Spontaneously organized political hoaxes

The Yes Men are a duo of American anti-liberal and environmental activists. Since 1996, Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos, better known under the pseudonyms Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, have been organizing large-scale, high profile ‘political hoaxes’ to highlight the excesses of liberalism and capitalism and to denounce the large industrial groups, political leaders and financial giants who underpin these excesses.

The duo’s actions, full of humour, audacity and provocation, began at the end of the 1990s, in a spontaneous and unstructured way, before starting to be structured in the early 2000s. The principle is as follows: say yes to the speeches of the companies and institutions they are fighting, take their ideas and push them to the extreme to highlight their flaws and thus denounce them.

In 2000, they made a name for themselves with the creation of a fake website (gatt.org) imitating that of the World Trade Organisation. To the great surprise of Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos, many people thought that the website was genuine and so Jacques Servin, under the name of Bichlbauer, was invited to speak at the WTO summit in May 2000 in Salzburg, Austria. He gave a satirical speech advocating the ‘eradication of customs in the name of free trade’ and denouncing the loss of capital ‘by investing in the inefficient system of election campaigns.’ This speech did not elicit any particular reaction from those participating in and attending the conference.

In 2001, again via the gatt.org website, the Yes Men were invited to speak for the WTO at a conference entitled ‘Textiles of the Future’ in Finland. The activists gave a speech presenting the abolition of slavery as ‘an obstacle to the freedom of the confederates’. The speech, once again, did not provoke any reaction, except for a few laughs when they presented a phallus-shaped accessory that was supposed to allow them to ‘control and subdue slaves’.

Following this intervention, the Yes Men decided to go even further at a news conference organized for students. They handed out hamburgers, explaining that to eradicate hunger in the world, poor people must be given filters to recycle excrement into food. This time, the audience reacts, prompting the Yes Men to declare that ‘students are smarter than previous crowds of people who have been made docile or inattentive by a neo-liberal education to any idea put before them’.

After the student hoax, the Yes Men decided to announce at a conference in Sydney, where they were again speaking as representatives of the WTO, that the latter would be disbanded and replaced by a new body ‘that will ensure that corporations are accountable to all the world’s citizens’. The announcement was met with public acclaim, only to be reported in the press and then denied by the actual WTO officials.

Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno are now considered specialists in political hoax and continue to carry out regular actions around the world to mock (and therefore denounce) big business and governments.

An activist duo that has gradually grown and become more structured

The Yes Men duo consists of Jacques Servin, an experimental fiction writer known for inserting images of men kissing into the video game SimCopter, and Igor Vamos, an associate professor of media arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, known for having fun swapping the voices of Barbie dolls and GI-Joe action figures. The two activists present Yes Men as a group that was born spontaneously, somewhat by chance, and also for fun. The two founders insist on the playful dimension of their actions.

Gradually, the group became more structured, and the duo were joined by others who worked more behind the scenes. The Yes Men also began to collaborate with other activist groups, and in 2007 they created a Yes Lab and began building projects in partnership with the New School and NYU.

The Yes Men also decided to build the Action Switchboard, an online platform that allows people to propose projects or find collaborators to carry out actions independently. But in the end the online platform did not work as well as expected and the group decided to return to a more formal and physical operating model, with a real activist organization.

Denouncing the ‘neo-liberal illusion’ by galvanizing anti-liberal activists

The Yes Men duo was born with the mission to help highlight and denounce ‘the corporate takeover of society and the neoliberal illusion’. But aware that it is complicated to change citizens’ minds, the two activists set themselves the practical goal of carrying out actions that would primarily ‘galvanize’ and ‘energize’ anti-liberal and environmental activists who were already engaged or close to doing so. Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno’s primary target is therefore the activists themselves.

The two men explain: ‘Most of what we do is not about changing people’s minds. It’s mostly a way to galvanize a base, to energize committed people. We don’t try to convince a majority. We’re talking to the activists first, the people who will be excited to see the World Trade Organization booby-trapped, and who will talk about this moment for years to come. When we talk to activists, we can see that only a tiny minority have come to activism by watching our videos; but also, that our actions energize those involved in the causes we are defending.

Identity rectification’ and training programmes for activist

The Yes Men carry out two types of activities:

  • Field actions and ‘hoaxes’ (called ‘identity rectifications’) during which they impersonate a company or institution to ridicule it and show its ‘true face’.
  • Workshops and training for activists and would-be activists.

Some notable ‘identity corrections’

In 2000, the Yes Men ‘attacked’ George W. Bush by creating the gwbush.com website, a slightly modified version of the George W. Bush Jr. campaign site, then a candidate for the presidency of the United States. Then, in 2004, they disguised themselves as a group committed to the re-election of George W. Bush Jr. and travelled around the United States encouraging Americans to sign a ‘patriotic pledge’ in which they committed to hosting a nuclear waste storage site near their homes, sending their children to war abroad, giving up some of their constitutional rights, etc.

