What happens after journalists leave the violence?

What happens after journalists leave the violence?

The news media have a responsibility to their readers to cover important events even after they drop off the front page.

Last Modified: 04 Oct 2013 14:01
Christian Christensen
Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden.

Iraq is an example of the media’s short attention span [Getty Images]
March 19, 2013 marked the 10th anniversary of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Only four months later, in July, Iraq would experience the deadliest 30-day period since 2008, with more than 1,000 civilians killed and 2,100 injured.In fact, more Iraqi civilians were killed during the first half of 2013 than had been killed during any entire year between 2009 and 2012. While there was a degree of soul-searching on the part of (some) journalists, considering the magnitude of the humanitarian disaster that is contemporary Iraq, the day passed with relatively little fanfare or introspection. And, while the routine bombings in Baghdad and elsewhere are reported, the level of coverage given to Iraq is paltry.The lack of coverage of Iraq – particularly by the US media – over the past seven or eight years is by no means unusual, but is part of a clear pattern where news organisations cover a number of international events in bursts, but then drop them when the topic loses “heat”. This, I would argue, is what we have seen, and are seeing, in the cases of Iran in 2009, the anti-government protests in Brazil, and the Gezi movement in Turkey (and elsewhere).

This is not to say that the coverage of these events has disappeared, but rather that the flood has been replaced with an inconsistent drip. Nor is this to say that there has not been (and still is) good reporting from these areas. But the drop-off in coverage has been palpable.

Selective coverage

Of course, war sells, violence sells and scandal sells. The argument that news organisations focus on the sensational, the unusual and/or the bloody in order to attract readers and advertisers is well-worn and not really in need of re-hashing. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t also acknowledge the role of “hot and sexy” topics in academic research. For example, within my own discipline (Media and Communications) there is an absolute avalanche of research (my own included) on media coverage of the US-led attacks on Iraq in both 1991 and 2003. But, were I to ask a room full of my fellow scholars to name books or articles within our field addressing coverage of the US-led sanctions against Iraq between 1990-2003, you could probably hear crickets chirping in the background.

By choosing to focus on the violent, the tense and the bloody, news organisations have opened doors they must be willing to walk through, which in this case means letting news consumers know what the outcomes … might be.

Why? Because war and conflict make for rationalised research, just as it makes for stimulating journalism: there is lots of material, events are magnified, there is drama and national ideology tends to bubble to the surface. Sanctions, however, are far less dramatic on a short-term basis. On a long-term basis, however, and depending on which source you look at, the Iraq sanctions were estimated to have killed between 100,000 and 1 million Iraqis. On this issue, I must offer my own mea culpa.

So how do we link this to Iran, Turkey and Brazil? It is simplistic to argue that people simply believe that the only events that are “important” are those covered in the media. People undoubtedly are aware that news organisations cannot cover everything and, thus, editorial decisions must be made. In other words, people know that there are things happening in the world that are important that they simply do not hear about.

In the case of the Iranian elections of 2009, the Arab Spring uprisings in countries such as Tunisia and Libya, the anti-government protests in Brazil and the Gezi Park movement in Turkey, the international media did give these events coverage. There were powerful images: the streets of Istanbul shrouded in an eerie fog of tear-gas; pepper-sprayed protesters in Rio; the lifeless body of  Neda Agha Soltan in Tehran; the fallen statue of Saddam; and Bush “Top Gun” on an aircraft carrier with a “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him.

While these images remain in our heads, they were supplemented in news reports by rather broad presentations of their contexts, and not a great deal of follow-up. As a result, the protests and violence covered over short periods of time remain in a form of frozen animation, with no real understanding of what the longer-term implications might be. While stories of youthful protests on Twitter with good visuals are sexy, post-protest negotiations and long-term consolidation are not.

The Iraqi example

Iraq is perhaps the best example of this: While the world’s media zoomed in on the country following the invasion, the drop-off in coverage once the occupation had become “old news” made it extremely difficult for the average news consumer (in other words, not academics or think-tank members) to follow and understand the incredibly complex political environment in Iraq. I consider the lack of coverage of Iraq by the US media over the past seven to eight years to be particularly egregious, as the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was met with little critical analysis by the US media. In fact, it is fair to say that many media outlets actively cheered on the war, ignorant or uncaring of the implications of this support for millions of Iraqis and thousands of US troops.

An exception to the pattern I am discussing would be Egypt, which has remained in the headlines for an extended period. I would wager, however, that Egypt’s place in the global news consciousness is likely a function of the repeated large-scale public protests and violent crackdowns that have taken place since Mubarak’s fall, rather than a general interest in Egyptian domestic politics. The reduction of coverage of the protests in Iran, Turkey and Brazil after a period of engagement, on the other hand, might be considered more understandable, given limited resources and world events.

Yet I would argue that – like Iraq – coverage of Tehran, Gezi and Rio is part of a much larger pattern of quick-hit journalism with relatively little follow-up, which in turn re-enforces stereotypical images of certain nations – almost always non-Western – as existing in a perpetual state of crisis. Importantly, it is precisely the juxtaposition between supposed Western “calm” and non-Western “crisis” that has been used – at least partially – as an underpinning for various military and/or economic actions. Or, to put it another way, public support for military or other forms of punitive action is undoubtedly boosted by both the perception that certain parts of the world are inherently violent, and a lack of knowledge of the complexities of domestic politics in those regions.

