Tag Archives: information power

Information and media – Not weapons, but tools

Informational Power is where a person possesses needed or wanted information. This is a short-term power that doesn’t necessarily influence or build credibility. Vivian Giang

The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses. Malcolm X

The fact is, information and media are unique and powerful tools, to be wielded by sentient creatures for good or for evil. When the American Library Association was promoting the “information power” theme years ago I worried at the value-free assumption that the information would be put to good purposes. And when we hyped the potential of the communications media, from cable to the web, I wondered more….

My skepticism is affirmed today as we experience the reality of information and communications expertise brilliantly coupled to disrupt our democracy.

This should not be news. It was either Mark Twain or H.L Mencken who advised his readers to “Never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel and paper by the ton.”   The technology, but not the meaning, has been updated here. http://www.adweek.com/fishbowlny/ink-by-the-barrel-on-the-internet/252889

But that’s a diversion from the real fact – that the administration has effectively wed the power of information with the power of the media to shape reality.   Those in power wield information as a sword to silence, to pervert, to foment, to shape, to craft alliances and to conceptualize, then propagate, alternative truth.   We who are but “subjects” are ill-prepared to meet the challenge; we lack, or fail to unsheathe, the information/communications skills and attitudes to withstand the onslaught.

And still it is a real fact that we are not a passive people. The Women’s March and forthcoming March for Science clearly reflect our power to harness the human power to resist.

The first line of resistance to alternative facts is well-meant but knee-jerk –- placing blame and responsibility on the communications channels, or even the sources, of misinformation and disinformation is short-term and futile.

We are challenged to fully accept that information and communications technology have been “weaponized” – and that it is incumbent upon us to “arm” ourselves. We need to assume the responsibility to become critical thinkers – and to shape a learning environment that enhances the critical thinking of future voters, including both youth and future voters.

We can’t fall for the press-bashing and post-truthiness cleverly designed to divert our focus and our energy. Instead, we need to embrace the challenge to seek the truth and to stand firm when it is information is thwarted, perverted, suppressed, hidden from public view – or is not collected in the first place!

Thomas Jefferson, a man who dealt in truth, had this to say on the subject

Wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government.” –  Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Richard Price, Jan. 8, 1789

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Related posts – Selected:

https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/2017/01/26/marchers-will-support-research-science-real-facts/#respond

https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/2017/01/08/discovering-truth-starts-with-independent-thinking/

https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/2017/01/08/creating-a-culture-of-encounter-some-info-tools/

https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/2016/12/23/relax-learn-then-resolve-to-resist-post-truth-thinking/

https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/2016/10/03/information-literacy-universal-challenge-of-the-digital-era/

https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/tag/information-literacy-curriculum/

https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/tag/national-information-literacy-awareness-month-2016/

https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/2016/11/19/facing-the-facts-about-facts/

https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/2011/08/03/scrubbing-history-scrapping-the-facts/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Facing the facts about facts

I’m telling you a lie in a vicious effort that you will repeat my lie over and over until it becomes true. Lady Gaga

There are longer, but no more compelling, characterizations of the scourge of disinformation – so serious that the sitting President of the United States brought up the subject just this week – notably at a joint press conference with German President Angela Merkel.  In that meeting President Obama spoke of the perils of  “active disinformation, very well presented.”

The heart of the matter, the President said, is that, “if we are not serious about the facts, about what is true and what is not, and especially at the time of social networks, when so many people receive the information in one sentence on their phone, if we cannot tell the difference between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have a problem.”

The power, influence and tenacity of disinformation is evident – everyone has a story of having been duped, even having shared or acted on a kernel of disinformation planted with malice aforethought to skew public perception and action. We are conditioned to believe what we read or see, particularly if the information is well presented by “credentialed” spokesperson and/or, better yet, backed up by inscrutable, and thus infallible, metrics.

Disinformation is no respecter of receiver: Did any of us believe, if just for a minute, that Pope Francis favored a presidential candidate in the recent election? Or that that climate change might be just an overblown theory? or that the CIA was somehow behind the Malayzia Airline crash? Or that Ford Motors was planning a major move to Mexico?

