Wikileaks: Three Digital Myths

Wikileaks:  Three Digital Myths

By Christian Christensen

Published in Le Monde Diplomatique, August 9, 2010

The release of the Afghan War Diaries on Wikileaks, with stories published in The Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel by agreement with Wikileaks, has made news around the world. Le Monde Diplomatique, in conjunction with Owni and Slate.fr, have also made the documents available online via a dedicated website. The security implications of the leaked material will be discussed for years to come. Meanwhile the release of over 90,000 documents has generated debate on the rising power of digital journalism and social media. Many of the discussions are rooted in what I call internet or digital myths — myths which are rooted in romantic, deterministic notions of technology.

Myth 1: The power of social media

Media experts and commentators are commonly asked what the Wikileaks case tells us about the power of social media in contemporary society, particularly in the coverage of war. There is nothing wrong with this question, but it does illustrate a troubling tendency to place all forms of social media (blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Wikileaks) under the same huge umbrella. The myth is that social media are homogenous by virtue of their technologies. But Wikileaks is nothing like Twitter or YouTube. What separates it from other forms of social media is the review process that submitted material must go through in order to be posted to the site. This might seem like a detail, but it strikes at the heart of “techo-utopian” notions of an “open commons” where anyone and everyone can post (almost) anything for all to read, hear and see.

The real power of Wikileaks is not so much the technology (it helps, but there are millions of websites out there) but the trust readers have in the authenticity of what they are reading; they believe that those working at Wikileaks stand behind the veracity of the material. There are literally hundreds of videos on YouTube from Iraq and Afghanistan showing coalition forces engaged in questionable, and in some cases obviously illegal, acts of aggression. Yet none of these clips have had anything like the impact of the single video posted to Wikileaks showing scores of civilians (and two Reuters journalists) gunned down by high-powered aircraft artillery in a Baghdad suburb. Why? Because while complete openness might be attractive in theory, information is only as valuable as its reliability, and Wikileaks has an organisational review structure in place that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and most blogs (for obvious reasons) do not. All social media are not created equal, and so their power is far from equal.

Myth 2: The nation-state is dying

If the Wikileaks case has taught us anything, it is that the nation-state is most certainly not in decay. A great deal of discourse surrounding the internet, and social media in particular, revolves around the premise that we now live in a borderless digital society.

The notion of the nation-state in decline has had a great deal of currency within certain spheres of academia for a number of years, but the events of the past few weeks should give us pause. Those in charge of Wikileaks clearly understand the vital role of the nation-state, particularly when it comes to law. Despite New York University media scholar Jay Rosen’s claim that it is “the world’s first stateless news organisation,” Wikileaks is very much territorially bound.

Wikileaks is semi-officially based in Sweden and has all the protection offered to whistleblowers and guarantees regarding anonymity of sources under Swedish law. As the New Yorker reported in June 2010, Wikileaks is hosted on a Swedish ISP called PRQ. Material submitted to Wikileaks first goes through PRQ, and then to servers located in Belgium. Why Belgium, you may ask? Because Belgium has the second strongest laws for the protection of sources. And Wikileaks founder Julian Assange chose Iceland as the location for decrypting the aerial video footage of the killings in Baghdad. Iceland recently passed the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, devised to make the country a global haven for whistleblowers, investigative journalism and freedom of speech.

Beyond Wikileaks, we have other reminders of the importance of states and laws in the fluid digital world: the recent decisions by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to instigate bans on the messenger function on BlackBerry handsets, or the seemingly never-ending legal ban on YouTube Turkey. While it’s true that the Wikileaks structure is set up to bypass the laws of certain countries (enabled by digital technology), it also makes use of other countries’ laws. Wikileaks isn’t lawless – it’s just moving the entire game to places where the rules are different.

Myth 3: Journalism is dead (or almost)

Reports of the death of journalism have been greatly exaggerated (to borrow from Mark Twain). The Wikileaks case speaks to the power of technology to make us re-think what we mean by “journalism” in the early 21st century. But it also consolidates the place of mainstream journalism within contemporary culture. Wikileaks decided to release the Afghan documents to The Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel weeks before they were released online — mainstream media outlets, not “alternative” (presumably sympathetic) publications such as The Nation, Z Magazine or IndyMedia. The reason is surely that these three news outlets are top international news agenda-setters. Few outlets (leaving aside broadcasters such as the BBC or CNN) have so much clout as the New York Times and the Guardian – and being published in English helps exposure. The Wikileaks people were savvy enough to realise that any release of the documents online without prior contact with select news outlets would lead to a chaotic rush of unfocused articles the world over.

As it was, attention turned straight to the three newspapers in question, in which a large number of the documents had already been analysed and summarised. And the role of Wikileaks was not lost in an information maelstrom. In the death of journalism thesis (as in that of the death of the nation-state), change is mistaken for elimination. The release of the Afghan Diaries shows that mainstream journalism still holds a good deal of power, but the nature of that power has shifted (compared to 20 or 30 years ago). An example is Executive Editor Bill Keller’s recounting of the contact between New York Times editorial staff and the White House following the release of the documents:

“The administration, while strongly condemning WikiLeaks for making these documents public, did not suggest that The Times should not write about them. On the contrary, in our discussions prior to the publication of our articles, White House officials, while challenging some of the conclusions we drew from the material, thanked us for handling the documents with care, and asked us to urge WikiLeaks to withhold information that could cost lives. We did pass along that message.”

This is an astonishing admission by the executive editor of the US’s most respected newspaper. For two reasons. The description of the encounter with the White House shows pride in the White House’s praise, at odds with traditional notions of the press as the watchdogs over those in power. Second, the New York Times’s role as intermediary between the US government and Wikileaks illustrates an interesting new power dynamic within news and information in the US.

At the heart of the death of journalism myth (and that of the role of social media) is the presumption of a causal relationship between access to information and democratic change. The idea that mere access to raw information de facto leads to change (radical or otherwise) is as romantic as the notion that mere access to technology can do the same. Information, just as technology, is only useful if the knowledge and skills required to activate such information are present. Wikileaks chose its three newspapers not because they necessarily represented ideological kindred spirits for Julian Assange and his colleagues, but because they were professionally, organisationally and economically prepared for the job of decoding and distributing the material provided.

In a digital world that is constantly being redefined as non-hierarchical, borderless and fluid, Wikileaks has reminded us that structure, boundaries, laws and reputation still matter.

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About chrchristensen
Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism, Media & Communication Studies at Stockholm University, Sweden.

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