News organisations face certain political economic realities, and it is impossible to cover everything. Yet, by choosing to focus on the violent, the tense and the bloody, news organisations have opened doors they must be willing to walk through, which in this case means letting news consumers know what the outcomes of that violence, tension and blood-letting might be. Sometimes, the protests continue. Sometimes, the protests result in political change. Sometimes both. Sometimes neither. Without these longer-term details, however, we relegate important geo-political occurrences to the level of ephemeral events lost in a sea of ever-flowing stories. That is a disservice with potentially serious consequences.

Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden.

You can follow him on Twitter @ChrChristensen.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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My Letter in Support of Pvt. Bradley E. Manning

(THE FOLLOWING IS A LETTER OF SUPPORT FOR PVT. BRADLEY E. MANNING WRITTEN TO THE COMMANDING GENERAL OF THE MILITARY DISTRICT  OF WASHINGTON, MAJ. GENERAL JEFFREY S. BUCHANAN. ALSO, AS REQUESTED, THE USE OF “BRADLEY” AND “HE” IS DELIBERATE AS THE CASE USES MANNING’S LEGAL NAME. THOSE INTERESTED IN WRITING THEIR OWN OWN LETTER SHOULD DO SO VIA “COURAGE TO RESIST”.)

9/25/2013

Dear Maj. General Buchanan,

I write this letter to you, as a citizen of the United States, in order to respectfully request that Pvt. Bradley E. Manning’s sentence be reduced to time served, and that he not be condemned to a life in prison. The United States is a country that prides itself on being built by women and men of conscience and bravery. To act upon one’s conscience is no small matter. Women and men who were, and are, willing to stand up for what they believe to be right — even if the price for that action is the loss of their own personal safety or liberty — are rare and worthy of respect.

In Pvt. Manning’s case it is clear that he did not act with malicious intent or a desire to harm the United States, and his acquittal on the “Aiding the Enemy” charge is a clear indication of that fact. Pvt. Manning has served a significant amount of prison time, much of it in what must honestly be described as harsh conditions. There is no conceivable way in which Pvt. Manning would have benefited (financially or otherwise) from his actions. On the contrary, it was likely obvious to him that he would be looking at time in prison because of what he did.

If we are to maintain trust in the law and a prison system, then there needs to be a clear sense of proportionality. The purpose of the law and prison should not be to “make an example” of anyone.  In theory, prison exists as punishment, and to protect the general population from individuals who have broken the law and might pose a danger to society. Even if we accept that Pvt. Manning has broken the law, he has served time. Hard time. And, I think it is clear that he serves no danger to the general population. The question then arises: what purpose would an extended prison sentence serve? If it is not to pick out Pvt. Manning and make an example of him, then I cannot conceive of another reason. This would be a mistake.

Considering all of these factors, it is my hope that the punishment Pvt. Manning has already endured will be seen as proportional to the act committed: an act committed in what he honestly considered to be the best interests of his country.

Yours Respectfully,

Prof. Christian Christensen

Whistleblowing, Journalism and Academia: 3 Questions/Answers

I was recently asked to answer a few interview questions regarding whistleblowing, journalism and academia. Here are my responses:

(FOR A MORE DETAILED PIECE ON MY THOUGHTS IN RELATION TO JOURNALISM, SEE MY OPINION PIECE PUBLISHED BY AL JAZEERA.)

1. Why should whistleblowing be seen as important in a democracy – for being increasingly perceived as an effective means of fighting corruption or for the sole rights of information freedom and the whistleblowers’ rights in disclosing information that is of moral/ political relevance?

It’s important to be clear: whistleblowing isn’t just releasing information on any given topic. A whistleblower is someone who has access to information hidden from public view showing what she/he perceives to be an illegal, unethical or unjust act, and making that information public for the purpose of injecting some type of justice into the situation. It is absolutely fundamental to a working, democratic society that whisteblowers are protected from persecution. Clearly, there are political and corporate actors who have no desire to have illegal or unethical acts exposed, but their interests should always be outweighed by the long-term benefits of the exposure of such acts. Without whistleblowers, it is hard to imagine how many corporate or political crimes  would ever come to light, given the power of governments and large corporations to suppress information. In the end, whistleblowing is a way to balance power.

2. How should one address the threats that acts of whistleblowing may pose on internal security?

National security is often used as a rationale for cracking down on whistleblowers, but, when we take into consideration what I said above — that whistleblowers are releasing information regarding activities that break, or at least seriously bend, the law — then one must again ask the question: “which serves the greater good: suppression of an illegal/dishonest act in the service or national security, or exposure?” To me, in a democracy, there can be no instance when an illegal act is acceptable, and, thus, it needs to be exposed. Similarly, if governments have lied to their citizens, then that should also be exposed. What is interesting in the case of Manning & WikiLeaks is that there has, to date, never been a single clear example of a life being lost as a result of the leaks. In the end, if governments act legally, ethically and with transparency, the need for whistleblowers will diminish. It won’t disappear, though, because even legal acts can be seriously unethical…but it will certainly diminish.

3. What is the importance of whistleblowing – keeping in mind especially the issues raised by the recent Edward Snowden case or the past Wikileaks affair – in journalism/ communication research?

