Transparency in Place of Democracy : The future of informational activism

[ This is a slightly modified version of a presentation given at the ‘Invisible Harms’ conference on November 14, 2013 at the University of Pennsylvania]


 We have heard that ‘information is power’. But what kind of power has it become, and for what purpose? In the past two years we have experienced how leaked information can change the power dynamics between citizens, elected individuals and governments, from WikiLeaks to the Snowden revelations.  Leaks form one part of a dichotomy that also includes promises of greater government transparency – and all of this is held up through the technical promise of the internet. The WikiLeaks drama, the actions of Anonymous, and the large-scale surveillance of major democratic countries via PRISM and Tempora all point to the development of cultures that value transparency as a key component of democracy – in fact, I’m starting to wonder if transparency – the goal of visibility – is starting to stand in for democracy – the goal of respresentation and accountability.

A short history of information activism

At the root of the current fascination with transparency are a series of mediated dramas involving WikiLeaks, Anonymous and now the governments of major Western democracies engaged in mass surveillance. These 3 cases can be taken together as an illustration of the development of a concept of transparency coming to stand in for a concept of democracy, under situations in which democratic accountability can be obfuscated.  I believe that we have come to a place in which many of the features of democracy – especially the idea of participatory democracy but also representative democracy – have been transmuted into a promise of transparency, of visibility. I believe this has to do with changes in how the power of information has been perceived.

Different mediating technologies appear to promise different ways of organizing social relationships and meanings. The press, for example, promised a platform for speaking in one voice to an audience of many. But the internet promised an even greater democratization of information, with everyone in theory equally able to post information or to comment on it. The idea was horizontality, equality, and a ‘generative’ type of openness that was based on the ability to build or rebuild the technical platform of communication; in the old network science understanding, to ‘route around damage’. As theorist José van Dijk writes, “Connectivity has become the material and metaphorical wiring of our culture, a culture in which technologies shape and are shaped not only by economic and legal frames, but also by users and content.” (p. 141).

As an example, take this speech that David Cameron made in 2006: “You have begun the process of democratising the world’s information . . . by making more information available to more people, you are giving them more power.”  A typical statement, and one that resonated with a party developing a “transparency agenda”, plans for ‘open government’ and accessible government data. We will return to Cameron’s speech in a moment.

WikiLeaks: ‘transparency uber alles.’

bostonglobe (image from the Boston Globe)

WikiLeaks enforced transparency by mobilizing technical capacities of the internet’s networked mode of communication, but also by creating communicational paradigms that link mass media forms of communication and interpersonal forms through a globalization of communication and a greater interactivity (as theorist Cardoso notes). In this context, the WikiLeaks phenomenon includes two elements: First, the disruption of news production that resulted from the partnerships between WikiLeaks and mass media organizations; and second, the technical and legal measures taken to shut down WikiLeaks (mostly by US commercial and state actors) and the reactions mounted against these measures by individuals associating themselves with Anonymous.

Wikileaks presented an apparent challenge to the mediating and gatekeeping power of the mass media, but through its partnerships and connections with mass media, beginning with the Guardian and secondarily a set of other leading broadsheet newspapers, first in Europe and then around the world.

The leaks that were released up until the diplomatic cables in 2010 were discussed by those who read them, but were not generally part of a broader discussion about state secrets. The partnerships with news organizations became important in advancing  Julian Assange’s purpose, but also created new ways of ‘doing’ journalism, as Leigh and Harding (2010) report in their book on the Wikileaks partnership with the Guardian. These new ways of ‘doing’ journalism included working with Assange and other WikiLeaks members to select relevant cables, doing fact-checking, and constructing narrative from the deluge of data that the cables represented.

The cyberlocker technology that allowed WikiLeaks to gather information that would never have previously been published disrupted the control of information that previously characterized both the regimes of the state and the mass media. The ongoing circulation of diplomatic gossip and low-level critique taking place around the world wherever WikiLeaks cables are published by a partner newspaper is evidence of this disruption.

