Sometimes it’s worth remembering that two things can be simultaneously true: (1) Institutions are capable of causing an incredible amount of harm, and (2) they are also spaces that provide a great deal of useful information about events and situations. This is particularly true for institutions within the imperial core, but it is also very true for institutions that were established outside of it.
After all, it’s worth remembering that many of those institutions were also established by colonising forces or suffered from imperial interference. Many of those same institutions still endure this, with some universities and NGOs receiving research grants and funding from North American philanthro-capitalists and aid organisations who implement specific conditions to receive it.
Yet, it’s worth remembering that this is where we need to apply a ‘critical lens’ or understand ‘creative reading’ of information we receive from all of them. There are questions that we should be asking of anything we read, rather than just taking for granted that it’s “correct” or “wrong” simply because of where it originates. Reports can contain multitudes: truths, exaggerations, misunderstandings, misleading conclusions, obscured facts, and falsehoods.
It’s up to us to analyse the information they generate to the best of our ability.
Now, I’m not usually someone who likes to defend academia or NGOs because I often feel like their role in society has been largely unearned based on their actions and structures. While I recognise the ways in which they can be important, I more often notice negative impacts of their existence, especially with regards to the harms endured by marginalised people. Those harms cover a broad range: white saviour complexes, supporting racist and eugenicist policies, experimenting on vulnerable populations, gatekeeping information, and so much more. There are a lot of problems with these organisations, so it’s worth mentioning that I don’t think they should exist as they are.
However, many of these institutions are also where much of our information comes from, often because they have the resources to conduct the research in the first place. Sometimes the people involved do have conflicts of interests or political agendas to push, and that can greatly impact the research they do. It impacts how they frame their premise and what they choose to focus on as evidence. Granted, this applies even to the best and least “compromised” researcher or reporter because they have their own ideas and beliefs. We all have inherent biases, and some of us try to work through them more than others.
Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research is a useful case study for conducting research with multiple conflicts of interest. In 2017, CEPR conducted research about how city-wide reforms for Newark’s schools changed educational outcomes between the 2009-10 and 2015-2016 school years. In doing this, they managed to find a lot of positive information related to charter schools, which were part of a policy that both then-Mayor Cory Booker (D) and Governor Chris Christie (R) had agreed upon. When the media reported on this study, they often chose to obscure one fact that features in the report’s acknowledgements: Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan had provided the foundation in charge of dispensing money for the school reforms with $100 million (which, according to their deal with Booker, was half the total amount needed), but they had also provided funding for the research project that was determining the effectiveness of the reforms through the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative (then known as Startup: Education Foundation). It’s pretty clear that we should have a lot of concerns about this report’s authenticity and motive.
Reading the report, it fails to really address the community and the social aspects of schools. It barely expresses interest in what happened to the teachers and how these reforms impacted the contracts they received or the way their jobs changed; it neglects the fact that the community has frequently said they weren’t listened to throughout the project, even though there were superficial “panels.” This is made even more interesting upon researching the connections of one of the report’s authors: education economist Thomas Kane.
Kane is known for his role in Vergara v. California, a 2012 lawsuit that aimed to remove tenure from teachers and make it easier to fire teachers who were deemed as “ineffective.” Unsurprisingly, he testified in support of making it easier under the guise of “quality schools.” Throughout much of his career, he has often claimed to be “supporting the rights of students,” often focusing his critique of education laws and public schooling on the ways that so-called “ineffective” teachers impact low-income students while neglecting any other problem that may exist. In fact, he has openly stated that we should use quantitative measures to determine teacher quality in an FDA-type organisation. This shouldn’t be surprising for a person seeking to reform education who has also worked within the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which also gives money to the CEPR), either.
The connections between all of these people, organisations, and events should be cause for concern, prompting us to ask a lot of questions related to motive and political agenda. However, despite the significant conflicts of interest for many of institutions and people involved in this report, it doesn’t negate all of the information in it. What it does mean is that a person reading the published report should be incredibly cautious of discussions about teacher effectiveness and the success of charter schools in Newark, among other topics. It means we have to read between the lines and dig a little deeper because at least one of the authors has a clear political agenda. And it also tells us that we should be confirming or debunking information form more reliable sources.
But this is one example of what people should be doing when they decide to point out that information being published is suspicious, especially those who are “on the left” and want to ensure that everyone has access to knowledge.
We shouldn’t simply wave it away because it’s inconvenient or because the “wrong” people are involved. When possible, we should be explaining why it’s suspicious, what’s missing, what harm the research or information can do, and pointing out conflicts of interest.
Yet, it is all too common when people are called out for spreading inaccurate information that they’ll engage in tactics that assume all information must be inherently suspicious. They’ll make spurious claims about someone’s position in an institution or pretend that the person critiquing them has made their credential their entire personality. If others agree with the assessment because of their own personal experiences or research, the person being critiqued will either ignore them entirely or claim they’re being attacked.