This is a good question. The topic of whistleblowing, and organizations such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous, has certainly gained currency in academic research recently. But, in all honesty, up until a few years ago, it wasn’t really a topic addressed to any significant degree within Media & Communications research — other than the standard references to The Pentagon Papers. Whistleblowing isn’t new, but what is new are digital tools available to whistleblowers which allow the release of copious amounts of information all at once. The decision not to find Bradley Manning guilty of “aiding the enemy” was pretty important for journalism in the United States (and abroad), and I suspect that we will be seeing a slew or articles addressing that issue in the coming months and years. The implications of the Manning case for journalism are far-reaching (even without an “aiding the enemy” conviction), and it is something that I hope many scholars will tackle. Again, this is about maintaining a critical eye on power, and that is what both journalists and academics should be doing.

WikiLeaks and Anonymous as Responses to Status Quo Journalism

WikiLeaks and Anonymous as Responses to Status Quo Journalism 

Christian Christensen

Professor, Department of Media Studies, Stockholm University

(Note: The following is a shortened, updated version of the professorial installation speech I gave at Stockholm University in April 2013.)

The work of an intellectual is not to mould the political will of others; it is, through the analyses that he does in his own field, to re-examine evidence and assumptions, to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking, to dissipate conventional familiarities, to re-evaluate rules and institutions and to participate in the formation of a political will (where he has his role as citizen to play). – Michel Foucault, “The Concern for Truth”

The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them. – Michel Foucault, “Human Nature: Justice Versus Power”

So, what does this have to do with journalism? A lot, I would argue. Many of the issues with which we (should) associate academia – freedom of speech, freedom of expression, critical thinking, keeping an eye on authority, education – are issues historically linked to journalism. Thus, just as it is important to ask to what extent we as academics have investigated, questioned and challenged the distribution and use of social, economic and military power in society, so, of course, should we ask the same of the news organizations described as ”watchdogs” and ”guardians.”

My point is that the mainstream press in countries such as Sweden, the United States and the United Kingdom, have (more often than not) failed to engage in critical investigations into, and analyses of, the accumulation and utilization of power. And, it is this failure that has created a vacuum filled, at least in part, by WikiLeaks and Anonymous. If we are looking for an obvious example of such a failure of critical analysis, one need only look to the attacks by a number of US journalists upon fellow journalist Glenn Greenwald – for a particularly devastating exchange, see Greenwald’s response to Washington Post columnist Walter Pincus – and source Edward Snowden following their revelations of domestic and international surveillance by the US government. In Sweden, the Swedish vetoing (together with the UK) of EU discussions with the US over those same NSA revelations has been met by relative silence in the Swedish media.

There is, however, a second premise to this post, and that is that in our discussion of groups such as WikiLeaks or Anonymous, emphasis is often placed squarely upon their use of technology, rather than the socio-political and cultural reasons behind their evolution. This techno-centrism, I would argue, deflects a measure of critique away from mainstream journalism, and ”explains” the rise of groups such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous as predominantly technological phenomena. In other words, they exist because the technology allows them to exist.

To get back to Foucault: his suggestion that we need to ”criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent” is vital; in particular, his choice of the word ”workings”, because it points to a central idea, namely the importance of process. Where contemporary journalism has failed, I would argue, is in the lack of exposure and lack of analysis of the mechanisms of power that Foucault discusses. These are mechanisms that are neither sexy nor exciting, and can be mind-numbing in terms of the minutiae of political, legal, diplomatic or technological details. These details are, however, the building blocks of real power: blocks mostly obscured from public view under a veneer of PR, spin, infotainment and ”event”-based news coverage. Over the past few years, and to varied levels of success and impact, groups such as Anonymous and WikiLeaks have peeled back this veneer, exposing activities that are both shocking and banal.

In his powerful testimony of July 10, 2013 at the Bradley Manning trial, Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler outlined precisely why he feels that WikiLeaks is not only a compliment to journalism, but part of journalism itself, “shining a light” on processes otherwise hidden from the general public (from the unofficial court transcript):

Q: Is WikiLeaks a member of the network Fourth Estate?

A (Benkler): Absolutely.

Q: Why do you believe that?

A (Benkler): It is — journalism is made up of many things. WikiLeaks doesn’t do interviews and pound the pavement. Again, when we say WikiLeaks, we’re really talking about before the severe degradation that followed the attack on the organization that we described just before. WikiLeaks was a solution to a very particular and critical component of the way in which investigative journalism, muck-raking confine instances of corruption. It’s — we don’t only live from Pentagon papers or Watergate or the NSA wire tapping scandals of 2005 and the more recent months. But it’s a clear, distinct component of what in the history of journalism we see as high points, where journalists are able to come in and say, here’s a system operating in a way that is obscure to the public and now we’re able to shine the light. That’s what WikiLeaks showed how to do for the network public sphere. WikiLeaks may fail in the future because of all these events, but the model of some form of decentralized leaking, that is secure technologically and allows for collaboration among different media in different countries, that’s going to survive and somebody else will build it. But WikiLeaks played that critical role of that particular critical component of what muck-raking and investigative journalism has always done.

