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.