Tag Archives: free press

Unsafe, Untrue, Unhinged? Libraries, Internet Platforms and Difficult Content

The ongoing discussion over how Internet platforms should deal with Alex Jones has provided a test-case for how Internet platforms should approach the question of ‘fake news’.

Alex Jones – described alternatively as a performance artist and a conspiracy theorist, amongst other things – is known for making unsubstantiated claims.

He (or at least the persona he presents) is firmly right-leaning, in the American context. This of course makes the whole debate more complicated. In polarised times, dismissing Jones as ‘fake news’ only leads to accusations of left-wing bias from his supporters.

Jones also tests the boundaries between extreme speech and dangerous speech.

This is a critical line – extreme speech may be uncomfortable, but is also part of the deal with freedom of expression. Calls for universal suffrage or religious freedom were also considered to be extreme speech for much of history.

This has placed Internet platforms in a difficult position. They are, at their core, profit-making companies – or at least aim to be – and have come across as uncomfortable in having to take these sorts of decisions.

They were never likely to find it easy. In addition to the fundamental difficulty of moderating billions of people, they are bigger – and richer – than Jones, and a familiar target for commentators. Moreover, it seems likely that criticism is not something that matters much to Jones, making him a less interesting objective.

Some moved quickly to ban him once the pressure grew, such as YouTube and Facebook, although of course this was after years of posts. Twitter hesitated, with CEO Jack Dorsey admitting that they really didn’t have a simple response to the fake news issue.

And others, such as Google, have not banned him, but rather down-graded Jones’ ‘news’ to make it far less visible among the other information sources out there.


These are all questions that are relevant for libraries. Our institutions are strong defenders of freedom of access to information and freedom of expression, but acknowledge that this is not an absolute freedom, not least when it leads to limitations on the rights of others.

For example, in its statement on the Right to Be Forgotten, IFLA underlines that there is a balance to be found between the right of access to information, and the right of individuals to ensure that information that is untrue or unfairly damaging is not given prominent in Internet searches.

Crucially, these sorts of decisions are a question of professional judgement. What may work in one context does not necessarily in another. Moreover, and as the current discussion underlines, extreme views are a key part of public political debate, and there is an obligation to record them for posterity.

The sorts of decisions Internet platforms are trying to take now are not far removed from the decisions made regularly in libraries. The way they do it is crucial. Restrictions – as the word implies – restrict the scope of debate that can make up the historical record.

While mimicking the work of libraries in helping people to find the information they need, they risk pre-empting thes individual decisions taken by librarians and users individuals. They do this in a way that is not necessarily transparent or sensitive to the situations of different users either, encouraging suspicion. They cannot be asked, or challenged about this. And of course are trying to do so at a scale never attempted before.

Jack Dorsey’s hesitation is perhaps welcome – an admission that easy solutions are mistaken. The need for libraries, and the skills and values of librarians, is as strong as ever.

Sustaining and Celebrating a Free Press through Libraries: World Press Freedom Day 2018

Patrons reading newspapers in the State Library of Queensland, 1934 (Public Domain, Author Unknown)

Patrons reading newspapers in the State Library of Queensland, 1934 (Public Domain, Author Unknown) https://bit.ly/2JNv3KI

Since the invention of modern printing, newspapers, newssheets and pamphlets, and in the 20th century radio and television, have been the vehicles of free speech, open debate, and democracy. Editors and journalists have marked their times, popularising new ideas, shaping thinking, and uncovering wrong-doing.


Every effort to censor or block news only serves to underline this potential for sharing ideas and driving change. That such efforts continue is testimony to the power of free media, and underlines the continuing need to insist on the protection of journalists. Libraries, in taking a strong stance in favour of freedom of speech, are natural allies.


Press Under Pressure

There are other threats though. Changes in the advertising market, and competition for people’s attention, has undermined the business model of ‘traditional’ newspapers, forcing difficult decisions about charging for access. Many have simply closed, or been taken over.


Some have chosen to provide more ‘clickbait’ as a means of earning more from adverts, arguably contributing to the ‘fake news’ phenomenon. Others are seeking to change copyright laws to try and extract greater revenues from news aggregators sides such as Google News through ‘snippet taxes’, regardless of the harm this will do to libraries and Internet users in general.


There’s no lack of writing about fake news or snippet taxes. IFLA has also often underlined the risks posed by ‘right to be forgotten’ laws, which threaten to limit journalists’ freedom to write, and see their work maintained online and accessible long-term.


However, in addition to getting involved in these high-level discussions, there are also interesting initiatives taking place on the ground – libraries which are working to ensure that there is a demand for a free press, and supply of quality journalism.


Printing the Bain News Service Photos, Bain News Service (Library of Congress Collection, Public Domain) https://bit.ly/2w6l01y

Printing the Bain News Service Photos, Bain News Service (Library of Congress Collection, Public Domain) https://bit.ly/2w6l01y

Grass Roots: Libraries, Supply and Demand

A blog in January by David Beard on Poynter set out the potential, telling the story of Mike Sullivan, director of the public library in Weare, New Hampshire, United States. When the town newspaper closed down, he set up his own from the library, reporting on local events and activities. This has brought new interest in local events, reinvigorating the community.


This example is not unique – in Zákánsyszék in Hungary, the local librarian, Edina Paraginé Tóth, started to work for the local newspaper fifteen years ago, wanting to help improve its quality. From this, she moved on to writing a column, and ten years ago helped set up an association to take over the newspaper. She is now on the editorial board, helping shape the direction of the newspaper.


There is a degree of shared purpose between librarians and journalists. David Beard, in his article, highlights the sense of public service, as well as the focus on information as key areas where librarianship and journalism can come together.


This is more than just a convergence of values, but also of practice. David Beard cites Tom Huang, who has worked with the Dallas Morning News among others to organise classes which can get locals – and in particular the young – interested in journalism. The State Library of Queensland has run projects, and there are further examples from earlier this decade in a blog by Barbara Jones in American Libraries.


Making Change Happen?

David Beard does argue that this sort of collaboration is unlikely to be behind the next Watergate, but underlines the importance of developing local connections, and the fact that for many people, local information is what matters most. This includes, of course, information about what libraries themselves are doing, as a recent piece in Mediashift highlighted.


But maybe there is scope to go further?


In a further piece in The Atlantic, David Beard notes the video news site run by the main library in San Antonio whose video coverage of a mayoral debate recorded the comments that may have contributed to the incumbent mayor’s subsequent defeat. And there are examples of libraries are also helping people take advantage of open government data policies, a key way of holding those in power to account, for instance in California and Washington.


This last example perhaps highlights the fact that cooperation between libraries and journalists has a lot of potential. Practically, drawing on traditional skills and new technologies, libraries can facilitate new forms of journalism. As physical spaces, they can also help young people engage with journalism, whether the goal is to encourage more people to pick up their pens, or simply value newspapers more highly. Politically, there is strong potential to work together to build and preserve the healthy information environment needed for both to thrive.