Coordinator for Information Literacy and Outreach
Farmville, VA 23909
lenkermn @ longwood.edu
Information Literacy vs. the DemagogueMichael Corleone advises us to “keep your friends close but your enemies closer” (Godfather, Part II). As librarians and educators work to further develop the information literacy movement, we need to consider the perspective of those who work against our goal of developing citizens who can inform themselves in an objective manner. An example of this class of rivals that poses a particularly poignant threat to the health of democratic institutions is the demagogue, a public figure who employs disinformation to inflame people’s fear and anger, thereby securing for the demagogue a greater percentage of the votes, a larger chunk of the viewership. I believe that a careful examination of the motivations and techniques of past demagogues can put information literacy educators in a better position to help their students critically evaluate inflammatory political communications.
In American history, Senator Joseph McCarthy stands out as a demagogue par excellence. From 1950 to 1954, Senator McCarthy amassed a great deal of power and media attention by making allegations of widespread Communist infiltration into the federal government. He typically did not substantiate any of the charges he made, though his accusations ruined the careers of many citizens working in politics, journalism, and entertainment, and his smear campaigns greatly contributed to the atmosphere of suspicion and partisanship that was prevalent in the early Cold-War period.
In the piece below, I imagine what Senator McCarthy might have to say about the information literacy movement. My intention is not to heap further calumny upon the infamous senator. Rather, I think it is important for the information literacy community to acknowledge him as a brilliant communicator from whom we have much to learn.
Here is what the senator has to say:
_________________________Dear librarians and information literacy educators:
I understand that you concern yourselves with the development of your students as “informed citizens,” and that you believe that the information literate student should be able to “recognize prejudice, deception, or manipulation” (ACRL, 2000). If that is really what you are after, you need to start doing things differently. If you want to help your students recognize political humbug when they see it, you need to study the techniques of the artists who excelled in that medium. I was one of the best.
Consider my 1950 Lincoln Day address, the very first time I claimed that I had the names of 205 Communist sympathizers who were working for the State Department. Why would I pull a stunt like that, especially without any firm evidence? I didn’t even have any names! (Johnson, 2005, p. 16) But it worked like a charm – here’s why:
- I mentioned Communists. It was early in the Cold War. Most people didn’t know what Communists were, but they were certain that Communists were treacherous and detestable. And it was already a hot topic in the media. State Department employee Alger Hiss had been recently exposed for sharing government secrets with the Soviet Union. Who’s to say the infiltration didn’t go even further?
- I gave a concrete number: 205. In speeches the following week, I changed the numbers a bit, first to 207, then to 57 (Bayley, 1981, p. 20-25). The quantity didn’t really matter. But the fact that I gave a specific number made it look like I knew what I was talking about.
- I was challenging the establishment: As a senator from Outagamie County, Wisconsin, exposing treason in the federal government allowed me to take on the role of the outsider from Middle America challenging the Washington elites. Everyone hates Washington elites, and my status as the underdog appealed to people.
My message was crafted to push people’s buttons, to play upon their fears and their sense of indignation. But the message wasn’t all–I also paid attention to the medium I was using. I had a strategy for working the wire services of the Associated Press and United Press International. Here’s how it worked: remember my Lincoln Day speech? 205 Communists are employed by the State Department. Do I drop that bombshell in New York or DC? No way! In places like that, there are too many other stories competing for headlines, not to mention too many Pulitzer Prize-winning troublemakers who might ask difficult questions (Johnson, 2005, p.21-25). No, the place to expose Communists in government was Wheeling, West Virginia. I was sure to be front-page news there. More importantly, Wheeling provided a point of entry into the Assocated Press wire network. According to a newspaper study conducted by Edwin R Bayley (1981), 28 newspapers across the nation covered my Wheeling speech (p. 18). Two days later, I followed up that performance with press conferences in Salt Lake City and Reno. 34 papers ran stories about Salt Lake City (p. 21); 49 papers covered Reno (p. 41). That’s how we went “viral” back in the 1950s, and I was just getting started. According to the same study by Bayley (1981), by 1954, it was common for me to be mentioned fifteen or more times a day – in a single edition of a single paper (p. 47). I was everywhere!
Imagine what I could do today with Twitter and Youtube. According to a recent Pew study, 39% of American adults use social media to engage in political activities (Rainie, Smith, et al., 2012). I could “broadcast myself” directly to the people instead of working through the filter of the press. Some of the liberals in the media might challenge me on what I was saying, but it wouldn’t make any difference. The conspiracy express would already have left the station, and the voices of the critics would just help carry my message further.
