THE YES MEN: AN AGE OF LAUGHTIVISM?

THE YES MEN: AN AGE OF LAUGHTIVISM?

ON THE MASTERS OF ANTI-CORPORATE MAYHEM BY PER CROMWELL

The first time I heard about the YES Men must have been around 2006. It was Friday afternoon at the office, and Fredrik brought some beer and a movie for us to watch. On the cover were two guys in suits, balancing on planet Earth against a yellow background. In red letters, bold and capital, it read The YES Men. Fourteen years later, I got off the phone with Mike, who was in Scotland. He’s half of the YES Men. Andy, the other half, was stuck somewhere in Arizona.

If you don’t know, the YES Men are into identity correction. Whenever they find a large company that presents itself dishonestly, the YES Men step in to “correct” them. It can start with a fake website representing that company, a website that gets the YES Men invited conferences. Once there, Mike and Andy present an alternative version of the company. Conferences offer an opportunity to achieve identity correction, as do live-broadcast interviews and made-up newspaper articles. The YES Men have reinvented activism by turning the PR and advertising weapons of big corporations against them. They’ve been doing so for almost 25 years. Raising awareness about problematic social and political issues, they fight ridiculous corporate claims with humor and absurdity. And by doing so, they’ve inspired a new generation of pranksters, hoaxers, artists, and activists. 

     Wikipedia describes the YES Men as a culture-jamming activist duo. It all started when they created a website that allowed them to pretend to be the World Trade Organization, and to their surprise, they received invitations to speak at conferences. They accepted. Before long, they created a new website, gwbush.com—a satirical website that put the spotlight on false statements presented on Bush’s actual website. Bush publicly criticized the site, a poor decision if he wanted the YES Men to go away. The opposite happened. The site got a lot of attention and, with it, so did the YES Men. 

     In 2004, the YES Men pulled off what became their biggest prank. That year was the twentieth anniversary of the Bhopal, India disaster. On the night of the 2nd of December, 1984, a chemical plant released approximately 40 tons of toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas, exposing more than 500,000 people to the poison. Thousands of people died the following days, hundreds of thousands were affected, and children suffered numerous birth defects. The Bhopal incident is one of the worst chemical disasters in history. Since the company responsible for the disaster never compensated the victims properly, the average amount families of the dead received was $2,200, which is a ridiculous compensation for the suffering caused. The YES Men decided to create an alternative and kinder narrative. 

     So, after a lot of preparation, Andy, pretending to be Jude Finisterra representing Dow Chemical, managed to go live on the BBC and make an astonishing statement. Dow planned to compensate the victims. By taking responsibility, Dow would accept a smaller profit that year and instead substantially compensate the victims. This shocking statement came as a surprise to a financial world unused to companies doing the right thing if it meant sacrificing profits. The news of Dow Chemical’s unexpected promise sent shock waves through the financial system, the participants in which understood this payoff would be very expensive. After a series of official denials from Dow and counter-denials from the YES Men, the confusion was monumental. Dow’s share price fell 4.24 percent in 23 minutes, wiping $2 billion off its market value. The people of Bhopal were happy at first, but when they realized that no real compensation was coming, they were still thankful someone was bringing attention to their situation. 

     The Bhopal campaign passed for being real, apart from Jude Finisterra’s staring eyes, and the YES Men had previously pulled off a notorious prank by placing a “corrected” WTO website at gatt.org. That fake website also incited real invitations for WTO representatives to participate in numerous conferences and address various elite groups. The YES Men accepted the invitations. Pretending to represent the WTO, the YES Men gave speeches where they encouraged corporations to buy votes directly from citizens. They then presented a gold spandex bodysuit that they said would allow productivity to increase, since managers wouldn’t have to oversee workers but could keep track of them via an attached screen and implanted sensors. This suit was ideal, since it allowed corporations to keep workers in their native countries where they were cheaper to support and easier to surveil. 

     The reaction from the audience is very important. The YES Men have perfected getting the reaction they want after presenting a series of jaw-dropping innovations over the years. One example is an inflated “gated community for one” called the SurvivaBall, proposed by a fake Halliburton rep. Another was a recyclable hamburger created from human feces and proposed by fake WTO and McDonald’s reps. An audience might react with confusion or disgust, but viewers often admire these new and “innovative” projects. The reaction of the audience creates the humor, and this humor is what makes the YES Men so popular. Absurdity often trumps the serious, but very effective pranks have an element of reality, as in the Dow case. 

     The YES Men have posed as representatives of fossil-fuel companies, HUD officials in New Orleans, and NRA reps. To do more, with the help of the Bertha Foundation, the YES Men founded a school, called the YES School, to educate and equip activists with the tools needed to make themselves heard. By doing so, the YES Men are multiplying, and actions they have inspired or supervised are popping up all over the world. 