While it would be a stretch to say that September 11, 2001 was the genesis date for groups such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous, it would nevertheless be fair to suggest that the range of domestic (US) and geo-political events that followed those attacks 12 years ago had a profound effect upon global activism: from the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the occupations of those two countries, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the Bush presidency, the London and Madrid bombings, the global War on Terror, The Patriot Act, to PRISM.  In all of these cases, from the attacks themselves to the passage of restrictive censorship and privacy legislation, an understanding of ”workings” and ”process” was (and remains) fundamental.

As the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, it became clear that citizens also had little understanding of the mechanisms of the politics of war or the US legal system. As hundreds of billions of dollars were spent by the Bush and Obama administrations on the war effort, media still focused on surges and attacks, not corrupt no-bid contracts offered to former business partners of Vice-President Dick Cheney. And, as the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay Prison have passed their 150th day of hunger striking, the limited amount of time spent by the media addressing the very legality of the prison, and the treatment of the prisoners, has become painfully apparent.

For both WikiLeaks and Anonymous, there is a commitment to expose corporate and state abuses of power, often by exposing the very mechanisms by which such power is exercised. The leak/hacking/publication of emails, internal documents and memos, military videos, diplomatic cables, bank accounts in the service of increased transparency, as well as the protesting surveillance or censorship, has caused concern for corporations and state institutions.

WikiLeaks and Anonymous are an expression, a crystallization of a dissatisfaction with the extent to which primarily commercial, but also public service, news organizations have willingly absorbed elite discourses in relation to socio-economic, legal and military issues. Stories which expose political or corporate misconduct should not to be seen as the antithesis to these discourses. Often, such instances are simply defined as ”the exceptions that prove the rule” while the greater meta-story of capitalism and western power remain unchallenged. For example, the rhetoric of Sweden as a neutral country with a primary interest in diplomacy hides, to a certain extent, the economic and political power held by large corporations in this country: corporations involved in business activities antithetical to both democratic development and peaceful resolutions of disputes.  The cloudy role of the Swedish government in protecting Ericsson’s interests in Syria, for example, while covered by Dagens Nyheter and Swedish Radio, received relatively little press coverage, given how it clashed with so much of the political discourse coming out of Stockholm regarding a commitment to freedom of speech and the rule of law.

Again, while stories on surveillance and weapons manufacture are broken, deeper analyses of how the stories relate to power remain, for the most part, unwritten.

But, this post is not about the ”death” of journalism, but rather a particular failure: the failure to address process and context. Yet, the work of both Anonymous and WikiLeaks should be seen as positive developments for journalism, as they introduce new elements into the informational and democratic landscape. Ultimately, what is challenged by WikiLeaks and Anonymous is not so much the mode of news and information production and distribution, but rather the relationship between mass media and those holding political-economic power.

WikiLeaks and Anonymous force us to rethink a number of core democratic relationships: the one between citizens and the state (impacted by providing access to sensitive intelligence previously hidden from view); the one between citizens and the media (impacted by exposure of the shortcomings of an uncritical commercial media system); and, the one between media and governments (impacted by challenging the mantle of “watchdog” proudly trumpeted by major mainstream news outlets). This is not to say that these relationships have altered dramatically, but rather that WikiLeaks and Anonymous, through an determination to challenge global hegemonies, have thrown down the gauntlet in front of those in power by laying bare (some of) the practices of authority hidden from public view.

As academics, such challenges are worthy of deeper examination, as they are at the heart of the democratic ideals both academia and journalism profess to uphold.

Failed Journalism and the Rise of WikiLeaks and Anonymous

THE FOLLOWING IS A WRITTEN COPY OF MY PROFESSORIAL “INSTALLATION TALK” GIVEN AT STOCKHOLM UNIVERSITY ON APRIL 17, 2013. THE INSTALLATION TALK IS A PUBLIC LECTURE INTENDED TO BE BOTH OF INTEREST AND UNDERSTANDABLE TO ACADEMICS AND NON-ACADEMICS ALIKE. ALSO, THIS WAS A TALK, SO THERE ARE NO LINKS! I MIGHT ADD SOME LATER.

“Failed Journalism and the Rise of WikiLeaks and Anonymous”

Christian Christensen

I would like to begin with a brief bit of self-plagiarism, quoting a portion of a talk I gave at Uppsala University in 2011 about the role of the academic in contemporary society which I feel is an ideal lead-in to what I will be discussing today: the failure of journalism and the rise of groups such as Anonymous and WikiLeaks.

So, this is part of what I said two years ago. And I quote:

Despite the many problems that we see within academia (from the dominance of certain paradigms to restrictive publishing and financing models), the university world is one which should depend upon the questioning of authority: be it authority in the form of theory, intellectual positions, but also the hierarchies of power within society in general. It is the role of academic, as I see it, to take the things that we take for granted and to ask: Why? Whose interests are best served in taking these things for granted? Are the benefits spread equally throughout society via our commonsense ideas? If not, how might we remedy this imbalance? These are the intellectual points of departure that made universities such crucial centers for dissenting intellectual opinions in relation to issues as varied as equal rights for women, for minorities, and for the working classes; and a wide variety of anti-war movements from Viet Nam to Iraq.”

To this, I would like to add the following from Michel Foucault, and I again quote:

The work of an intellectual is not to mould the political will of others; it is, through the analyses that he does in his own field, to re-examine evidence and assumptions, to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking, to dissipate conventional familiarities, to re-evaluate rules and institutions and to participate in the formation of a political will (where he has his role as citizen to play).

