campaign type stuff, go out, see friends, go to gigs, get drunk, have fun, anything other than spending every waking hour fighting the good fight.  Sure, you’ll get the urge to spend a couple more hours on this or that, but you will do yourself and the campaign some good if you keep yourself fresh and enthused.  Bog yourself down too much and you will soon tire and create substantial problems for you and your family.  And this is also where teamwork comes into play.  Not only is it important to compromise with your fellow campaigners, it is also necessary to share the workload. If you don’t, stress and resentment will soon grow.

7)      Move fast. One of the key things I have learnt about campaigning on anything is to be quick out of the blocks.  This is the case particularly when making public statements.  Be the first to be seen to respond to an announcement or an action and you will have the ear of the press who will want to get stories out quickly to meet challenging deadlines.  Leave your response until 24hrs after the announcement and you will be ignored.  Be clear, be concise and be quick. This is easy if you are a small nimble organisation, much more difficult if you are a large national body.

8)      Exploit social media. The opportunities for campaigning organisations starting out now are manifold.  Whereas before it was expensive and time-consuming to campaign on an issue, now it is relatively easy to get a campaign started and draw attention to your cause.  If you aren’t fully up to speed with the range of social media tools out there, make sure you make that a priority.  Good campaigners are good social media operators.  Used effectively, social media can also play a big part in helping to manage your time more effectively.  A lot of social media tools enable things to be posted automatically without the need to spend an awful lot of time updating all your social media channels (Buffer is well worth checking out in this regard, as is IFTTT). Social media is your friend, learn to use it effectively and you will garner attention.

9)      People will get behind you! Whilst some on your own side will try to shoot you down, this is easily outweighed by the people who get in touch with you to voice their support and appreciation for what you do.  Each time you receive such support, it is a major boost to your energy levels.  You can be drowning in a sea of negativity, but just one message from someone saying they appreciate what you do can lift your spirits like nothing else.  Hang on to those moments and reflect on them when you can.  They will get you through the hard times.

10)   It is worth it.  Yes it’s hard.  Yes people shoot you down.  Yes people criticise you for your tactics.  Yes you will have to make compromises.  But you know what, you are fighting for what you believe in and there is no greater feeling than that.