Tag Archives: Propaganda

To disempower disinformation focus on the “missing link”

Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored – American Library Association

Mark Zuckerberg is between a rock and a hard place, or at least a cushy version thereof. Though FB is not the source, it is the ubiquitous channel through which floods of disinformation flow. Now his empire is at the epicenter of post-election blame. Entrepreneur that he is, Zuckerberg proposes the classic quick fix, i.e. to label fake facts and bar the malevolent sources of the bald-faced lies that disinform public thought and discourse.   (http://www.cnbc.com/2016/11/19/mark-zuckerberg-outlines-how-facebook-plans-to-tackle-fake-news.html)

It’s the predictable feel-good, shift the blame, and invariably ineffective fix – a move that denies “the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction.” (American Library Association) — digital age throwing out the baby with the bath.

Placing the power and responsibility in the medium disrespects the individual’s inalienable right “to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction.” Furthermore, it won’t work.

The information chaos of the day demands a return to First Principles, in this case the core values of our political system. A fundamental tenet of this nation is respect for the responsibility of citizens to know how to self-govern.   The founders recognized that, in order to rule, citizens would need to depend on the free flow of information and ideas – thus, they stipulated the inalienable right to know coupled with the right to share thoughts and ideas. In the 18th Century that meant freedom of the press and free speech.

Ay, there’s the rub.

That was pre-social media, a time when information seekers were links in a more-or-less tangible – and linear – information chain that linked communicator and receiver. Though publishers and editors could filter the flow, their positions and proclivities were overt. Receivers of the information and ideas knew and considered the source, then exercised their right to adopt or discard the content and to talk back to the source. Though the system was far from inclusive, the basics were straightforward.

The information age expands access, gives voice to the masses, restructures the nature and power over the tools, removes the filters, and ultimately places unprecedented responsibility on the end user – who is also a sender – of the message. What is happening now is that the source holds the balance of power – receivers are uncritical accepters, frequent spreaders, of disinformation who have mastered the malevolent art of disinformation power.

As information receivers aid and abet the flow the power of information is magnified beyond calculation – the power to determine the content and manage the flow of information is nearly

Predictably, when the coin of the political realm is information – control of information corrupts and absolute control of information corrupts absolutely.

And yet, in the ongoing flap about fake news, focus remains on the sender end of the once linear information chain.   Though quick to fault the press for failure to fact check or other abuse of power, we instinctively avert attention, and thus fail to consider the power that rests with the receiver of disinformation.

Labeling fake facts — or blaming the press — fails to dig deep enough to get at the root of the pervasive and pernicious power of disinformation. The complexities of the digital age demand a radical [“of or growing from the root of a plant”] look at the linear information chain that no longer exists. What we have today is a distributed information mesh with sources welded into the links, a brilliantly designed system that, unchecked, wraps the receiver in a dark web of disinformation.

Info Power to the rest of us

Radical thinking demands a hard look at the “missing link” – the receiver of information. It is the receiver who is responsible for evaluating the message, for turning information into action. The first step is to understand and act on the fact that fabrications are powerless if critical receivers resist, dismiss or eschew the sources or content of fake facts.

Recent history suggests that we are ill equipped to ward off disinformation. Back in pre-FB days Franklin Roosevelt declared, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely” adding that “the real safeguard of democracy, is education.” The digital age challenges us to rethink the safeguards within our reach – to expand K-12 and lifelong learning options to encompass critical thinking skills that adapt with the times, to nurture a healthy dose of perceptive paranoia, to understand the power of information and the disastrous potential of disinformation.

No matter how well crafted or effectively spread disinformation is, lies are lies. Lies hide in the weeds, impotent until and unless they exercise their power to influence the thoughts or actions of the receiver. It will take creative thinking, coupled with bold action, to get ahead of disinformation.

As a democratic society under stress we need to focus unprecedented attention and energy on the receiver link of the information chain – how people know what they know, believe what they believe. Labeling or otherwise limiting propaganda at the head end is ineffective and short-term.

The best offense is a strong defense. The best defense against disinformation is a nation of voters with the skill and the will to defend ourselves against the irresistible lure of brilliantly packaged disinformation. As a democratic society we need to understand the intent of the forefathers, then decide if we are up to the radical action it will take to face the challenges of the Information Age.