In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, Andy Bichlbaum posed as a representative of the US Department of Housing and announced the reopening of all public housing. The Department of Housing, very awkwardly, was then forced to deny the announcement.

On 12 November 2008, the Yes Men distributed one hundred thousand copies of a fake issue of the New York Times on the streets of New York with the headline ‘Iraq War Ends’.

On 14 December 2009, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno distributed a fake press release via a website imitating that of the Canadian Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, announcing that Canada would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2020. The false announcement caused panic in the Canadian government, which wrongly accused environmentalist Steven Guilbeault of being behind the hoax and shut down all websites related to the issue.

The Yes Men are also known to have targeted companies such as Halliburton, Exxon Mobil, and Dow Chemical. For example, in 2004, Andy Bichlbaum posed as a spokesperson for Dow Chemical, the US chemical giant that bought the Union Carbibe company, which itself owned a pesticide plant that exploded in India, on live BBC television. The Dow Chemical ‘spokesperson’ then announced that the company would compensate all those affected by the disaster. The information was repeated in all the media, before being denied by the ‘real’ managers.

The duo also published a book (‘The Yes Men: How to unmask (with a little fun) the neoliberal imposture!’) and produced several films featuring their hoaxes:

1. ‘The Yes Men’ in 2003.

2. ‘The Yes Men Fix the World’ in 2009 (which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival).

3. ‘The Yes Men Are Revolting’ in 2014 (on climate change, premiered at the Berlinale).

Training for activists:

The Yes Men provide other activists or aspiring activists with tools and materials to build their own actions and strategies to ‘resist the tyranny and oppression’ of liberals and capitalists. They do this through:

  1. Actipedia, an open access database on their site that brings together information from thousands of activist projects.
  2. Sections of their website that draw lessons from their own actions and give extensive and specific advice on how to build and run actions.
  3. The Trickster Academy, an academy that offers practical training in action techniques and connects a network of ‘graduates’ around the world. The first session in autumn 2020 was funded by the Bertha Foundation, and the second session in spring 2021 was hosted and partially funded by Queens College.

Laughtivism’ as an action strategy

The actions carried out by the Yes Men are based on five principles, within a very well-thought-out global strategy.

Make people laugh:

Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno explain that they will make their enemies laugh ‘to make them disappear and thus save the world’. So, they pose as a representative of a company or institution and make shocking or ridiculous comments that caricature the known positions of the entity or person in question.

Even more than non-violent actions, the Yes Men’s actions are intended to make fun of and mock their ‘enemies’, thus attracting the attention of the media and citizens more easily. The two men compare their actions to the hippie movement of the 1960s: ‘What we’re doing is closer to the hippie movement of the 1960s, like trying to levitate the Pentagon to protest against the Vietnam War. It’s funny. When we trap people, it’s only because it’s part of the show. We’re not trying to misinform them; we’re trying to expose lies in the public square using funny lies – it’s very different.

It is worth noting that, more often than not, the companies and institutions targeted end up in such ridiculous situations that they prefer to see the matter forgotten and not to sue the Yes Men.

Investing in storytelling:

The two Yes Men activists also stress the importance of storytelling for action. They themselves say they use ‘creative art’: ‘There is a lot of discussion about how to make an action successful, not in a practical way, but in a narrative way. The first step is to recognize the role of creative art in these kinds of actions, to understand what makes people want to tell the story of what you did. For example, activists often underestimate the importance that a photograph can have; but history shows us that iconic images are powerful. Many, many successful movements in history have used storytelling in creative ways. The photo of Rosa Parks sitting in a white seat on a bus has remained one of the most powerful images of the civil rights movement, and it’s a photo that had all the elements of a good story to be told over and over. Activists tend to focus too much on the means of action, and not enough on the context’.

Turning the weapons of the ‘enemies’ against themselves:

According to Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos, many corporations or government entities deploy their ideology using manipulation. In response, the Yes Men also use manipulation and turn it to their advantage.

Defending themselves from producing fake news:

The Yes Men insist that, unlike populists who produce fake news, they disseminate ‘sourced’ information: ‘our fake news is always sourced and can always be easily traced back to us – it never fools anyone for more than a few hours’.

Conducting ongoing campaigns:

The Yes Men believe that individual and awareness-raising actions can be useful but are not enough. They believe that only long-term, ‘permanent’ campaigns can make a difference.

Lessons from the Yes Men

The experience of the Yes Men demonstrates that:

– One must know how to dare and carry out transgressive actions that will surprise the ‘opponent’ and public opinion.

– It is important to give a playful dimension to the actions carried out (and to make people laugh).

– It is necessary to focus on the narration of actions (storytelling) and not only on the tools and means at disposal.

– It is important to follow one’s intuition and launch the first actions – even when they are not yet very well structured – before developing and structuring them.

– It is crucial to know how to build a network and develop partnerships with other groups.

– It is important to learn from the actions carried out, to build ‘modus operandi’ and to share them with those who wish to do so.

– It is important to carry out physical actions and to gather activists on the ground, not only on the internet.