Truth in an Age of Guerrilla Political Activism

06/17/2011 07:31 pm ET | Updated Aug 17, 2011

A few weeks ago, we were made to believe that a mysterious person hijacked Fox News and supplanted the ticker outside its Manhattan headquarters with liberal slogans. "We are being lied to," the electronic message board read with big shining letters, in a YouTube video that gained lots of attention. "Rightwingers are destroying the middle class and trying to kill our unions... We will rise up." Days ago we learned that the video was an elaborate hoax by none other than The progressive activist group seized on the buzz to announce a major anti-austerity campaign.

Guerrilla-style political activism is regularly carried out on both sides of the ideological spectrum -- and can undoubtedly be effective at stirring things up. Just ask right-wing activist James O'Keefe, whose deceptive "sting" video of NPR executives spurred a Republican-led House vote to strip the news organization of public funds. Or ask The Yes Men, the two notorious anti-globalization rabble-rousers who most recently fooled The Associated Press and other news organizations into reporting as fact a hoax press release in which General Electric promised to return its $3.2 billion tax refund to the US treasury. Buffalo Beast editor Ian Murphy dominated headlines after he posed as oil tycoon David Koch in a phone call with Wisconsin's Republican Governor Scott Walker. And that's just a sampling from this year.

The media loves to cover these stunts, because they're provocative and divisive. And while they're in the news, the perpetrators have plenty of airtime to draw attention to their issues. Spectators are prone to applauding pranks that target entities they deem worthy of targeting. But do the ends justify the means? And should reasonable people on either side of the spectrum ever sign off on the use of lies and deception to make a political point?

The Yes Men argue that lies are justifiable in certain cases. "A lie itself isn't necessarily bad," Mike Bonanno of the duo told me last year. "It's why you're lying and who's gaining and who's losing as a result." Bonanno calls O'Keefe and his ally Andrew Breitbart "sad, pathetic assholes" despite their use of similar tactics. His reasoning? "We lie in order to criticize people who are abusing their power. They lie in order to humiliate and take out people who are at the receiving end of power."

Persuasive as this may seem, the problem is liberals and conservatives have a fundamentally different outlook on wealth and power -- liberals think it comes with extra responsibilities, conservatives don't think there ought to be strings attached. O'Keefe clearly agrees with Bonanno that scorched-earth activism is par for the course; he simply thinks advocates for the poor deserve to be targeted more than the CEO of Goldman Sachs. Breitbart, echoing this view, furiously retorted to a liberal blogger, "Do you go after The Yes Men?" when confronted about his promotion of O'Keefe's misleadingly edited ACORN video that took down the group. The point is the two sides aren't going to reconcile that difference, so the relevant question is whether or not the tactics in and of themselves should be deemed off-limits.

To wit, it's hard to see how liberals who supported MoveOn's stunt against Fox News can credibly take issue when these sorts of tricks target one of their own tomorrow. Ditto for conservatives who defend O'Keefe and Breitbart but are outraged when the victim of a politically motivated prank is a Republican governor. One can make the (useful) distinction that MoveOn, Murphy and The Yes Men -- unlike O'Keefe and Breitbart -- all came clean about their deceptions after they made their point. But that doesn't answer the question of whether either side will ultimately benefit from a culture of ploys aimed at manipulating the public and obfuscating the truth.

It's arguable, in the end, that these shenanigans are simply part of a new political reality, and that the side that uses them most effectively will be better off. "We now officially live in the era of guerrilla activism," wrote Kevin Drum of Mother Jones after O'Keefe's NPR ploy. "Well-timed sting operations are now the go-to tactic for conservatives trying to discredit programs that they and their funders dislike. And as long as the press continues to eat this stuff up, we can expect it to keep coming... It's time [for liberals] to pick up our game."