(…)

The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.

So, what does this have to do with journalism? A lot, I would argue. Many of the issues which we associate with academia – freedom of speech, freedom of expression, critical thinking, keeping an eye on authority, education – are issues which we have historically linked to journalism. Thus, just as it is important to ask to what extent we as academics have investigated, questioned and challenged the distrIbution and use of social, economic and military power in society, so, of course, should we ask the same of the news organizations so eager to describe themselves as the ”Watchdogs” and ”Guardians.”

The premise of my talk today, as should be obvious from the title, is that the mainstream press in countries such as Sweden, the United States and the United Kingdom, have failed to engage in critical investigations into, and analyses of, the accumulation and utilization of power. And, it is this failure which has created a vacuum subsequently filled, in part, by activist groups such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous.

There is, however, a second premise, and that is that in our discussion of groups such as WikiLeaks or Anonymous, the emphasis is often placed squarely upon their use of technology, rather than the socio-political and cultural reasons behind their evolution. This techno-centrism, I would argue, deflects a measure of critique away from mainstream journalism, and ”explains” the rise of groups such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous as predominantly technological phenomena. In other words, they exist because the technology allows them to exist.

This is connected to a concept I have discussed in a few of my recent academic papers: that of ”technology discourse” (or, the ways in which our understanding of technology is shaped by the language we use to discuss it).  One of the leading scholars in the field of technology discourse, Eran Fisher has noted that there is a prevailing assumption in contemporary discourse on technology: namely that a new technology enables a new society, and, thus, that technology ”makes” society. This discourse, in turn, is defined as inherently transparent and unproblematic: to propose the emancipatory power of digital technology, for example, is not seen as the proposition of a subjective opinion, but simply the presentation of fact. As Fisher notes, this is important because within contemporary discourses on technology and globalization, ”the assumptions become even broader, encompassing societal values, development models and trajectories, and the means of fostering democracy, literacy and human well-being.” In short, technology discourse contributes to an uncritical celebration of technology, devoid of social or economic contextualization.

To get back to Foucault for a second, his suggestion that we need to ”criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent” is vital; in particular, his choice of the word ”workings”, because it points to a central idea in my talk: namely the importance of process. Where contemporary journalism has failed, I would argue, is in the lack of exposure and lack of analysis of the mechanisms of power that Foucault discusses. These are mechanisms that are neither sexy nor exciting, and can be mind-numbing in terms of the minutiae of political, legal, diplomatic or technological details. These details are, however, the building blocks of real power: blocks mostly obscured from public view under a veneer of PR, spin, infotainment and ”event”-based news coverage. Over the past few years, and to varied levels of success and impact, groups such as Anonymous and WikiLeaks have peeled back this veneer, exposing activities that are both shocking and banal.

Before I delve into some specific examples of process versus event, however, a few words regarding some of my earlier thoughts on WikiLeaks, technology and journalism might be in order.

After the leak of a significant volume of material on Afghanistan and Iraq (material for which Bradley Manning has been sitting in prison for three years), I published an article in Le Monde Diplomatique entitled, ”WikiLeaks: Three Digital Myths.” In this article I argued that the WikiLeaks phenomenon had raised a number of issues which I then came to define as ”myths.”

First, The myth of the power of social media. This relates to the idea that, somehow, all social media are created equal. When the term ”social media” is used, it often includes different platforms such as blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and so on, as if all of these can be neatly discussed under one technological umbrella.  They cannot, because different platforms allow for different uses, thus framing and shaping the type and form of the material posted (from message lengths on Twitter, to video lengths on YouTube to publication options and Terms of Use on Facebook). It’s a relatively simple concept which seems to be lost on a great many commentators.

Second, The myth of the dying nation state. One of the common statements one hears regarding groups such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous is the fact that they are rendering nation-states and national boundaries meaningless.  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 (such as Sweden, Iceland and Belgium). WikiLeaks isn’t lawless – it’s just moving the entire game to places where the rules are different. In other words, laws, and the nation-states who make those laws, still matter.

And, third, and most relevant to my talk today, the myth of the death of Journalism. Within this myth are the seeds of discussions that have taken place within university walls for the past 20 years: the idea that access to and use of technology by non-journalists – in various forms – will eventually lead to the downfall of professional journalism as we know it today. This has proved to be a myth, although one which is hard to kill. In the case of WikiLeaks,  what the organization did was not to replace mainstream journalism, but rather to force us to consider how the collaboration between WikiLeaks and newspapers such as The Guardian, Der Spiegel, El Pais and The New York Times heralded a new era of large data sets and data mining, as well as mainstream-activist relationship.

In a follow-up article on WikiLeaks, I wrote the following:

As a researcher, it struck me that the period shortly after the release of the “Collateral Murder” video, the “Afghanistan War Logs” and the “Iraq War Logs” illustrated the potential impact of the WikiLeaks-mainstream media collaboration. This was a rare and exciting (albeit short) period of political, professional and cultural introspection, particularly in the United States. US foreign policy and military spending, civilian deaths and possible war crimes in Iraq, journalistic under-performance after 9/11, and government transparency were all thrust into the open as topics for consideration. It appeared, during this short time, that WikiLeaks may have done something that I had thought near impossible: inserting a radical critique of US military and geo-political power into mainstream popular discourse (particularly in the US). Granted, the Guardian and New York Times are not the newspapers of choice for many in the US and UK. Far from it. Yet the very presence of the material on their front pages opened up the possibility that the murky world of US power might now be forced to concede ground to transparency advocates.

