Tag Archives: infodemic

10 Things in Our Common Agenda

 Our Common Agenda is the United Nations’ Secretary-General’s response to the Declaration made by Member States on the UN’s 75th Anniversary in 2020. It marks an important step from defining priorities to defining concrete actions that can strengthen both the UN, and broader efforts to achieve its objectives.

It complements key existing texts, not least the 2030 Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, both by highlighting areas where there is a particular need for action, and proposing ways of ensuring that countries, together, can promote development more effectively.

The Agenda both has implications for libraries, and creates opportunities to underline how our institutions and profession contribute to global policy goals. As decisions are taken, and more detailed plans are put in place, there should be chances to contribute experience and perspectives, and seek recognition for our work.

IFLA has produced a briefing on Our Common Agenda that sets out in more detail the ideas and issues it covers. In this blog, we highlight ten key points that are relevant to libraries. You can draw on these points in your own engagement with local UN offices, or even in your advocacy, given how much support the Agenda offers for many library priorities:

 1) Renewing the social contract: Our Common Agenda emphasises the idea of a new social contract – a set of shared rules and values that provide a basis for government, and for relations between members of society. This, the report argues, needs to be founded on respect for rights (and access to justice), and on solidarity between the more and less fortunate. Crucially, such a social contract should offer a basis for quality public services.

Arguably, libraries (public and national libraries in particular) are part of such a social contract, provided by governments in order to provide opportunities for all to realise their rights, and their potential.

2) Combatting the infodemic: The report makes addressing the infodemic – the spread of misinformation – into a major priority, not just as concerns health, but across the board. It calls for steps both to ensure stronger scientific inputs into policy making, but also a code of conduct on the integrity of public information. There is blunt language about politicians and others who spread false information, with the Secretary General calling for it to be clear that it is wrong to lie.

For libraries, a greater focus on quality information and use of evidence vindicates the role of our profession, and will hopefully create new opportunities to ensure that this is recognised by decision-makers.

3) Universal connectivity: the Secretary General has also made universal internet connectivity a key part of Our Common Agenda, recognising how vital this is both for access to public services, and to wider economic, social and cultural opportunities. Connecting schools represents a particular priority, with more effective digital taxation seen as a way of paying for it.

Libraries have a long-standing, recognised role in supporting public access to the internet, as a stepping stone towards private access, or as a complement to it. It will be important to work to ensure that libraries are included in initiatives taking place under this heading.

4) Protecting rights, online and off: the report reiterates how central respect for human rights should be to all that governments do, echoing the 2030 Agenda. In particular, it calls for a Global Digital Compact, in order to find solutions to the challenges created by the behaviour of private and public actors alike. In particular, it warns about the impact of internet shutdowns, as well as more targeted blocking or filtering of content.

The need for the internet to work in support of human rights is a long-standing priority for libraries, and we bring important insights and perspectives. Libraries can also be key players in more community-based initiatives around information and connectivity, such as community networks or local archives.  

5) Thinking to the future: a large segment of the report is dedicated to making the future more present in policy discussions taking place today. One way of doing this is through intensifying work to draw on evidence and expert viewpoints in order to identify what the years to come could look like. In addition to doing this more at the UN itself, Our Common Agenda also advocates for boosting listening exercises, as well as those focused on envisioning the future.

Libraries are not only crucial players in ensuring that decision-makers have the information needed to think about the future, but can be important venues for involving communities in collective reflection. In many cases, public libraries already fulfil this function, giving an opportunity to share good practices and spread them further.

 6) Literacy matters: a further step in order better to integrate the future into present planning is by focusing on children, and giving everyone a better start in life. A key element of this is universal basic literacy, with it clear that many schools still don’t have the resources needed to provide this, even if children are able to attend. The answer will need to be a new drive to deliver skills, including through better focusing of aid budgets.

Globally, libraries have a key role in promoting literacy, both within schools and wider communities, that is often recognised in national literacy and reading strategies. It will be important now both to ensure that this is reflected at the global level, and to see how we can increase the impact of libraries’ work in this area.

