Is Transparency Even Possible Anymore?

The other day, a meme was haunting my Facebook feed with a photo of Senator Elizabeth Warren and a quote attributed to her saying that the TPP negotiations are too secretive, even beyond the scrutiny of Congress.  Now, I really like Senator Warren, and she’s one of the few pols who is likely to earn the benefit of my doubt.  And assuming the quote is accurately attributed, I’m open to the idea that this unprecedentedly large and complex trade agreement is being negotiated in an unprecedentedly secretive manner, though that may not be the case.  As stated in earlier posts on this subject, trade negotiations are historically pretty close-vested affairs out of necessity; it’s either that or no trade deals at all.  But setting that specific debate aside, whether it’s the TPP or any number of other initiatives meant to be conducted by elected and appointed representatives, I have to wonder about the prospect of an effective measure of transparency in the digital age.  After all, even today, it’s still newsmakers who shape public opinion. But who are the newsmakers?

Let’s imagine for the moment that the daily doings of the TPP were made publicly available in real time, at least in the U.S.  Based on comparable data measuring political involvement, let’s assume that 50% of Americans will not only not care, but would say, “The TP-what?” if asked for an opinion.  And let’s go crazy and say that a full 20% of Americans would get so involved that they watch the negotiations like sports fans, parsing all the language, arguing about it on social media, and making a real hobby out of Tradespotting.  Setting aside whatever we might assume about individuals who have this kind of time on their hands, the odds are quite high that these most ardent Tradespotters are also going to be the most entrenched in their views, predisposed to dislike global trade agreements, but all for different reasons.  Because the people who fit that description includes a pretty diverse range — from NGOs who seriously study global economics and real matters of social justice to anarchists who don’t know anything, but really like to show up at WTO summits and set stuff on fire.  In either case, this category of watchdogs is likely too small collectively to have much political influence and too fragmented as a segment to represent a collective in the first place.

So, that would leave 40% of us who care about a deal like the TPP but cannot possibly spend our days scrutinizing, let alone understanding, the fungible details of a multi-lateral trade agreement.  Still, we like transparency, we’ll call ourselves open to all sides, and we are a big enough, engaged enough population to have political influence on our representatives.  Historically, I think it’s a pretty fair portrayal of the engaged American citizen to describe him as someone who cannot engage first-hand with every issue but who looks to experts — journalists, trusted elected representatives, experienced analysts, etc.  And this is where I believe the proverbial wheels have come off in the digital age.  Because not only have many of the traditional information filters lost credibility (in some cases deservedly so) in our digitized times, but they are also often outnumbered and outspent by commercial entities that are in a position to buy public opinion on trade or any other issue in which they have a vested interest.

I’ve accused organizations like the EFF of scare-mongering on behalf of the Internet and electronics industries with regard to the intellectual property components of the TPP. Agree with that example or not, what I think is important is that The Koch Brothers, the pharmaceutical industry, the bankers, or any other powerful interest can all avail themselves of the same, low-cost, manipulative tools that can sway public opinion either for or against a particular initiative. And against is always easier.

On social media manipulation can look an awful lot like transparency when it is in fact corporate PR disguised as public advocacy. Because you’ll likely never see a meme or an article with the headline “Pfizer says XYZ trade deal will make the world a better place.”  Instead, you’ll see The Global Outreach Center for the Benefit of Mankind and Kittens says, “XYZ  trade deal will make the world a better place.”  And lo, it turns out The GOCBMK just happens to be funded by the pharmaceutical industry.  So, for us 40% of Americans who try to be engaged in the traditional manner of seeking wisdom from middle-man sources, and who now get most of our leads from social media, it is entirely possible that we are looking through much more opaque filters than we were 20 years ago.

Sticking with the example of trade agreements, these are initiatives that naturally affect hundreds or thousands of business interests.  So, if we were to make the language of ongoing negotiations publicly available, it’s the wealthiest corporate interests that have both the time and the resources to launch social media campaigns designed to scare people about whatever it is they might want to kill in the deal.  That kind of PR is not new, but it is cheaper,  faster, and potentially more effective in a climate that has devalued and fragmented the authority of traditional, disinterested commentary. So, one unintended consequence of seeking greater transparency in our times is that the information, which sill won’t be accessed by most citizens, does provide free grist for the PR mill of any vested interest that wants to manipulate that information.

So where do we net out? With something like trade agreements, I’m betting we wind up more or less where we started.  We elect a president, and whoever he or she is appoints trade representatives to negotiate treaties that have to be ratified by Congress.   We hope these deals do more good than harm, knowing full well that any two Americans will likely disagree on the definitions of good and harm.  As it ever was, we remain as good or bad as the people we elect and appoint. Meanwhile, what seems different today is this notion that digitized transparency cuts out the middle-man, but I believe this is illusory.  More typically, I think social media platforms create a kind of power vacuum in which sober, expert voices are often drowned out by the circus of new middle men who know how to dazzle or frighten an audience.

This is a particularly acute matter to consider this week as we watch some of the major news organizations enter into the Instant Articles deal with Facebook. In this new arrangement, readers will no longer have to leave the walled garden of Facebook to read the full text of a piece produced by, for example, The New York Times.  That’s convenient for the reader, but as writer Chris Cillizza points out in this piece for The Washington Post, such arrangements radically alter the relationship between the content of journalism and the advertising that supports it.  The traditional disconnect between advertisers in a newspaper and any individual story in that paper is conducive to the overall integrity of the many stories being published.  But when individual stories are each valued by their popularity and advertised against by specific sponsors, this changes the relationship and brings sponsor and “news” closer than ever.  “And what does that reality mean if the long-term business model of Instant Articles for media companies is centered primarily around sponsored content?” asks Cillizza.  Good question.  To me, the answer doesn’t sound like it leads to greater transparency about anything.

David Newhoff
David is an author, communications professional, and copyright advocate. After more than 20 years providing creative services and consulting in corporate communications, he shifted his attention to law and policy, beginning with advocacy of copyright and the value of creative professionals to America’s economy, core principles, and culture.

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