In retrospect, this admittedly brief analysis comes off as somewhat naive and short-sighted. As we now know, the relationship between WikiLeaks and these news outlets turned sour. But, the broken relationship between WikiLeaks and the mainstream news media does not change the fact that the relationship marked a shift in how activist organizations might collaborate with their mainstream counterparts, to the benefit of readers.

While it would be a stretch to say that September 11, 2001 was the genesis date for groups such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous, it would nevertheless be fair to suggest that the range of domestic (in the US) and geo-political events that followed those attacks 12 years ago had a profound effect upon global activism: from the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the occupations of those two countries, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the Bush presidency, the London and Madrid bombings, the global War on Terror, The Patriot Act.  In all of these cases, from the attacks themselves to the passage of restrictive censorship and privacy legislation, an understanding of ”workings” and ”process” was and is fundamental to understanding them.

The global media coverage of the attacks of September 11, 2001 is perhaps one of the best examples of how events can supersede process.  Broadly speaking, the attacks were framed as ”terrorism” masterminded by Osama Bin Laden, with Bin Laden himself the by-product of the a rather simplistic ”Islam versus The West” storyline. In popular terms, an understanding of Al Qaeda’s evolution, raison d’être and relationship to 1970s and 1980s regional politics (particularly in Afghanistan) was bypassed in favor of a recounting of 9/11 as an ”event.” As a PhD student at the University of Texas, I was scheduled to teach a class of over 500 students on the morning of September 12, 2001. In the class, we discussed the attacks, with many students asking the rhetorical question, ”Why do they hate us so much?”

This seemingly inane question was, actually, rather complex. But the fact that many university students (and a fair number of US adults) had little or no idea where to begin to look within geo-politics for the answer was an indictment of the US press, which for years has remained uncritical of US military interventionism and policy vis-a-vis Israel. The way in which the global media focused on the issue of WMD in Iraq, for example, spoke volumes about the power of the ”event.”

As the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, it became clear that citizens also had little understanding of the mechanisms of the politics of war or the US legal system. As hundreds of billions of dollars were spent by the Bush and Obama administrations on the war effort, media still focused on surges and attacks, not corrupt no-bid contracts offered to former business partners of Vice-President Dick Cheney. And, as the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay Prison now enter their second month of hunger strikes, the limited amount of time spent by the media addressing the very legality of the prison, and the treatment of the prisoners, has become painfully apparent.

I do not wish this to be a lecture about the United States only, however. Here in Sweden, a number of recent stories have illustrated the tendency of the news media to only scratch the surface, rather than dig deeper. A few particular cases come to mind.

The first is the steady political rise of the Sweden Democrats. A number of months ago the party became the third most popular in the country: an unimaginable political reality only a few years ago. Yet, in large part, the news media in Sweden have avoided deeper discussions about how and why the party achieved this dubious honor, focusing instead upon poll numbers, and ”events” such as the ”iron bar” incident filmed in Stockholm last summer. This coverage is critical, of course, in the sense that it exposes a ”dark side” to party members. Yet these stories tend to remain at the level of the individual and the party, and never address the underlying tensions within Swedish society which have led to 10% of the population voting for an openly xenophobic party.

Similarly, the story broken a few days ago on TV4’s Kalla Fakta that 750 million kroner of Swedish taxpayer money had gone to Saab to finance the development of the Neuron attack drone was good, important journalism. As was the story broken by Swedish Radio some months back about Swedish state support for the construction of a weapons factory in Saudi Arabia. Yet, to once again return to the question of process, these stories expose singular (sometimes corrupt or illegal) activities, but do not address the fundamental role of weapons manufacture within the Swedish economy, the role played by the Swedish state in the promotion of the weapons industry, nor the inherent contradictions found when such promotion is combined with state discourse trumpeting Swedish diplomacy and commitments to human rights.

In light of the failure of mainstream journalism to tackle the issues I have just discussed, the void was at least partially filled by the actions of WikiLeaks and Anonymous. The two are somewhat different – WikiLeaks is a semi-structured whistle-blowing  website/organization while Anonymous is a a more free-floating collective of hactkivists who, ”publicize various wrongdoings, leak sensitive data, engage in digital direct action, and provide technology assistance for revolutionary movements” (Coleman). Of the two groups, WikiLeaks has identified itself more as a journalistic organization, although Anonymous, via the popularity of the @YourAnonNews Twitter feed, has begun to enter the news market.

Anonymous is best-known for activism opposing child pornography, surveillance, and extremist religious groups, various US government agencies, and even against Swedish government websites and businesses in response to the Assange case.  As Gabriella Coleman put it:

Anonymous is a distinct, emerging part of (a) diverse and burgeoning political landscape. Its real threat may lie not so much in its ability to organise cyberattacks but in the way it has become a beacon, a unified front against censorship and surveillance.

For both WikiLeaks and Anonymous, there is a commitment to expose corporate and state abuses of power, often by exposing the very mechanisms by which such power is exercised. The leak/hacking/publication by the two groups of emails, internal documents and memos, military videos, diplomatic cables, bank accounts in the service of increased transparency, as well as the assisted bypassing of surveillance or censorship, has caused great concern for corporations and state institutions.

