Involuntary Transparency 2014

Daniel Ellsberg, source of the Pentagon Papers, pioneer of Involuntary Disclosure.

Four years ago, I blogged about the concept of involuntary transparency, coined in a Forbes article on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. It amounts to the age-old act of leaking confidential information, amplified by digital technology that immortalizes damning content, facilitates its collection, and accelerates its publication. Forty-five years ago, Daniel Ellsberg brought the Pentagon Papers to light through a difficult and time-consuming sequence of events: being an employee at the RAND Corporation, secretly photocopying thousands of pages of classified documents, and sharing them with major media. In the 21st century, insider status, Xerox machines, and The New York Times are not required to turn whispers into headlines.

Today, anyone can be an Ellsberg just as anyone can be a Zepruder. And just as easily, anyone can be an exposé subject. Assange and Edward Snowden have targeted the executive branch of the U.S. government as Ellsberg did. CEOs and celebrities now receive similar treatment as their private actions are captured in Nixonian archives, ready to be breached:

  • Donald Sterling lost ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers due to an audio recording of his racist views.
  • Ray Rice was tossed from the NFL with the posting of a security video showing him punching out his now-wife.
  • Stephen Collins was cast out of his acting career with the release of an audio recording in which he admitted child molestation.
  • Amy Pascal was revealed to partake in racist remarks about President Obama and overall boorish behavior when her emails as Sony Pictures co-chairman went public.

The perpetrators of involuntary transparency are frequently guilty of legal and moral transgressions themselves. Donald Sterling and Stephen Collins were recorded surreptitiously. Amy Pascal’s personal correspondence was part of the data trove stolen by hackers retaliating for “The Interview,” Sony Pictures’ comedy about Kim Jong-un. Daniel Ellsberg, Julian Assange and Edward Snowden all drew the ire of the U.S. government, with Ellsberg put on trial.

The right to privacy and the right to know constitute a dialectic, a tension of opposites. Abuses occur at both poles. Hackers consider anything on the Internet fair game. Posting Jennifer Lawrence’s private nude photos is not the equivalent of disclosing the methodology and depth of NSA electronic surveillance as the former holds scant right to know for the general public. Will the right to privacy and the right to know achieve synthesis, a new balance in the digital era?

About Jason William Karpf

Author, Professor, Nonprofit Pro, Four-Time Jeopardy Champ
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