Back in the pre-social media day the term “information literacy” was fashioned to put a name on an emerging Information Age challenge. Last month we even offered a hasty nod to Information Literacy Month. https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/2016/10/03/information-literacy-universal-challenge-of-the-digital-era/

The fact is that efforts to build information literacy skills lag far behind the ubiquity, fluidity and instant gratification of social media.   Far more insidious is the harsh reality that the wizards of disinformation have mastered the tools to manufacture palatable lies, to present the fake information in irresistible nibbles, to package propaganda a fact — then “repeat the lie over and over until it becomes true.”

For me the spark of hope that springs eternal ignites when Gaga and Obama sound the same alarm – that the power of disinformation is real, pervasive and a threat to this democracy.

The forefathers established a nation built on the premise of an engaged citizenry.   Informed voters (as narrowly defined by the white men who wrote the rules,) would have access to information by and about their government and the skills to consider both the source and the content of information. Relevant, valid information would be communicated to the citizenry not in 140 character blips but in pamphlets, newspapers, orations, even books! http://www.constitutionfacts.com/founders-library/founders-reading-list/

Disinformation is hardly a new idea. In 1710 Jonathan Swift penned The Art of Political Lying” in which he expressed his dim view of fake information:

Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect: like a man, who hath thought of a good repartee when the discourse is changed, or the company parted; or like a physician, who hath found out an infallible medicine, after the patient is dead.

Information power and politics – An implicit but real challenge

It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts. Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes

Nearly two decades ago, 1998 to be exact, the library community launched a vigorous campaign in support of “information power.” That campaign morphed in time into the push for “information literacy” as described in last month’s blog post.

(https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/2016/10/03/information-literacy-universal-challenge-of-the-digital-era/) The distinction is subtle – and the message is clear. Information, misinformation, communication, control and permutations of the truth matter.

More than policy, money, good looks or ground game it is information that will determine the Election of 2016.

On the scale of egregious crimes and/or sins with which this democracy should come to terms is the fact that messing with the facts – the misuse, withholding, manipulating, skewing, or otherwise communicating anything other the truth — is wrong.   The fundamental premise of this and every democracy is the power resides in an informed citizenry. That truth is pretty well spelled out by the Forefathers in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

On the one hand, the meaning of information – whether in the form of the great American novel, a database or a tweet — is inherent. Still, that meaning is influenced by the medium of communication and, ultimately determined by the recipient. Individuals and institutions produce information that is conveyed by a plethora of media –all of which have a stake in the information game. The sources and conveyors of information then interact with receivers who bear the responsibility to evaluate both the content and the source. The power of the information rests in the source, the medium of communication, ultimately in the receiver who weighs the complexities then acts accordingly in light of source/content validity and personal values.

Information power and communication power are inextricably linked. Decades ago, Marshall McLuhan, author of The Medium is the Massage, laid out a framework for re-thinking information power. A review of those basics is in order at this juncture. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OseOb_wBsi4)

The fact is, instant transmission of information and misinformation leaves no time for reaction or reflection – there is no pause between communication and action! Though we may know how to locate information, we are ill-equipped to assess the information, the source, the channel of communication, the ownership, the relevance, much less the validity or value of the overload of information with which we are bombarded.

Within hours of this post the last vote of the 2016 election will have been cast, counted and verified. The influence of information/misinformation and of communications media is stark and inexorable. This election is a wake up call for this democracy to get a grip on digital age information skills, attitudes and values.

No matter the outcome on Tuesday we have some serious thinking to do. My hope is that we will embrace the challenge to grapple with the some tough issues including information power, the role of the media, and about how we as a democracy shape and share the power of information to create a better world.

As we struggle to restore the soul of this nation it is wise to reflect on the reality that good information in the hands and minds of good people has immense power to heal.

 

FOIA at Fifty — Does access to information really matter?