In the case of WikiLeaks, a series of significant leaks pointed to the potential of the organization to act as an independent watchdog, as well as raising the possibility that WikiLeaks should be considered a journalistic/news organization in its own right.

While they are most famous for the files on Iraq and Afghanistan, it is worth noting that WikiLeaks also released a number of important documents detailing corporate and governmental abuses of power, some extremely serious, including:

  • the leak in 2009 of World Health Organization draft reports showing the influence within the organization of large pharmaceutical companies, and the their forcing developing nations to raise drug prices beyond the means of most citizens;
  • the leak of stories from 2009 on Trafigura: a company that engaged in illegal toxic dumping in Cote d’Ivoire, leading to serious health damage;
  • the leak of documents on the 2009 Copenhagen Climate summit outlining how the US threatened and bullied other countries to follow US line on climate change;
  • the leak of 2008 documents from Swiss bank Julius Baer suggesting money-laundering in the Cayman Islands (a California judge initially blocked WikiLeaks.org as a result, but later overturned on 1st Amendment grounds);
  • and, the 2008 and 2009 leaks of the membership list of the far-right, xenophobic British Nationalist Party.

In response to the WHO documents, James Love, the Director of Knowledge Economy International, said the following:

After reading these cables, it is difficult to stomach the defenses of US secrecy. Forcing developing countries to raise the price of drugs has predictable and well known consequences — it kills people, and increases suffering. Many people could care less — including reporters and editors of newspapers. How much of this ends up in the Washington Post, the New York Times or the Guardian these days? But others who do care now have more access to information, and more credibility in their criticisms of government policy, because of the disclosures of the cables.

WikiLeaks and Anonymous are an expression, a crystallization of a dissatisfaction with the extent to which primarily commercial, but also public service, news organizations have willingly absorbed elite discourses in relation to socio-economic, legal and military issues. Stories which expose political or corporate misconduct should not to be seen as the antithesis to these discourses. Often, such instances are simply defined as ”the exceptions that prove the rule” while the greater meta-story of capitalism and western power remain unchallenged. For example, the rhetoric of Sweden as a neutral country with a primary interest in diplomacy hides, to a certain extent, the economic and political power held by large corporations in this country: corporations involved in business activities antithetical to both democratic development and peaceful resolutions of disputes.  The cloudy role of the Swedish government in protecting Ericsson’s interests in Syria last year, for example, while covered by Dagens Nyheter and Swedish Radio, received relatively little press coverage given how it clashed with so much of the political discourse coming out of Stockholm regarding a commitment to freedom of speech and the rule of law.

But, this talk is not about the ”death” of journalism, but rather a particular failure: the failure to address process and context. Yet, the work of both Anonymous and WikiLeaks should be seen as positive developments for journalism, as they introduce new elements into the informational and democratic landscape. As Coleman also writes:

…the work of politics and social transformation requires a diverse toolkit – from fine-tuned government interventions to rowdy subversive tactics – and we should be wary of christening any particular tactic a magic bullet. (…) Distinct formats need not be mutually exclusive or even in competition; they can and do often cross-pollinate. We need compelling stories that dramatise the issues the government would like us to forget, and that make people care. We need investigative journalists who dedicate years to tracking down sources and putting the pieces of a difficult puzzle together. We need independent Internet Service Providers committed to the privacy of their users. And we need advocacy groups with lawyers, lobbyists, and policy strategists.

Ultimately, what is challenged by WikiLeaks and Anonymous, at the core, is not so much the mode of news and information production and distribution, but rather the relationship between mass media and those holding political-economic power. Anonymous and WikiLeaks force us to rethink a number of core democratic relationships: the one between citizens and the state (impacted by providing access to sensitive intelligence previously hidden from view); the one between citizens and the media (impacted by exposure of the shortcomings of an uncritical commercial media system); and, the one between media and governments (impacted by challenging the mantle of “watchdog” proudly trumpeted by major mainstream news outlets). This is not to say that these relationships altered dramatically, but rather that Anonymous and WikiLeaks, through an determination to challenge global hegemonies, have thrown down the gauntlet in front of those in power by laying bare (some of) the practices of authority hidden from public view.

As academics, such challenges are worthy of deeper examination, as they cut to the heart of the very democratic ideals both academia and journalism profess to uphold.

Hacking and Whistleblowing: The New Crack Cocaine of Activism

Hacking & Whistleblowing: The New Crack Cocaine of Activism

(This article appeared in the February 2013 edition of Le Monde Diplomatique)

Christian Christensen

At the height of the purported cocaine “epidemic” in the United States in the 1980s, politicians and law enforcement officials felt something had to be done. What Congress did was to pass the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986: one of the most draconian, overtly racist pieces of legislation in US history. The law introduced mandatory minimum sentences, including an astonishing 5 years in federal prison for the possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine. What moved the law from the medieval to the outright racist, however, was the fact that in order to spend the same 5 years in prison for possession of powder cocaine, one would have to be caught with 500 grams of that substance. In other words, there was a 100:1 sentencing disparity between convictions for possession of crack versus powder cocaine. Expensive powder cocaine tended to be the drug of choice for upper-middle class suburban kids and white-collar bankers, while much cheaper crack was favored by poorer drug users. Despite such a blatant discriminatory factor, it took 26 years to pass Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 which pushed the sentencing ratio down from an outlandishly racist 100:1 to an outrageously racist 18:1.

