In my first post on MediaShift, I laid out how the digital media revolution was compelling organizations to become more transparent in their communication with the public. While vigorous in my promotion of radical transparency, I acknowledged “practical limits,” such as the revelation of competitive secrets or legally sensitive information.

In the two years since that post, I continued to contemplate the use of Internet activism to prompt transparency. I’ve been pleased to read accounts of “hacktivists” who organize democratic protests and expose unethical corporate practices. And I was proud when Parsons The New School for Design, my employer, recently co-hosted the annual “Random Hacks of Kindness event with the United Nations’ Global Pulse Initiative. But when I hear Julian Assange defend the actions WikiLeaks under the banner of transparency, I cringe. Surely diplomatic confidentiality and state secrets fall under the exempted “practical limits” I mention above?

Not so, said Andy Bichlbaum, co-founder of the Yes Men and a supporter of WikiLeaks. The Yes Men is among the more famous organizations to use hoaxes and online media to target corporate wrongdoing, and Bichlbaum happens to be a colleague of mine at Parsons. I recently had the opportunity to sit with him over lunch and discuss the effectiveness and ethics of Internet activism as it relates to his own work and that of Julian Assange.

Mischief, Meddling and Digital Trickery

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The DVD of the Recent Yes Men film

The Yes Men are awfully media savvy. Two years ago, they printed a spoof issue of the New York Times with headlines like “Maximum Wage Law Succeeds” and “Iraq War Ends,” and then distributed copies on New York City streets. When cable news shows caught wind of the prank and called to ask how many they’d circulated, the group inflated the number and claimed that a million newspapers were out there. Unquestioningly, CNN and others ran with that number, thereby exposing the scarcity of fact checking that exists in real-time cable news reporting.

On the online front, they’ve also set up phony websites for the World Trade Organization, which got them invited to speak at a not-so-phony conference as ostensible representatives for the WTO. The Yes Men have relied on the Internet for its high jinks (and highjacks), but Bichlbaum is bearish about the Internet’s potential for promoting activism.

“I think where new media become valuable is when they can get people into the streets,” he said. “People can be influenced by what they read on the Internet but most take it with a grain of salt. People make decisions based on what they feel, but when I’m browsing I don’t feel that much.”

He also dismissed the prospects of the Internet to give new journalistic voices, citing the Atlantic cover story from last summer, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” He said online media have “demeaned the whole news profession.”

WiiLeaks and Democracy

When I asked Bichlbaum about the work Assange is doing, he lit up and replied with a single word: “Awesome.”

“Finally, the manifestation of the promise of the Internet: To bring about more democracy,” he said. “Now there’s a really high chance that anything you do could be exposed, so the solution for governments then is to be forthright in their dealings. Hacking at its best is about transparency — making sure powerful people can’t hide what they do in our name, or how they do it.”

I asked Bichlbaum about the criticism that Assange conducts his work secretively, but in the name of transparency. That he seeks to declassify documents, but does so in a classified way. Isn’t this hypocritical?

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Andy Bichlbaum

“Does he have a responsibility to be as transparent as he’s making the government? No,” he said. “An individual has far less firepower a government or a corporation.”

The underdog certainly benefits from the level playing field provided by the Internet. But the question remains as to whether this new-found firepower will be wielded for restorative or corrosive purposes. Whether transparency is being invoked in the “whole truth and nothing but the truth” sense, or the more vapid voyeuristic sense.

This all comes down to intent. And here I think Leslie Gelb’s analysis in the Daily Beast is telling. If Assange really is doing what he’s doing in order to make government more accountable, then why did he “toss in those cables about Italy’s leader being a rake and Germany’s chancellor being a cautious fuddy-duddy, and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan being ‘paranoid’ … instead of leaking critical conversations with Chinese or Arab leaders to help solve the problems in Korea and Iran?” Gelb concludes, “These leaks were absolutely gratuitous and served only the purpose of making him a media marvel.”

This assertion was given weight by the fantastic and illuminating New York Times Magazine cover story by the newspaper’s executive editor, Bill Keller. He recounts his newspaper’s interactions with WikiLeaks and Assange. In one telling excerpt, Keller describes a phone conversation he had with Assange:

He was angry that we declined to link our online coverage of the War Logs to the WikiLeaks Web site, a decision we made because we feared — rightly, as it turned out — that its trove would contain the names of low-level informants and make them Taliban targets. “Where’s the respect?” he demanded. “Where’s the respect?”

So at a time when the New York Times is taking seriously its responsibility to both the public interest (and curiosity) and its journalistic ideals, Assange is begging for respect. While the Times is responsibly confronting a new journalistic reality created by the anonymous and almost anarchical nature online media, Assange is vainly and pettily seeking linkbacks and increased pageviews. And while the changing nature of the Internet has made something like WikiLeaks an inevitability, Assange is touting himself as a “puppet master.” His bravado won’t hide he fact that, in the big picture, he may be as incidental as he is consequential.

There’s a big difference between righteous transparency and self-righteous transparency. My friend Bichlbaum and the Yes Men are happy to make a spectacle of themselves in order to bring public attention to corporate exploitation and malfeasance. Assange seems to be breaching diplomatically sensitive cables mostly in order to make a spectacle of himself. That distinction, I think, is fairly transparent.

Mark Hannah is the director of academic communications at Parsons The New School for Design. Coming out of the public relations world, he has conducted sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. Mark worked for the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign as a member of the national advance staff. He’s more recently worked as an advance associate for the Obama-Biden campaign and Presidential Inaugural Committee. He serves on the board of directors of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and was a 2008 research fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. He holds a BA from the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania and an master’s degree from Columbia University. He can be reached at markphannah[at]gmail.com