     But is there a difference between pretending to be a company and pretending to be a person? 

     Mike says, “It depends on the person, you know. We’re always trying to do things that point out abuses of power. If you’re pointing at someone who’s relatively powerless, 99 percent of the time there’s no joke there. We have a set of ethical guidelines for what we do.”

The Infodemic

On the topic of an infodemic, it’s hard to find anyone more suited than the YES Men to guide us through how the media landscape has changed and how to spot something fake. They’ve created an alternative reality for decades. When I ask them about the use of fakes and false information to get your message out, they claim to be telling the truth in a world that’s faking it. Mike explains that they distinguish what they do from fake news, because if they use trickery or a hoax to make it on the news, the goal is to expose factual information that’s unreported or underreported. Anything they do is a way of delivering the truth. It’s like the sugar that makes the medicine go down, hiding the bitter pill. When Chevron or Shell makes false statements, that’s the real fake presented as the truth. The YES Men counter by presenting facts and the truth, using fakes as a vehicle. 

     Looking back on the time the YES Men have been active, a lot has changed. Google wasn’t launched when they started, and once it was available, it wasn’t very efficient. The web was the Wild West. It was very hard to verify anything back then. Making a fake website that was taken seriously or was disproportionately seen as important was simple. The web was a fun and open place, and it left a lot of room to be mistaken for somebody or something else. You could easily create stories, and if you got them right, then journalists covered them in traditional newspaper or television news. The YES Men became very skilled at attracting coverage. 

     That shifted in the early 00s when search started getting better. Google got good at weeding out the fakes, and people began to realize that the internet wasn’t magical. It was a commodifiable commercial space. Possibilities became smaller as the web became more market driven. The YES Men managed to adapt. As more information pumped through the internet, the biggest change was the rise of algorithms and filter bubbles. People got to see more of what they already saw, and the audience became polarized and fractured. 

     No media is consumed by everyone. Creators must decide at an earlier stage who to address. Either the people reading The Washington Post or The New York Times, or the flip side, such as people watching Fox News or One America News. Mike feels like that’s when older methods of communication broke down. The YES Men had to start looking for different tools, piggybacking on social media or targeting specific people. It was no longer effective or easy to get something into the mainstream press. Far fewer professional journalists were creating content. 

     The YES Men could rely on no common base of knowledge about what’s happening. So, everything had to become layers of fiction, making it more difficult to create something big. It’s harder. For several years after Trump was elected, there was no way to poke fun at that level of preexisting absurdity. The YES Men also haven’t cracked the code for dealing with social media, because it’s very unpredictable. 

     But in some places, they can use tactics that have been around forever and have worked well. For example, they did a collaboration with a group in Cape Town last summer where they organized a zombie march that was about the housing problems in the city. The “zombies” were the old nationalists who never died, who came back from the dead. A big horde of zombies attended this “#NatsNeverDie rally” to point out that Mayor Dan Plato, the Mayoral Committee, and their policies are increasingly similar to those of the National Party under Apartheid. The event was participatory, and everybody could get involved. It was simple and fun. It didn’t have to fool anyone. 

     Now, the YES Men look for whatever tactics are appropriate for the conditions that exist. If people are fatigued by fake news, then it becomes much trickier to use. But sometimes it works out.

Y01
Y02

Web Fakes

I was curious how the YES Men create their websites. On their site is a section dedicated to fake websites they made as parts of previous actions. They call it the Museum of Fake Websites. They’ve done recent fakes, too. The last one was in September 2019, when the YES Men made a website for RUAG, Europe’s largest bullet manufacturer, which the Swiss state owns. The YES Men did a project with the Swiss Neumarkt Theatre in Zurich where “RUAG” presented a new platform to convert all their manufacturing to making windmills. It was weapons to windmills. 

     This project was a provocation. It said one of the richest countries in the world should take a state-owned weapons manufacturer and turn it into something that does good in the world instead of exporting bullets to Brazil. It was fake, but the fake was positive news. The idea was that you could convert your weapon-manufacturing capability into making things that benefited the people and planet.  

     When such a fake is revealed, Mike said people might be angry about it being untrue, but the content still comes across. The YES Men used to do a lot more satire, indulging in dark humor, like a dystopian future. That’s harder to get away with now. People tend to focus on the fake aspect, the “lie,” rather than the reveal of factual information. 