What does this have to do with hacking and whistleblowing? A lot.

At the most basic level, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 stripped bare any pretense that justice in the United States was blind, and that the scales were calibrated so that  no preference would be given to a particular citizen on the basis of race or socio-economic status. The law sent a loud, unambiguous message that there are two sets of rules in the United States: one for those with power and social capital, and one for the rest. Thus, when it was widely reported in the wake of his suicide that the hacker and programmer Aaron Swartz was facing 35 years in prison for illegally downloading academic articles from the JSTOR system, it became clear to many previously unfamiliar with the case just how skewed the US legal system is, and the extent to which prosecutors were willing to go to “make an example” of someone whose greatest crime was downloading articles that academics provide to publishers for free, which are then re-sold to those same academics for a healthy profit. JSTOR itself did not wish to press charges, but the prosecution went ahead, with a computer hacker facing more years in prison for downloading journal articles about Emily Dickinson and film theory than any Wall Street CEO, Blackwater executive or corrupt politician.

When we speak of state violence, we tend to think of overt acts of physical violence against the body: the death penalty, police brutality or warfare being classic examples. Violence, however, is not relegated only to the application of pain, but can also include the limiting of physical and psychological freedom. As such, imprisonment is a significant act of violence, and is, along with the ability to take a life through capital punishment or warfare, a significant power afforded to states. Financial sanctions may cripple a person economically, but if they are still free to walk the streets, play with their children or engage in the many simple acts that make up the day-to-day existence of a human being, then that person still retains the core elements of dignity and humanity. I simply cannot fathom the idea that someone would be denied those elements for a quarter century for the crime of downloading academic articles; nor, for that matter, can I fathom the UK sending Anonymous hackers Christopher Weatherhead and Ashley Rhodes to prison for 18 and seven months respectively for the crime of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against PayPal, Visa and Mastercard. This, while the former head of the Royal Bank of Scotland, Sir Fred Goodwin, walks free after taking home 1.3 million pounds in salary while overseeing the biggest loss in British corporate history: 24 billion pounds.

In addition to hackers we have whistleblowers, none more famous than Bradley Manning, who also faces the possibility of spending the better part of his life behind bars. Already confined for almost 1000 days, and initially placed in solitary confinement, Manning is accused of placing the security of the United States in jeopardy by providing classified documents to WikiLeaks. A portion of the information he leaked was footage (now known as the “Collateral Murder Video”) showing the killing of civilians by a US attack helicopter in Iraq. The irony is, were Manning a Chinese, Iranian or Cuban soldier who had exposed potential war crimes committed by his government, his solitary confinement and impending life sentence would be held up as evidence of the barbarity and anti-democratic tendencies of the “regimes” in question, and calls would be made for his release on “humanitarian” grounds. As it is, Manning (like Swartz) is being given the 1986 crack cocaine treatment by the US government: the threat of a wildly excessive prison sentence, at odds with both logic and law, for the purpose of crushing the individual in question.

If the message of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 was that the poor and minorities needed learn their place in an America ruled by white elites, then what is the message being sent in relation to Manning, Swartz and the two Anonymous hackers in the UK? Much the same as in the case of crack versus powder, actually. While the US and UK make geo-political hay out of their commitment to free speech and democracy, dissenters and activists must learn their place. They are useful to the neo-liberal project in that they show that moderate dissent is tolerated; however, once that dissent crosses the line, and trespasses upon the sacred turf of corporate profits and military power, then action must be taken to rectify the situation. If that means sending a man to prison for life for exposing potential war crimes, or driving a man to suicide for downloading academic articles, so be it.

300 words on 9/11

There were moments on that day 11 years ago when the United States was seen as something other than a military or economic superpower. It was seen as a nation of vulnerable citizens: Americans were at one and the same time confused, brave, scared and generous, defying simplistic Hollywood stereotypes of what is a complex, multi-faceted country. As I sat in my apartment in Austin, Texas and watched the buildings burn and collapse, it seemed that a threshold had been crossed, and that claims that “things would never be the same,” while painfully clichéd, contained a grain of truth. It is (and was) naïve to think that the events of September 11, 2001 would convert the United States from military bully to benevolent protector, but that is not what most people I knew thought. Not even close. What did seem possible, at least, was that an element of reflexivity would be injected into the American psyche and, in turn, US geo-politics.  The US had global goodwill on its side (a rare commodity), and the question was how the US might utilize that goodwill.

It is both tragic and ironic, therefore, that state violence and a curtailment of fundamental freedoms at home and abroad has been the Bush/Obama response to the violent “attacks on freedom” of September 11, 2001. From Abu Ghraib, to Guantamamo, to the Patriot Act, to Afghanistan, to “extraordinary rendition”, to waterboarding, to drone killings, to Bradley Manning to surveillance, the America of September 11, 2012 is a less free, more violent country than it was 11 years ago. The unselfish, collectivist mentality of the people of New York that so impressed the world was quickly, predictably usurped by all-too-familiar US global realpolitik based on economics, individualism and repression.  This is a sad anniversary, for lots of reasons.

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