And when those people have large platforms, this is particularly infuriating because their audience trusts them. It’s irresponsible.
Understandably, we shouldn’t view people as being omniscient simply because they have a PhD or institutional backing. As with anything, it’s worth recognising that even they can be wrong and produce inaccurate research. (I mean, Naomi Wolf has proven this repeatedly.) But this is not something that should tell us to “trust them less,” either.
This absurdist argument walks the same path as those of conspiracy theorists, causing problems across the board. Conspiracy theories are notoriously difficult to combat, and they also cause issues with regards to legitimate critique of the people or organisations they target.
For example, philanthro-capitalist Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation have had numerous conspiracy theories circling them for many years. These usually far-right conspiracy theories often make nonsensical claims that range from things like microchips in COVID-19 vaccinations to claiming the snow in Texas was “fake” and attributing it to them. As time has gone on, the conspiracies have only gotten more and more out of hand. Beyond being absolutely ludicrous, the sheer number of them has assisted in making it almost impossible to critique him and his foundation without people claiming it’s some sort of conspiracy.
After all, how are you supposed to critique the person who has helped harm education in Seattle (and was never made to pay for his “error in judgement”) when people continually make up ridiculous things related to his actions? How are you supposed to critique him for acting like an expert on healthcare (including COVID) when he has little relevant knowledge about it but everyone shrugs off your critiques as conspiracies? Paris Marx criticised him on Twitter for promoting the idea that the vaccine should be patented (harming countries outside the imperial core), and his account was locked while others claimed he was “promoting a conspiracy theory” (which Bill Gates later confirmed as being true). Later, it was also revealed that he had connections to the COVAX program, which was designed to help countries struggling to access vaccines.
All of which is one huge conflict of interest that should prompt a lot of questions, and there are people doing the best they can to answer them. Journalist Timothy Schwab has outlined many of the areas of concern regarding Bill Gates and his relationship to the outlets that report on him, including NPR. This work takes a lot of time and isn’t complete, though it probably won’t be in our lifetimes. But it’s really important and necessary work that can, unfortunately, lose impact when someone like Bill Gates can just shrug it off and pretend its another “unhinged conspiracy theory.”
Sometimes the conspiracies start to seem like a cover for his behaviour.
So if someone “on the left” is reckless enough to conclude that all information that researchers report is inherently bad or entirely problematic because “people and institutions have ulterior motives,” it spurs on those very responses to our criticisms.
We can’t put obstacles in our own path, and that is precisely what would happen.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t confined to philanthro-capitalists, academia, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, and NGOs. Lesser known individuals and small independent organisations across the political spectrum are capable of engaging in similar actions, meaning we can’t just focus our analytical efforts to the obvious institutions. We also have to be vigilant of those around us, too.
Some of these outlets may sew mistrust of information both intentionally and unintentionally. Some of these projects directly work on disinformation and smear campaigns, while others unknowingly participate in them; others may fall somewhere in the middle, intentionally promoting ill-intended information for another goal entirely. This doesn’t mean that the information they publish should be ignored, but people engaging with them should make the best attempt to verify the published information with other sources and redirect people seeking similar information away from the questionable organisation by sharing those instead. If it is not possible to find additional sources, it would be wise to question both the authenticity and motive of the information provided.
Another tactic that is often employed is a person or organisation will attempt to evade accountability because a questionable organisation picked up credible information and used it in conjunction with a smear campaign. For example, some US-based antifascist and anarchist organisations have started to distance themselves away from a well-known antifascist activist in response to allegations of abuse. One of these was from an ex-roommate whose statement had been corroborated by others who knew both the alleged abuser and the ex-roommate. However, far-right groups had seized upon this statement and started using it as part of a targeted attack. In response, the alleged abuser and his defenders continuously avoided accountability simply by claiming it was a “far-right smear.”
This doesn’t make the statement false or suspect. It should be fairly clear that the far-right are just as able to utilise truthful information for their own gain, especially if it has been made public. However, while it’s important to look into how information is being distributed and where it comes from, it is equally important to recognise that potential abusers within our own circles can and will use the actions of the far-right as a way to deny authenticity and actively refuse to be held accountable for their actions.
We cannot and should not create blanket statements and claim that people should be “trusted less” simply because of their credentials. There are just too many people working within different areas of institutions for this to be the one criteria for who is considered trustworthy.
So while we should be cautious and explore connections between individuals and organisations, we shouldn’t automatically assume that everything they do is useless. There are a lot of questions that we should spend time asking and trying our best to understand, demanding transparency. This creates an area where we can engage in conversation with those around us, learning about the problematic elements of the research being conducted or the materials that are published.
As a bonus, it’s one more way to promote education and curiosity within the larger movement without supporting conspiracies. And it just might build community, too.