7) A universal entitlement to lifelong learning: Our Common Agenda’s emphasis on education is not limited to children, but also recognises the situation and needs of adults faced with a world and employment market for which their previous education and experience may not have prepared them. Yet lifelong learning is too often under-supported compared with other policy areas – this needs to be corrected if everyone is to be able to play their part in sustainable development.

Libraries are both providers of, and portals to lifelong learning opportunities. We have a strong interest then both in promoting the idea of a universal entitlement as a goal, and contributing to efforts to define how it is delivered.  

 8) A more networked multilateralism: Our Common Agenda underlines that for success in delivering the goals of the United Nations, not least the Sustainable Development Goals, a full range of actors needs to be involved, including business, academics and civil society. Crucially, development cannot just be a top-down thing, but needs to mobilise different strengths and capabilities.

Beyond the work of library associations in engaging with discussions around implementation of the SDGs, this priority may support efforts to promote models of SDG delivery that mobilise libraries more effectively, drawing on their strengths in terms of collections, spaces and staff.

 9) Dedicated focal points for civil society: As part of the drive to ensure stronger participation of different stakeholders in delivering on policy goals, Our Common Agenda includes proposed steps to make it easier for civil society organisations to engage with UN agencies. A key one is the suggestion to name dedicated focal points who can organise opportunities to input, and make it easier to find out how to get involved.

For library associations, as civil society organisations, this development would be a helpful one, especially in more specialised or regional UN agencies. Once these are identified, it will be possible to focus advocacy more effectively, through understanding better what is possible.

10) The role of parliaments and local and regional governments: as part of its emphasis on the need to work with a wider range of stakeholders, the report highlights in particular the need to work more with Parliaments and regional governments, both of which have key roles, respectively, in designing and scrutinising policy, and in taking many of the actions needed to achieve development.

Libraries and research services have a particularly essential role in helping parliaments to do their jobs, while local and regional governments often have libraries under their direct responsibility, making them more aware of what our institutions can achieve. The focus on parliaments and local and regional governments offers new possibilities to demonstrate, and advocate for, the importance of libraries.

Was 2020 the Year we Fell out of Love with Information (and Why We Should Make Up in 2021)

2020 was a year of casualties.

Most obviously, there were the million plus people who were lost to COVID-19, and others whose lives were – or risk being – shortened by the consequences of the COVID response on other forms of healthcare.

Screening and vaccination programmes, mental health, and prevention have all suffered.

There have been the pupils and students who have lost weeks or months of formal education, with the highest costs often amongst those who rely most on education as a driver of social and economic mobility.

There has been the economic cost, playing out in businesses closed, jobs lost, and futures upended.

Beyond COVID, the death of George Floyd led to protests that met, often, with a violent response from police. Meanwhile, conflicts continued around the world, and progress towards the SDGs remained insufficient if we are to meet the Global Goals by 2030.

This blog argues that alongside the other casualties, there is a risk that our relationship with access to information may end up being damaged by the events of 2020. However, as it concludes, it is not too late to make it up.


Information as Virus

The first blow came, early on in the pandemic, when the word ‘infodemic’ started to circulate, promoted by the World Health Organization. Others, such as UNESCO, used terms such as ‘disinfodemic’.

Of course in some ways, it is positive to see the power of information recognised in a world where this is arguably all too often taken for granted.

However, the focus in the WHO definition on the idea of an ‘over-abundance’ of information is noteworthy. So too is the implication that information itself (rather than deliberate disinformation, in the case of the UNESCO definition) is a virus.

It seems unlikely that the WHO, given its own positive approach to issues such as open access and science, intended this. However, given libraries’ focus on increasing the amount of information available to people in order to be able to respond to their needs, this is potentially a cause for concern.

From here, it is only a short step to the idea that certain actors should have a monopoly on information provision, with everything else declared invalid or even illegal. This would take us back to the days of only allowing officially sanctioned printing presses – not a desirable move.

If the idea of limiting the amount of information available to people spreads – rather than a focus on providing the guidance and skills necessary to navigate the information available – there is a risk of losing momentum in the drive to bring the benefits of access to information to all.


Information as Potentially Dangerous Good

Closely linked to the concept of an ‘infodemic’ has been the growing pressure on internet platforms to intervene in the sharing of information – and their own readiness to act in response.