We can’t be in an ideological battle to redeem the soul of this country if we don’t have the facts. Tavis Smiley

Back at the dawn of the digital age my prescient brother sold the potential of pricey technology by answering the inevitable question ”Whadya sellin’?” with the ubiquitous retort ”Whadya need?” Though the goal was to sell the product, the first step was to identify the customer’s need – the gadget wouldn’t matter till the buyer “felt the pain.”

Truth to tell, few Americans will specify “open government” or “transparency” high on their Litany of Felt Needs. Fewer still will recognize their lack of access to information by and about the government as a major source of pain or as a detriment to living a fulfilled life. The Founding Fathers highlighted identified the five basic freedoms in the First Amendment as the Freedom of Religion, Speech, Press, Assembly and Petition.

Here I have to quote Gene Policinski, CEO of the Newseum Institute, who advised readers that “you may not think of the First Amendment in working terms. More likely, you don’t think of it at all – or if you do, it’s associated with harpsichord music and Colonial Times.” (DesMoines Register, April 18, 2015) As Policinski suggests, for most citizens “open government” is a remote and nebulous yawn.

And yet Policinski wakens us with the truth that “while all 10 of the amendments in the Bill of Rights protect our rights, it’s the First Amendment that defines the core freedoms we use every day.”

The first challenge for advocates of transparency and accountability is to make government information matter — only then will the body politic care, or even notice, if, how, by whom and why the information chain is frayed or broken. The unfortunate but no less true that the need for government information is too often best illuminated by the failure of the system to fulfill the promise.

The ongoing crisis in Flint offers a case study: Serving the public watchdog role incumbent on investigative journalism, the Huffington Post reports in detail the failure of the government to uphold its information responsibility:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/flint-lead-water- epa_us_569522a8e4b086bc1cd5373c )

Though illustrative of incredible failure, the article demonstrates the ways in which reliable information matters, and why government alone plays the essential role as collector, organizer and point of access to information that matters – when it matters and to whom it matters. Whether it’s politics, incompetence or sheer negligence, the broken chain of government information lies at the core of the water crisis in Flint.

A very different but deeply distressing diatribe appears in a recent issue of Slate . The article exposes the racist manipulation of information gathered and managed by malevolent forces within the government.

http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2016/01/what_the_fbi_s_surveillance_of_martin_luther_king_says_about_modern_spying.html)

These unspeakable realities expose the ugly underside of open government.   At the same time the contemporary allegories illustrate beyond question that information by and about the government matters not only in terms of national security but in the daily lives of the American people. The stories underscore the fact that ordinary citizens and their representatives bear responsibility for what is an inalienable right, a powerful force and a trust.

Information is a tool, useful and usable for good or for harm. Those who understand the power of information as a tool wield power, the critical power to provide reliable, essential, needed information or the power to derail, delude or destroy. The anecdotes underscore the lesson that information matters, that reliable, access to information by and about the government is at the core of this democracy.

It follows then, “as night the day”, that misinformation, the lack of information, hoarded information, the misuse or misinterpretation of information, the failure to collect or to disclose information subvert the common good. To protect the common good requires constant vigilance on the part of every American.

There are signs that the digital age is heightening awareness that information matters. One compelling example is a recent Internews study supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. The extensive study grapples with the compelling question from the government perspective. Entitled Why Information Matters the study concludes that “without information, people can neither understand nor effectively respond to the events that shape their world.”

http://www.internews.org/sites/default/files/resources/150513Internews_WhyInformationMatters.pdf

Never one to shield the reader from harsh truth, including the truth that information matters, master of the literary thriller Tom Clancy warned his readers that “the control of information is something the elite always does, particularly in a despotic form of government. Information, knowledge, is power. If you can control information, you can control people.”

The bulwark of access to information by and about the government is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), enacted fifty years ago in July 1966. Discussions have already begun concerning the law, the rights it protects, the need for revision. The time is now to make the case that information by and about the government matters to the American people.

Election Day Musings

Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity.

