Links of the Week: September 24, 2021: Museums and Misinformation

Links of the Week: September 24, 2021: Museums and Misinformation

4 min read

If you're reading this and not a subscriber to Museum Human, consider scrolling to the bottom and signing up now—it's free and is the only way to read the site's longer weekly post on the organizational culture of cultural organizations and to learn about upcoming community events.

Misinformation isn't just politics. Museum org culture plays a role in false workplace narratives.

There's no shortage of stories about the far-right mainstreaming fraudulent stories as part of a larger Overton-window and fascism-acceptance strategy. Wired also has this story on deliberate misinformation-for-hire in Kenya, with the usual warning about the effectiveness of fake social media stories:

Curiously, there is little evidence that such operations actually sway people’s opinions. But they do affect how Twitter users interact with their information environment. The ultimate goal appears to be to overwhelm users and create an environment where nobody knows what is true or false anymore.

So it's not just the fake news, it's the overwhelming nature of all news that sends readers away from the truth. Yes, truth is work, as this other story from Wired about Wikipedia makes clear. If only we had the time to search for the truth.

Any organization using social media for publicity and information is already climbing the poisoned tree of Facebook, as a Wall Street Journal article from earlier this month describes. (The article is paywalled, so check out this coverage from the Guardian, with more here.) The tech titan has taken the offensive to prove how informative it really is. (Harvard Business Review has a recent IdeaCast podcast episode on the subject here.)

The machine learning economy, as writer Cory Doctorow explains in this Medium piece, is part of a larger lie about helping humans, when it's just about saving money in the name of institutional growth by firing developers, content creators, admins, and so on. It's a shortcut economy, and should make us all think about the shortcuts we take in our museum work, even—or especially—the ones we take because some toxic or thoughtless or last-second colleague "made us do it." If you've ever cursed at autocorrecting or auto-suggesting phones or computers, think of it as a form of shortcutting … and where that might take us in the search for truth?

A long Harper's article takes the same position as Doctorow that the tech titans aren't the master manipulators they, and we, pretend they are because the truth is far more depressing:

One reason to grant Silicon Valley’s assumptions about our mechanistic persuadability is that it prevents us from thinking too hard about the role we play in taking up and believing the things we want to believe. It turns a huge question about the nature of democracy in the digital age—what if the people believe crazy things, and now everyone knows it?—into a technocratic negotiation between tech companies, media companies, think tanks, and universities.

It's easy to throw up our collective (jabbed) arms at the epic misinformation about coronavirus, though considering the sorry state of science literacy, it's little wonder that we've reached this point (and it's only going to get worse when the question of vaccinating children comes up). Add to that the lies white people get away with (seen in the recent coverage of a white woman who disappeared on a cross-country trip, vs all the less-white-supremacist-photogenic women and girls who disappear every day).

It's interesting that museums remain (or so they claim) trusted institutions (also here); international organizations like the World Bank constantly find ways to undermine trust in them. But in the meanwhile, companies are telling their workers not to discuss politics (whatever that means) in internal channels.

I'm not here to point out the ways that museums lie in their programming and content (though they certainly don't do right by the truth when it comes to unionizing and other ways of improving their working lives) as much to emphasize that misinformation is all over the institutional place in organizations like museums and the working lives we are supposed to have in cultural orgs. It's the lies we in museums tell ourselves to get along that we have to recognize, as much as the lies our leaders tell us to advance their scarcity agendas.

This episode of the Brave New Work podcast from org culture firm The Ready makes an important distinction that workers are often told they are acting in risky ways when they are in fact prioritizing their own safety (in a discussion with software developer Rich Sheridan). People are often shamed when they consider procrastination, quitting, or working remotely, when in fact, they are moving towards safety. The risk is to stay as things are. Being told what we should find "safe" is another form of misinformation.

So is the "diversity vs excellence" dichotomy. It comes from the same well as the stories about the founding of the USA or the white supremacist foundations of multiculturalism.

When museums—and their workers—don't take being wrong seriously (also here), they set themselves up as institutional misinformers and part of the larger culture of misinformation.

If you're reading this and not a subscriber to Museum Human, consider signing up for a free subscription below—it's the only way to read the site's longer weekly post on the organizational culture of cultural organizations. Thank you for reading!

cover image by Michal Matlon / Unsplash) [description: a picture of a lamb with "2+2=5" written in chalk on a blackboard]

Creative Commons License

Links of the Week: September 24, 2021: Museums and Misinformation by Robert J Weisberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

I work on a bit of everything in museum content. I find human solutions to tech problems. I geek out on workflow. No, really. I learn and teach and write everything down.