Yes and no. While the Yes Men have often faced the threat of legal consequences for the work they do, they have thus far emerged relatively unscathed on account of three key factors: They have a powerful legal team, their work is largely protected by the First Amendment, and their targets often drop their lawsuits once they realize that maintaining them will only garner negative publicity.
The distinction matters because “fake news”, as we use the term today, refers to news that is intended to deceive, harm or sway political opinion without any grounding in reality. Parody, on the other hand, is never intended to deceive but rather to inspire people to look at a real issue with fresh eyes and to think more critically about it.
We’ll talk a lot about fake news this semester, but for now, let’s focus on the Yes Men and their brand of parody.
Political activists since the late 1990s, the Yes Men have long posed as representatives of corporations and other organizations with the goal of exposing what they perceive as an injustice or inspiring people to think twice about something they might have previously ignored or not taken seriously. They once posed as the NRA and started a “Share the Safety” campaign, in which they promised to give a free gun to anyone who couldn’t afford one. They also once appeared on the BBC posing as representatives of Dow Chemical, promising to liquidate one of that company’s subsidiaries and then give $12 billion to victims of a chemical disaster in Bhopal, India that Dow Chemical’s subsidiary caused. The stunt drew attention to the fact that more than 20 years after that disaster, the people of Bhopal were still suffering and Dow Chemical had done nothing to rectify the problem.
Because of their intentions, largely protected by the First Amendment but constantly under threat of prosecution by those they upset, the Yes Men have a strong legal team from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who have provided pro-bono (free) services to the group in the name of protecting free speech. Again, the Yes Men’s goal is not to use free speech to deceive and harm but to draw attention to what they recognize as serious problems in the world and to encourage greater civic responsibility and engagement. It’s highly unlikely that malicious purveyors of “fake news” would ever be able to retain the legal counsel of a group like EFF.
The Yes Men had the same intention with each of the parody newspapers they created between 2008 and 2019. The goal was never to convince anyone that those newspapers were real — they were dated several months later than the dates they were distributed, among other telltale signs that they were parodies — but rather to ask the public to consider a world in which those headlines could be true. What would it take to achieve that reality? How might we get there from where we are now? In other words, they intended to raise awareness and, ideally, shake people out of complacently accepting the current, and real, headlines as inescapable realities.
One of the Yes Men was, however, arrested once: In 2009, Andy Bichlbaum spent 26 hours in a New York City jail after he jumped into the East River to demonstrate a contraption he called the “SurvivaBall,” a giant balloon suit designed for the wealthiest people in the world that would protect them from any cataclysmic manmade climate disaster. Turns out the Yes Men didn’t have a permit for the 50 people who gathered to watch or participate in the stunt, and Bichlbaum had an unpaid ticket for bicycle riding.