Coco Chanel

The occasion to quote Coco Chanel does not arise often. Still, her pithy wisdom illuminates the paralysis that has gripped the American electorate during this season’s political campaigns. Though we the people hold to the conviction that we are the ultimate deciders of our political and social fate, we are adrift in a sea of information overload, bombarded by misinformation, doomed to operate from a position of information skepticism.   Our instinctive desire for authenticity is thwarted.

It is no wonder that we have lost control of our most valuable resource. Information is implicit, an invisible and ubiquitous thread that’s woven throughout the fabric of our environment, a force that frames the politics, economics, and social forces that shape our lives. Though we cannot see information pulsating through the channels that bombard the world around us, we need to understand the sources and the impact of this unique human resource.

A primary responsibility of the government is to produce and make accessible the information that Americans need to make good decisions. It is, then, the primary responsibility of the people to hold the government accountable to act in the public interest as determined by the electorate and their representatives.

Bottom line: We the people depend on our elected representatives and on government agencies, federal, local and state, to harness the power of information and telecommunications technology to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It is incumbent on us as citizens in a democracy to understand the sources, the politics, the economics, the flow and the character of information, this nation’s natural and renewable resource.

In these hard times our priority must be to demand transparency, to hone the skills of access, and to feed our instinctive desire for authenticity.

 

 

 

More than a whimper

 

 

Somewhere buried in the news of the day we will probably miss the fact that Tuesday, December 21, 2010 should mark a major blast in the ongoing saga of  Census 2010. The headlines, I predict, will focus almost exclusively on which states win/lose Congressional seats.  The Census-based reapportionment is a momentous outcome, of course.  Still, it is but one immediate and visible application of the massive data collected in the 2010 Census.  Though reapportionment means a lot to the politicos and the media and ultimately to the people  it is simply not sufficient to let that be the end of the discussion of what Census 2010 can and should mean in the lives of ordinary people.

 

A year ago we were inundated with grand information campaigns encouraging  participation in the Census.  It was great, almost heady, stuff!  Advocacy groups, nonprofits, churches, neighborhood organizations, education groups were getting together on the common cause to promote understanding and participation.  All in all, it was one of the most united, effective, positive initiatives I’ve ever witnessed.  I get excited remembering the energy and commitment that prevailed.

 

Then comes the whimper….I worried then and I’m more worried now about how that Census information will ultimately improve the lives of the millions of good people who took time, overcame fears, and shared information about themselves with the U.S. government.  We know that developers, government agencies, advertisers, planners know where the data are and how to use them.  That’s as it should be.  My concern is this:  If information is power, what are we doing to empower the people to put to good purpose that data that is theirs – ours.  What resources – money, time, energy, focus – will we commit to ensure that the information works for the people?

 

The surge to push for participation was generously funded by the government, eagerly taken on by a host of responsible organizations.  To some extent, the message was simple and straightforward:  Census 2010 is not a threat, it’s important, participate.

 

Now it gets complicated:  The challenge now is to learn how to use those numbers to shape and improve services, to allocate resources, to interpret needs and to identify solutions.  The process is neither glamorous nor fast-paced – it’s just essential.  We owe it to the people who listened and shared their time and information.  The government, state or federal, can do just so much.  It remains to those same groups who worked so hard last year  – the media, nonprofits, churches, advocacy groups, educators – to stay on duty.  That means following the Census data as it oozes out of the federal government.  It means learning new skills, taking serious time to locate, organize, interpret, apply and share the information and the skills of access.

 

Tuesday, December 21, ought to signal a major kickoff of the next phase of Census 2010.  We can’t expect that thrust – the energy or the resources – to emanate from the federal bureaucracy.  The commitment simply must come from the field where those who care about outcomes for real people.  Information power as a priority is unprecedented.  Those who believe in the power of an informed public to make good decisions need to shift gears to incorporate access to government information, including Census data, as a priority.  Access tools are in place or within reach.  The data are gathered, eager to gush forth on demand. My hope is that the next phase of Census 2010 will go forth not with a whimper but with a mighty bang.