Twitter for example updated its policies in 2020, and proved readier to block or label tweets from President Trump. Facebook and others upped their efforts to block misleading content about COVID.

For many though, this has been nowhere near enough, and calls have grown for review of the ‘safe harbour’ provisions that have allowed internet platforms a way to escape liability for content posted by users.

The European Union itself has started the process of updating its own rules, while in the United States, calls to repeal or reform Section 230 are growing louder.

These discussions of course have two angles to them, as the European Union’s own approach recognises. One relates to how to address harmful or illegal content online. The other is a result of the desire to address concerns about unfair competition and impacts on other companies.

However, in the popular discourse, the two issues are rolled together, with changing liability rules for internet platforms seen as a way to solve competition issues. Faced with this, the platforms themselves, as suggested above, have been ready to move to show they are listening and hopefully avoid much more costly competition interventions, such as break-ups or divestments.

Why is this a concern for access to information?

Because a simple shift to increase the liability on the platforms and services that have arguably facilitated much of the explosion in access to information risks leading to the privatisation of the policing of free speech.

In effect, through their terms of use – and their application through pre-emptive filters – platforms would decide what speech is acceptable or not. Without an incentive to promote free expression, the risk of over-blocking is high. Similar rules could end up applying to upstream providers such as ISPs, or even hosting services. As private companies, there would also be fewer requirements for transparency, or opportunities to appeal.

This is indeed an issue already warned about by the former UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression in 2017. But after 2020, there seems to be a serious risk of it accelerating.


Information as Uncertainty

The final threat to our relationship with information has been the lesson that the pandemic has provided in how knowledge is created and furthered.

We have seen claims made and refuted by scientists, advice issued, changed and updated by governments, and have been faced ourselves with uncertainty in carrying out activities which we previously did unthinkingly.

The pandemic has exposed how incomplete and inconclusive information can be. While this is nothing new for those involved in science, for many, it has not been an easy or comfortable experience.

Rather, it has led to frustration, cynicism, and likely a greater tendency to grab onto the easy answers that conspiracy theories provide.

Clearly, such theories are nothing new, but the pandemic has arguably provided a fertile ground for their spread. These of course can do harm to individuals and groups, as well as to the effectiveness of efforts to tackle the pandemic.

In the longer term, there is a risk that more people are pushed into abandoning curiosity and seeking out easier and more comfortable information. In doing so, they risk falling into the trap explained by Elfreda Chapman in her work on information poverty, rejecting information from outside the group.



The events of 2020 have certainly had am impact on our relationship with information. The idea that there can be too much information, that it is something to be vetted before it is shared, that it is too complicated, all risk making people fall out of love with it.

Faced with this, libraries’ focus on enhancing the amount of information available to people, and focusing on building information skills, can of course risk looking naïve.

There is of course unacceptable information out there – harmful hate speech, abuse, deliberate lies and more. It is not possible to declare that all information is good, and of course, there is no such thing as perfect information literacy or skill.

The question is rather about our starting point in addressing these questions. Do we begin with the position that more information is a positive, unless identified as otherwise, or do we assume that information is bad, unless proven to be acceptable?

Do we put faith in people to be able to navigate their way around information, or do we spoon-feed them?

Do we encourage curiosity, even if it comes with complexity, or rather simply look to make things easy?

For libraries, traditionally, we advocate for the first positions.

While limitations on access and expression may be necessary, these need to be the exception, and applied only when necessary and proportionate, and in a transparent manner. While leaving people room to make up their own minds can lead to mistakes, it is ultimately more desirable than channelling them narrowly. While ready reckoners and simplicity may be attractive, they can set limits on curiosity and innovation.

However, the events of 2020 have seen increasing risks of lawmakers and societies adopting approaches less friendly to access to information. This risks dragging us back to a situation of censorship, slowing efforts to bring people online, chilling expression, and self-imposed information poverty.

As we head into 2021, we need to be able to highlight the costs of over-blocking, censorship and conspiracy theories. But just as importantly, if we want people to come to value and appreciate information, we need to be able to tell the positive stories of how the widest possible access changes lives for the better.