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.
Notes  This article is an expanded version of a talk I gave at the 2013 LOEX Conference in Nashville, Tennessee.
 Although I approach this problem from the perspective of an instruction librarian working in a higher education setting, this issue is not the exclusive concern of academic libraries. IFLA’s “Media and Information Literacy Recommendations” stresses the connections between media literacy and desirable citizenship outcomes. ALA’s “Resolution on Disinformation, Media Manipulation, and the Destruction of Public Information” calls on its members to “to help raise public consciousness regarding the many ways in which disinformation and media manipulation are being used to mislead public opinion in all spheres of life, and further encourages librarians to facilitate this awareness with collection development, library programming and public outreach that draws the public's attention to those alternative sources of information dedicated to countering and revealing the disinformation often purveyed by the mainstream media.”
 As recently as April of 2012, Representative Allen West of Florida disparagingly claimed that between 79 and 81 of his colleagues in Congress were active members of the Communist Party. His attack provoked Rex Huppke of the Chicago Tribune to pen the much-publicized “obituary” “Facts, 360 B.C.-A.D. 2012.”
 Could McCarthy’s strategy work today? Two recent public opinion studies by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press indicate that it would be an uphill battle, largely because Congressional representatives currently suffer from a general lack of credibility in the eyes of the public. Anti-incumbent sentiment is very high (74% of respondents would like to see most sitting members of Congress not be re-elected, according to the report “Record Anti-Incumbent Sentiment Ahead of 2014 Elections”). Similarly, an alarming majority of the public has an unfavorable view of Congress (73%, according to the study “Trust in Government Nears Record Low, But Most Federal Agencies Are Viewed Favorably”). This credibility problem is likely to make it particularly difficult for a current senator to gain much ground in the polls by attacking a government agency like the Department of State, especially given the approval levels that many federal agencies currently enjoy. According to the same study, nine of the thirteen agencies in the survey received a favorable opinion from 60% or more of the respondents (unfortunately, the Department of State was not among the agencies included in the survey). These trends all suggest that it would be difficult for a current senator to pull off a successful smear campaign against a federal agency like the State Department. Of course, a resourceful demagogue could always choose a different target.
 21st century opposition researchers also emphasize the use of the AP network in disseminating negative campaign stories, for reasons much like McCarthy’s. See Joshua Green, “Playing Dirty,” Atlantic Monthly, vol. 295, issue 5, June 2004.
 Research by Banas and Miller (2013) involves testing the effectiveness of communicative “inoculations” in reducing the persuasiveness of conspiracy theories. “Inoculation” in this sense refers to communication that (a) alerts the audience that someone is going to attempt to change their existing attitudes on an issue and (b) provides evidence or arguments that the audience can use to counter the persuasive attempt. Their results show that inoculation tends to make conspiracy theories less persuasive (though it does not dispel their persuasiveness completely). As the authors put it, “This is a significant advancement because it provides preliminary evidence that rational, cognitively focused communication can reduce the effectiveness of largely illogical, emotionally charged persuasion.” This result gives me cause for hope: if librarians can develop engaging programs and lesson plans to inoculate their communities against manipulative political information, it can make a real difference in decreasing their communities’ susceptibility to political disinformation. References 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