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Thomas Jefferson

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.

Taking Time to Think about Thinking


Reading furnishes the mind only with materials of knowledge;

it is thinking that makes what we read ours. John Locke

As an unreconstructed information access advocate I should be in a state of digital euphoria. Still, in a world overflowing with “materials of knowledge” I continue to rail incessantly about the need to teach the skills of information literary, agonize abut media monopolies, fret about the demise of investigative journalism, stress about the lack of transparency in trade deals, food safety, national security and Wall Street machinations. I rant about who sets the research agenda, how metrics are manipulated, what and who doesn’t show up in infographics. Just now I’m deeply immersed in the energy that surrounds the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Information Act

As I reflect on all mental spinning of wheels, I have come to appreciate the limits of my thoughts – the ruminations are all about the “materials of knowledge.”   More and more I feel the need to trace the information chain from source to destination, to give more thought to the receiver of the message, the one who will ultimately act on whatever gushes forth from the hydrant of metrics, polls, charts, editorials, unfiltered- and uninformed – opinions (Campaign season does this to me.) What – and how — are we voters thinking as we endure the incessant puffery and promises?

The words of John Locke, written more than three centuries ago, focus my thoughts. Today our lives and minds are saturated with “the materials of knowledge” created, processed and delivered to our ears and eyes through channels beyond the imagination of Locke and his contemporaries. What has not changed is the truth that, even in this digital age, “it is thinking that makes what we read ours.” We should perhaps give more thought to thinking.

By force of habit, I searched the term “thinking”- the results flooded my mind with obscure facts about metacognition, discernment, and the physiological processing of turning materials of knowledge into thoughts – mechanics beyond my ken and, for that matter, my interest.   So I decided to review my own thoughts on thinking. Thus, I presume to share these personal, unapologetically unscientific musings on what it takes to “make what we read ours.”

  • A frequently overlooked yet fundamental element of clear thinking is a healthy dose of self awareness, matched with the confidence to test the ideas and information of others against our own informed values. We need be truly appreciate that we own the right to an informed opinion. We are not empty vessels thirsting for information and ideas splashed our way by untested sources.
  • To some extent, the basics of self-awareness and confidence rest on a sturdy and ever-expanding structure of 21st Century skills. This starts with elementary skills of manipulating the mechanics of information. And this level of access depends to a great extent on economic factors, geographic limits, physical and mental ability and training. Contrary to popular belief the Internet and social media are neither universally accessible nor omniscient – much less impartial.
  • Too often we acquire only the limited skill to “read” what spews forth on demand; we do not learn the skill or nurture the habit of validating the “materials of knowledge” that are so readily accessible. The challenge to think assumes the skill to critically assess the motives of the source and thus the role of the receiver: Are we thoughtful people concerned with our own or the public good – or are we simply targeted consumers of products or services or pawns to a political pitch. In fact we cannot be tabula rasa “readers” of the “materials of knowledge” brilliantly packaged in formats designed to fool rather than inform – we need to think about it….
  • Open discourse with other sentient beings can often clarify, strengthen, and amplify our thinking. Sharing thoughts with others offers the challenge to sift, sort, compare, weigh, and illuminate information and ideas. True collaborative thinking is not so much an exchange of like opinions and ignorance as an honest willingness to listen to – and counter as appropriate – the thoughts of others.
  • In truth, Locke does not disparage the reading of (or listening to) books as a viable source of the “materials of knowledge.” Think history, analysis, biography, stories that illuminate the thoughts and challenges, the wisdom and foibles of humankind. Though bookstores and libraries tout the latest hot item rushed to press by an Insider, take time to browse, then drink deep of the literary stream.
  • Most important, perhaps, thinking takes time – time to digest diverse materials of knowledge, to make the materials our own. Thinking demands the commitment of precious time to learn, to exchange, to verify, to ponder, to challenge, sometimes to re-consider. Though the product of clear thinking may be neither visible nor measurable, human beings are designed not just to process the materials of knowledge but also to make all that information and all those ideas our own.

Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason

why so few engage in it.Henry Ford