You don’t think the people would believe me instead of my critics? I’ll let you in on a little secret–people believe what they want to believe, and they love nothing better than the righteous indignation that is the stock-in-trade of partisan politics. Your political scientists are looking into this–they call it “motivated reasoning.” According to one recent study, the more sophisticated a liberal argument is, the harder a conservative mind will work to disconfirm it, and vice versa. In the words of the researchers, people “hold the arguments they don’t like to a higher standard” (Taber, Cann, & Kucsova, 2009). Another study suggests that this holds true even when (a) a political figure makes a misleading claim in a news article and (b) the reporter or editor presents evidence that disconfirms the claim in question (Nyhan & Reifler, 2010). Instead of buying into the corrective claim that’s actually based on evidence, the true believers dig in their heels to stand by their ideologue of choice.
It’s no wonder my job was so easy. And no wonder your job is so hard. If your information literacy really is about promoting informed citizenship, it needs to address more than just search techniques and the characteristics of various formats of information. It needs to encourage questions about the judgments and choices people make when they create, disseminate, and buy into political information.
A recent study by Banas and Miller (2013) suggests that preparing an audience in advance for encounters with political disinformation can reduce the persuasiveness of that disinformation. And there are educators out there already who are applying this principle in practice. An example is ALA’s News Know-how campaign, a collaboration among librarians, educators, and journalists to help middle- and high-school students develop the skills to be critical consumers of the news media. If these programs look into the techniques that some of the more infamous demagogues have used to get their audience to rally to their cause, there is a chance that students will be able to keep a clear head when political operators try to push their buttons.
But it will not be easy. I’m a firm believer in the old saw that “there’s a sucker born every minute” – and it’s hard to change the dispositions that come naturally to people. That’s why the demagogue’s strategy has worked so well for so long, at least as far back as people have understood that if you use words to tap into people’s fears or hatreds, they will listen to you. It’s a natural reaction, like shivering when it’s cold or coughing when you have the flu. But, in time, most people do get over the flu, and, as the end of my career shows, people eventually get over demagogues too. Maybe you can provide the guidance and the resources to help them along.
To quote one of my least favorite journalists,“Good night, and good luck.” If you are going to try to keep up with the demagogues, you’re going to need it.
Joseph R. McCarthy
United States Senate -- Wisconsin
 This article is an expanded version of a talk I gave at the 2013 LOEX Conference in Nashville, Tennessee.
ACRL. (2000). Information literacy competency standards for higher education. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/informationliteracycompetency.
ALA. (2005). Resolution on disinformation, media manipulation, and the destruction of public information. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aboutala/sites/ala.org.aboutala/files/content/governance/policymanual/updatedpolicymanual/ocrpdfofprm/52-8disinformation.pdf.
Banas, J. A., & Miller, G. (2013). Inducing resistance to conspiracy theory propaganda: Testing inoculation and metainoculation strategies. Human Communication Research, 39(2), 184-207.
Bayley, E. R. (1981). Joe McCarthy and the press. Madison, Wis: University of Wisconsin Press.
Green, Joshua. (June 2004). Playing dirty. Atlantic Monthly, 295 (5), 73-80. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/.
Huppke, R. (2012, April 19). Facts, 360 B.C.-A.D. 2012. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/.
IFLA. (2011). Media and information literacy recommendations. Retrieved from http://www.ifla.org/publications/ifla-media-and-information-literacy-recommendations.
Johnson, H. (2005). The age of anxiety: McCarthyism to terrorism. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc.
Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. (2010). When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior, 32 (2), 303. doi:10.2307/40587320
Office for Intellectual Freedom, American Library Association. (2012). News know-how. Retrieved from http://www.newsknowhow.org
Pew Research Center. (October 15, 2013). Record anti-incumbent sentiment ahead of 2014 elections. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Retrieved from http://www.people-press.org.
Pew Research Center. (October 18, 2013). Trust in government nears record low, but most federal agencies are viewed favorably. Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Retrieved from http://www.people-press.org.
Rainie, L., Smith, A., Schlozman, K. L., Brady, H., Verba, S. (2012). Social media and political engagement. Retrieved from Pew Internet and American Life Project: http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/Political-engagement.aspx.
Taber, C., Cann, D., & Kucsova, S. (2009). The Motivated Processing of Political Arguments. Political Behavior, 31(2), 137-155. doi:10.1007/s11109-008-9075-8