Transparent wrongdoing and mundane revelations

There is a well-known saying — “it’s not the crime, it’s the coverup that gets you.” This is true in the obvious way it is usually meant: many administrative crimes are difficult to prove. They happen at a particular moment, are witnessed by few, and intent is notoriously difficult to get at. Cover-ups, on the other hand, often spiral slowly outwards. Bureaucracies always create many more paper trails than any one individual realizes, and a person covering up a crime ends up realizing that over time.

But in politics and business, coverups are damaging in another way. The truth is that individuals have very little idea what constitutes acceptable behavior in these realms. Suppose someone overheard someone in their office talking about non-public information about a company whose stock they owned. They then called and sold that stock. Is that legal or illegal? People don’t know. So people use a simple signal — If the person tried to hide it, it was probably wrong. If they didn’t, it was probably no big deal. Looking at the behavior is easier than looking through insider trading law for most people.

This signal (concealment = wrongdoing) is pretty ingrained for most people. But the depth of that instinctive reaction raises two interesting problems. First, when lawlessness (or other unethical behavior) is done in the open we have sometimes have a hard time processing it as wrongdoing. Second, when mundane behavior is either concealed or portrayed as being concealed, we sometimes process mundane acts, communications, and events as being nefarious. As usual, propagandists use these patterns to their advantage.

When acceptable behavior is out in the open it intensifies our feeling of acceptableness, and when bad behavior is hidden it intensifies our feeling of wrongdoing. But what about the two other squares on the matrix (open/not ok, hidden/ok)?

Transparent wrongdoing

As has been noted by many commenters, there’s a bit of a paradox with the events of January 6th. Experts disagree whether it was a coup or an insurrection (the difference hinging on the level to which it was guided by elites). But it was clearly one of the two. And one way we know this is it was one of the most documented events in all of human history. The people participating, many believing that they would prevail and wanting credit for that, filmed themselves doing it. Tweeted out that they were headed to the insurrection. Compared it to 1776. None of it was hidden.

That transparency should work in the favor of culpability, and in a narrow legal sense it has. Generally, don’t film yourself doing crimes. But as we have put time in between ourselves and the event, the transparency is being leveraged in another way by propagandists. Propagandists have turned the tables — if this really was an insurrection, they ask, then why were they all filming themselves doing it? To the sociologist and psychologist there are relatively easy answers to these questions; but the transparency signal is not a imminently logical one, and doesn’t respond to footnotes. If you’re explaining, as they say, you’re losing.

In general, we’ve seen a lot of this in recent history. This is a short blog post, so I won’t make a comprehensive list here, but I think anyone who has watched the news over the past few years could make a list of questionable and sometimes illegal behavior that benefitted publicly from the argument “If it was really that wrong, would it have been done this publicly?”

In this way, transparency can take on a secondary, if symbolic, meaning. Transparency often means to be able to “look in” to the inner workings of an organization or action. But for the propagandist, claims of transparency can be used to “look past”, to render the bad behavior itself invisible.

Mundane revelations

The second interesting combination is when the behavior is acceptable, even mundane, and yet a feeling of concealment is used to create an appearance of wrong-doing. Consider two interviews. In one, a scientist makes a claim in a high production clearly official interview that “We don’t actually know how much the earth will heat up in the next ten years.” This is pretty mundane stuff: we know the earth is heating up, but models disagree on the amount we will see in the short term. Taped by a film crew and put on Dateline, you’re likely to read the comment just in that way.

Now take the same interview, and do it with a hidden camera. Suddenly, the same quote can feel like a hidden admission.

We see this a lot in propaganda. Video is caught of someone doing something out in the open, but it is surveillance video, or hidden video. Likewise, leaked or hacked emails can often reveal the boring lives of mid-level bureaucrats and press officers. Highlight the fact it was leaked and add some ominous red circles and highlight, and suddenly the impression of concealment can create a story where there is none. After all, official documents may say, but it’s purportedly “secret” documents that reveal.