In a article from this Sunday's New York Times, media columnist Ben Smith seems to misread a Scientific American article from a year ago, asserting that the author "traces the modern practice of 'disinformation'... to the anti-corporate activists the Yes Men, famous for hoaxed corporate announcements and other stunts."
This is false. The author, Joan Donovan, in fact begins her excellent piece by contrasting the Yes Men's work with that of trolls. "Crucially for activists such as the Yes Men, the big reveal was the raison d’être for the hoax," she writes.
Nor does Donovan suggest that our "tools... have been adopted by 'foreign operatives, partisan pundits, white supremacists, violent misogynists, grifters and scammers,'" as Smith writes. Those parties may use "impersonation," as we do (and as do many others), but they certainly didn't adopt it from us.
It's actually the other way around.
The PR industry, among other "grifters and scammers," have for a very long time used impersonation techniques to trick people into smoking, starting wars, buying all sorts of crap, and voting for particular candidates.
When we began stealing PR tricks in the late 1990s, we used them not to mislead, but to expose information that was insufficiently known. This is an important distinction, because in today's battles against vastly wealthier forces, we need all the non-violent tools at our disposal, including creative trickiness — not to lead people to do things they wouldn't do otherwise, but to expose the truth, and trust that exposure to motivate change.
Saying that people like the Yes Men practice "disinformation" is like saying that solar power manufacturers practice nuclear war, since some of the components in solar panels were used to make H-bombs. (Big reveal: they weren't. We just made that up.) Saying that we engendered "the modern practice of 'disinformation'"... well, that's just nutty.
For the real source, Ben Smith might want to look not only at the PR industry, but at COINTELPRO. In the 1960s, COINTELPRO innovated extensively to destroy movements like the Black Panthers. Today's cleverest right-wing disinformation practitioners — like the Project Veritas mercenaries, and many others — owe most of what they do to PR, some to COINTELPRO, and the rest to the inventors of the term "disinformation."
Our tradition is different.
We sent a shorter version of this to the New York Times Tuesday, but they still haven't corrected the article nor published our letter — so here you go.