     To make a fake website, the YES Men take several steps. They register a domain. It’s important not to pick any of the big, nervous services, such as GoDaddy. If any other large company contacts a major registrar, the registrar is sure to take the site down. The YES Men prefer a domain registrar that stands up for clients, such as Gandi in France or joker.com. Since the domain information of any domain is public, using a fake name is necessary. Giving a fake address is just as easy. Using a prepaid credit card is the best option to hide links back to the actual owner that reveal the site as fake. 

     A virtual post-office box deepens the fake. It might include a real postbox. One can choose several different cities in the United States. A virtual postbox serves as a virtual office, and then the fake site has a real address. 

     Tools such as SiteSucker allow the download of entire websites. Then the site info can change as needed when it’s uploaded. It’s a way to recreate an entire website with a bogus press page and contact info. However, doing so is still a lot of work. 

     Andy coded an application that mirrored a corporate website on their server and automatically changed predefined words. For instance, Mr. President became Mr. Dictator. His solution was a way to deal with any large, dynamic website that continuously updated. 

     To make a fake website now, the YES Men create a landing page that looks similar to the company they want to impersonate. They link most sections to the real site, but they control a start page with false information. In the case of RUAG, they called this new website RUAG Green, which contained the announcement about the new company direction of weapons to windmills. That one page, which included the press release, was within the frame of the original RUAG website design. Every link went to the real RUAG website, and if you weren’t looking at the address bar carefully as you clicked through, you’d think you were on the real RUAG site. 

     The RUAG Green page was one page with a video and other elements. It had a variation on the RUAG logo, because it was a “rebranding”—the company was going green. The approach has drawbacks, because somebody who knows what they’re doing is likely to notice. A user has to hit the back button to find the page they started on, for example. Another drawback is that doing this is illegal. It breaks copyright laws in most countries, so it gives the copyright owner a reason to take the site down. With the first cease-and-desist letter, the YES Men broke all the links to the real RUAG site. Then, the company no longer had something to sue over.

Seasoned Surfing

How a seasoned website faker surfs the web was the next obvious question. Knowing we are swimming in a sea of fakes, Mike laughs and says it’s obvious to him when things are fake. He went to buy work gloves on amazon.com, and the reviews read like they were written by a machine or a review factory in India. The reviews repeat certain information or fit patterns that are easy to spot. The tone just feels off. 

     Occasionally that feeling is wrong, and something seems off when it’s real. Mike’s favorite example of that mistake was when he saw the Fyre Festival videos on the internet. He thought it was hilarious, a joke, like it must be fake. He was convinced that somebody had put together a very clever, funny satire about festival and party culture. However, it wasn’t a scam. 

     “It was made by a scammer,” Mike said, “but it was intended to be real. It just smelled so wrong.” 

     When Mike comes across something that smells like a fake, he starts digging. The first step is checking the URL. Then, he checks the email header to see who sent it. Do the email and the URL match? 

     Image search is another option many people use now. Borrowing images online is tricky. For fakes, applying to something might require a personal photo. If you’re using a fake name, then a reverse image search can reveal the real you. That means the person screening participants might bar you from an event or whatever you’re trying to do. Making the fake name tie to your real photo means creating an online identity connected to the photo you send. It’s a tricky thing to make sure your image doesn’t reveal the actual you. 

     Mike says, “It’s an everchanging and strange landscape. The more intrusive technology becomes, the weirder it’s going to get.”

 

Fakes in Context

Mike has suggested the tone of a presentation, and of the voice of the presenter, can give it away as fake. The YES Men have tones that range from complete absurdity to almost credible, as in the case of the Bhopal announcement on the BBC. So how do they calibrate their stories for maximal impact? 

     Mike tells me that the context determines the tone. 

     Sometimes context calls for absurdity, says Mike, “...like over the top and funny. A satirical approach lends itself to doing something really funny, like this culminating scene of our first movie was this golden phallus, the emotional climax was revealing this golden suit, and the absurdity of that was really fun.” 

     He goes on, “But we ended the movie with a different scene that was much more somber where we dissolved the WTO. But it ultimately had this uplifting emotional impact more than if we would have just gone for the comical. We’ve been doing satirical stuff and dark humor because it was absurd, fun, and weird. But maybe it didn’t have the right sort of emotional impact. This realization that we could do the right thing meant we kept mixing up different tones, because it couldn’t always be just fun. Also, our messages can be complicated. They aren’t streamlined, [which] you often need to go viral on social media. Sometimes, simple poetic gestures work well, but it can be very reductive. It’s like if you’ve been trying to make feature films, and suddenly, you have to make it all fit into a TikTok. 