After the drama subsided, the long-term consequence of WikiLeaks was in part a stated commitment to transparency by governments. At the same time however, it also produced a counter-movement towards less networked, more ‘invisible’ forms of communication.

Anonymous(ly) Enforcing transparency


This brings us to the long and interesting story of Anonymous, and here I tip my hat to Gabriella Coleman whose recent work rigorously researches these so-called  ‘shock troops of the internet’ and arguably their tactics draw both strongly on the networked structure of the internet and on the power of transparency : they often publish personal information as a way of embarrassing powerful figures into action. For example, in 2011 Anons launched Operation Darknet targeting websites hosting child pornography. Most notably, the group hacked a child pornography site called “Lolita City”, releasing 1,589 usernames from the site. Actions like this do the same thing as WikiLeaks – using the capacities of the internet to enforce transparency on wrongdoers – in this case ‘naming and shaming’ people who are engaged in online activities that are both illegal and immoral.

Ironically,  Anonymous depends for its effectiveness on a lack of transparency about its membership. The group’s few rules include not disclosing one’s identity, not talking about the group, and not attacking the media. This last is important because media coverage of Anonymous actions is one of the ways that the ‘freedom fighting’ that the group engages in becomes effective – as you can see in this image of Anons advocating for the release of Edward Snowden.


Transparency is enforced by Anonymous on the targets it chooses while resisted itself. But by resisting transparency and (once again) taking on the particular qualities of the internet as a networked communication platform. Interestingly Anonymous is now calling for government transparency (second image is of FEMA hack day in support of Snowden), which brings me to …

The ethics of mass surveillance


My third example are the large-scale surveillance operations mounted by the US and the UK. As I discuss in this interview with security expert Ian Brown, these operations included collection of raw internet traffic flowing through the UK (in the case of Tempora). All communications data were kept for three days, with metadata being retained for thirty days. This ongoing surveillance submits millions of people to constant monitoring.

Once again, transparency is enforced upon one group by another group who gain power from their obscurity. In this case it is government security agencies who, without the knowledge of the public, effectively render all communication data transparent to some extent. If you think about it for a moment or two, this scale of surveillance effectively renders every individual’s daily life transparent to government spies, without subjecting the rationale for that spying to democratic debate.

Ironies of transparency

The irony of government transparency (and indeed of massive government spying) is that it shifts power relations such that the least powerful in society become those who have nothing to ‘show’. They are the people who cannot demonstrate a ‘paper trail’ and by not having anything to prove themselves, they have more to fear than those who are outwardly transparent. The extremely paradoxical thing about this is that those who have the most power are those who can engage in steganography – hiding in plain sight by being very transparent. We can see this kind of strategy emerging with corporate social responsibility strategies where companies confess to poor practices, hoping that the admission gains them some points. In a way this is a perversion of democracy, and what I think of as a new, invisible Iron Curtain (here, for reference, is the old one, in Budapest).



The future of information activism – hiding in plain sight?

I have discussed how Anonymous inverts the power differential between the surveyor and the surveyed in order to make their activism more effective: they also use the internet in a way that inverts the usual straightforward relationship between transparency and democracy: they can enact activism that is participatory and hence ‘democratic’ precisely because they can be anonymous while inflicting transparency on others. This reverses the situation of pervasive surveillance and expanding governmentality that results from the extensive collection of individual personal information by governments.

I expect advocacy efforts in future to employ not just this inversion of transparency but also, in another turning upside down of existing power relations, to engage much more in steganography – hiding in plain sight. Already activist organizations have begun using internet-based tools to suggest ways to do this: in a previous post I discussed the implications of this move into the “dark web”.



The speech I quoted at the beginning of this talk has, according to the Guardian newspaper, been deleted from the internet. The UK Tory party is committed to government transparency and has been supporting open government initiatives, yet this week it has been deleting the archives of its speeches from 2000 to 2010, some hope in the hopes that it will distract from criticisms that it has changed its policies.