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The Transparency Conspiracy

SOFIA – One of the most troubling outcomes of the ongoing financial crisis has been a collapse of trust in democratic institutions and politicians. Indeed, in 2012, the global public-relations firm Edelman’s “Trust Barometer” survey registered the biggest-ever decline when it comes to government. Can greater “transparency” – the new political mantra of civic activists and an increasing number of democratic governments – reverse this trend?

The hope is that a combination of new technologies, publicly accessible data, and renewed civic engagement can help people control their representatives more effectively. But the idea that transparency will restore public trust in democracy rests on several problematic assumptions, primarily the belief that “if only people knew,” everything would be different.

Unfortunately, matters are not so simple. The end of government secrecy does not mean the birth of the informed citizen; nor does more control necessarily suggest more trust in public institutions. For example, after American voters learned that President George W. Bush had led the United States into a war with Iraq without proof of weapons of mass destruction, they re-elected him. Likewise, Italians kept Silvio Berlusconi in power for more than a decade, despite a steady stream of revelations about his wrongdoings.

In politics, “knowing everything” still means knowing different things, which means that compelling governments to disclose information does not necessarily mean that people learn more or understand better. On the contrary, as soon as government information is designed to be immediately open to everybody, its value as information declines and its value as an instrument of manipulation increases.

Consider how gangsters in crime movies talk when they know that the police are listening. They speak clearly and offer banalities while exchanging notes under the table. That is government in the age of transparency.

In his study of truth-telling in ancient Greece, the philosopher Michel Foucault pointed out that the act of truth-telling cannot be reduced to citizens learning something that they did not know before. Paradoxically, truth in politics is something that everybody knows, but that few dare to express.

People hardly need additional data to recognize, say, a rise in inequality or mistreatment of immigrants. The WikiLeaks cables did not teach us anything qualitatively new about America’s policies.

Living in truth cannot be reduced to having access to full information. It is people’s willingness to take personal risks and confront the powerful by daring to speak the truth, not the truth itself, that ultimately leads to change.

Moreover, information never comes without interpretation. Reading the same raw data, Republicans and Democrats in the US, or secularists and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, will spin it differently, because policymaking cannot be divorced from decision-makers’ interests and values. As the anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff put it, ours “is an age in which people almost everywhere seem preoccupied, simultaneously, with transparency and conspiracy.”

To see the ambiguity of the politics of trust, consider Russia’s recent experience. In December 2011, the country’s parliamentary election triggered a civic explosion. Hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets of Moscow and other big cities to demand a fair vote and real choices in the subsequent presidential election. The escalating crisis of legitimacy forced the government to invent imaginative ways to justify its power.

The central proposal was ingenious: the Kremlin proposed to guarantee the election’s fairness by installing webcams at all polling stations; every citizen could personally monitor the voting process. As China’s Xinhua news agency enthusiastically reported: “From Kamchatka to Kaliningrad, and from Chechnya to Chukotka, more than 2.5 million net surfers registered to view live streaming from at least 188,000 webcams installed in more than 94,000 polling stations on Russian territory.” In the words of one Finnish observer, it was “a landmark in the history of democracy and democratic elections.”

But, in a regime like Vladimir Putin’s, where the government decides who may be a candidate, the webcams would be farcical were they not also so intimidating. Viewed from the West, they were perceived as a tool to keep the government under control by enabling people to watch what it was doing. But, from the point of view of a post-Soviet voter living in the countryside, the webcam sent a different message: the government knows how you vote.

In a way, Putin succeeded twice: he looked transparent to the West and menacing to most of his own citizens. The installation of the webcams was an act of simultaneous transparency and conspiracy.

The broader issue is transparency advocates’ insistence that open government can be reconciled with citizens’ privacy. But might wholly transparent government imply a wholly transparent citizen? As a rule, governments monitor people. When that becomes transparent, so do those citizens who spoke with or were monitored by the government.

Contrary to the expectations of transparency advocates, greater disclosure of government information does not make public discourse more rational and less paranoid. If anything, it fuels conspiracy theories (there is nothing more suspicious than the claim of absolute transparency). Who can honestly say that public debate has become more rational and less paranoid when our governments have become more transparent?

Rather than restoring trust in democratic institutions, the transparency movement could accelerate the transformation of democratic politics into the management of mistrust. In that case, one could imagine the replacement of representative democracy with political regimes that limit citizen control to the executive.

None of this is to deny that transparency in government is a worthy goal. But let’s not fool ourselves by thinking that achieving it will restore citizens’ faith in their political institutions.