     “It’s really obvious and formulaic to take a series of demands that the victims of a certain policy had. So, let’s say, we’re doing something about housing and pretending to be somebody in power, let’s say, the Secretary of the Department of Housing of the United States. It’d be very easy for us to create a utopian announcement by going to housing activists who already made those demands and asking them what they need. We make that list. Then, we create the announcement based on those ideas. Do it in a way that sounds apologetic, conciliatory, and dignified enough to be coming from the government. 

     “This is something we tend to believe. As humans, we know that you can go from being Scrooge to being the benefactor overnight. That change of heart is so deeply embedded in our culture. The idea that you can be born again. Everybody’s ready to and wants to believe that the evil character has suddenly taken a turn for the good. 

     “But this can become too easy and boring to write, compared to coming up with something ridiculous, like the golden phallus or the SurvivaBalls, which was a solution on how people could survive after climate change. What would a big company like Halliburton come up with that might make money while not trying to stop climate change? Still ensuring survival of the richest. That absurdity becomes much more fun. 

     “And if we’re making a film, we want to see the looks on people’s faces. That’s where the story is told. That’s the excitement the audience watching a movie wants to see. And that’s funnier with something ridiculous or over the top. I think we’re learning more and more about how far you can push things in terms of getting people involved. 

     “The last scene of our last YES Men movie, The YES Men are Revolting, everybody got up and did a little circle dance for renewable energy at this Homeland Security Conference. And that was fun because it was much more participatory. People were joyful and having a good time. Other people, comedians like Sacha Baron Cohen, have pushed those things way further than we ever did to great comic effect. But, for us, there’s still a lot of potential there.”

Y03

Deepfakes

 

The YES Men have always seemed technically advanced. I asked if deepfakes are something they’ve been working with. They haven’t. 

     However, Mike says, “We’ve thought about it. And I was talking to this guy in the UK whose thing was doing deepfakes that got a lot of coverage. It’s a project about getting autocratic rulers to participate in the same club, using deepfakes to convince them one by one. So you get a consensus of the real people, but using the fakes to catch their interest. If you look around carefully at this web of autocrats around the world, they have this hierarchy and admire each other on different levels. If you can figure out this web, then you have something very powerful. And this structure of admiration is weird. Like, you realize, okay, I don’t need one head of state to convince another, but I do need, for example, Clint Eastwood. With the right person, you might be able to rope in Donald Trump. It could be fun. I should get back in touch with this guy.”

 

Future Fake

I asked Mike if this technological revolution where fakes have become easy to create has potential problems down the road? 

     He said, “I’m not sure… I just don’t know. I mean, the thing is that we have had a problem of fakes and especially fake news since the beginning of news, hundreds of years ago when news started first getting printed. A lot of fakes that have messed with people in different ways. And the entire PR industry is a giant machine for (mostly innocuous) fake news, but fake news anyway. Like, in the US where I grew up in the 70s and 80s. The 80s and 90s were the heyday of the video news-release, a thing that companies created. PR companies would be hired by, let’s say, a toothpaste company to make a piece of news about toothpaste and the new development they’ve come up with. 

     “And then you’re watching the news, and what you see are advertisements for toothpaste disguised as news. So I grew up swimming in this, which was already like a world of fake news that was mostly invisible. And I think that one of the things that we get now is that we are much more suspicious of everything that’s around us. 

     “It’s very weird that certain entities seemed like they could never become much of anything, like Breitbart news. Breitbart was this fringe, weird, right-wing thing that was suddenly in the White House. “Or look at the One America News Network, a funny television ‘news’ station that’s a favorite of Donald Trump’s but is a fake-news station. The whole thing is a giant front. It’s like it almost doesn’t exist, but they do national-level programming, and they’re the mouthpiece for the administration. It’s another mutation of the fake. There are a lot of possible twists and turns for the future of reality.”

Y04

Onward!

Speaking of the future, I asked Mike if he knew of new activists we should check out. 

     He said, “There’s the Peng! Collective. We’re closer to them. We also have the Center for Political Beauty, which has done some great stuff. Then, we have Indecline, which can be really good.” 

     The strangest aspect of all is that YES Men shenanigans are financed, in part, by grants from arts organizations such as the Guggenheim Foundation. So, you could say, they’ve made it in the art world. And like similar anti-establishment (whatever that means) figureheads, such as Michael Moore, they’ve become celebrities. Documentaries have been made about them, and they have a huge fan base. But at heart, the YES Men are still old-fashioned protesters. They still take to the streets for big anti-globalization demonstrations. Although they enjoy their pranking adventures, they say a desire to reduce injustice in the world drives them. 

     Who could be better as an end quote than good old Dr. Seuss, who wrote The Lorax and said, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

 


Learn more about the Yes Men on theyesmen.org and get inspired.

MEMO 01 - JULY 2020
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