The Occupy Gezi Protests and the Re-Ignition of Public Intellectuals

(The following is the first of a two-part blog posting about events in Turkey, and how academia has played a role in coverage and analysis of events. Against all laws of nature, this post is link-free. I don’t see the need for them as I will be providing links in the follow-up posting. This is the set-up piece. If you don’t know what happened in Turkey, or need background, it’s all out there.)

The Occupy Gezi Protests and the Re-Ignition of Public Intellectuals: Part I

Isolated. Cloistered. Pampered. Stuck in ivory towers. Drowning in theory. Divorced from reality. Those who cannot do, teach.

Those of us who work in academia have heard it all over the years, often from people without the faintest clue what is actually involved in academic work: years of study with little or no income, copious reading and writing, data collection, administrative meetings, teaching, student advising, conferences. I’m not complaining that I am overworked. In fact, I have made it clear on many occasions that I consider academic work to be a privilege in a world dominated by awful jobs with terrible wages.

The critique of academia is part of a broader, depressing anti-intellectualism in a great many societies. If we are being honest, however, these wounds are in part self-inflicted: academics have (in general) been terrible at explaining to the outside world what it is we do, how we do it and why it is important. On top of this, while many of us rail against the commodification of society, we (and I include myself here) publish in journals and books charging crazy money for access, teach at universities increasingly demanding fees, and present research at expensive conferences only other academics are interested in attending. We have been unfairly maligned, but is it any wonder?

And, of all of the disciplines within academia, few have been as maligned and misrepresented as Media Studies/Mass Communication. Media professionals look at us and ask, “They’ve never worked a day of their lives in the industry, yet profess to be experts?” Regular citizens look at us and ask, “They are paying people to do research about television?” And, journalists look at us and ask, “Studying cartoons and David Beckham is what passes for university material?”

So, what are we to do? Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the protest…

Recent events in Turkey have made it abundantly clear what academia in general, and Media/Communications Studies in particular, have to offer. And it’s a lot. If we take my own discipline (Journalism, Media & Communications) as an example, the protests around Gezi Park in central Istanbul, and the state and media reaction to those protests, raised a number of core issues. Here are 10 examples:

1. The use of social media as a means of information distribution, organization and dissent;

2. the role/performance of the domestic (in this case Turkish) media — both mainstream and alternative — in the coverage or non-coverage of events;

3. the role/performance of the international media in the coverage or non-coverage of events;

4. the ownership structure of media in Turkey, and an historical understanding of the impact of such structures upon content;

5. the role of the Turkish state in the regulation of radio, television, film and newspapers, as well as social media;

6. the contemporary and historical relationship between journalism and the state in Turkey;

7. levels of access to, and use of, social media in Turkey;

8. forms and modes of social media use, as well as use of television, radio and newspapers;

9. the relationship between popular culture and politics in Turkey;

10. the use of media for the purposes of political communication by mainstream politicians.

Yes, this list is not complete; and, yes, many of these issues overlap. But, if we can get away from that for a minute, let’s consider this list and just how central they are to (1) an understanding of what is going on in Turkey, and (2) what academics do for a living.

An in-depth understanding of any of the items on this list requires more than a few hours with a laptop and an internet connection. It requires reading and research. It requires an understanding of social, political and historical context. It requires reflection. So, when the protests in Turkey broke out, what happened was interesting: a large number of academics — many Turkish, some not — began to emerge as key sources of information and analysis. What is also interesting is that these sources and analysts were not relegated to those at the top of the academic food chain: bloggers, Tweeters, Op-Ed authors and news sources ran the gamut from Professors to MA students. Of course, within this process, technology has been absolutely central.

Some caveats. First, none of this is to say that what has happened in Turkey is unique, but, rather, that Turkey has made the role of the public intellectual (to me) more visible. Academics have been writing about public events for centuries, of course, but my sense is that this function has diminished, and recent events in (for example) Iran, Egypt and now Turkey (not to mention the Manning and Snowden cases) have re-ignited that public role. Second, none of this is to say that there are not journalists and non-academics who can do the kind of analysis and research I am writing about. There are. Finally, I am fully aware that there are academics in Turkey, Iran, Egypt and elsewhere who have been active for many years in spreading information and analysis about events in those countries. This is not to ignore that work, but rather to note how academics are now reaching out to a much broader audience via a combination of language (English) and technology. My ultimate point is to highlight the ways in which academics can engage in the coverage and analysis of a major event such as Gezi, and how this should be held us as evidence of how the supposedly banal, dry research which we produce is not only relevant and applicable, but actually central to an understanding of important events. This, in turn, needs to be trumpeted as a important component of academic work.

(In the next installment, I will discuss some specific examples of what I am writing about about here, and how they contributed to and understanding of events in Turkey.)

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.

WikiLeaks Supporters: Thinking Right?

(This post is a response to Professor Christensen vs. WikiLeaks? by Marcello Ferrada de Noli. I have subsequently written a separate post on my specific thoughts on the relationship between WikiLeaks, feminism and Assange.)

WikiLeaks Supporters: Thinking Right?

I have a great job. As a university professor at Uppsala University in Sweden, I am afforded a number of luxuries not on offer to the vast majority of human beings throughout the world. I have a good salary, good working conditions, security and, importantly, a level of intellectual freedom which allows me to look at events in the world and consider them within broader, critical contexts. When I was promoted to the position of Professor at Uppsala, I made my feelings regarding the role of the academic in public life clear in my installation speech (a public lecture given by professors upon their promotion). I concluded my talk with the following quote from Noam Chomsky:

Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us. The responsibilities of intellectuals, then, are much deeper than what Macdonald calls the “responsibility of people,” given the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy.

In my academic work, I have attempted in some small way to live up to Noam Chomsky’s ideals, and mixed my research and writing with more public discussions on the uneven distribution of power in society in general, and the role of the media in this distribution in particular. My work to date has included academic studies on public broadcasting and commercial news in Sweden, the representation of Islam, the use of documentary film as an anti-war tool, concentration of media power in Turkey, the use of YouTube during the occupation in Iraq, and a critique of Swedish government aid to net activists. My popular, non-academic publications have been more wide-ranging, from pieces on Bruce Springsteen to Iran to US journalism, but I have always attempted to maintain a critical focus on commercial media, and the role that these media play in the consolidation of elite power. In all of these pieces I have not hidden my ideological rejection of (1) free-market myths, (2) arguments in favor of US supremacy and (3) structures which enable oppression or inequality.

In my more recent popular pieces (#1, #2, #3), I have turned my attention to WikiLeaks: an organization I considered (and still consider) to be a vital actor in the exposure of lies and abuses of power at the highest levels. While I recognize the importance of WikiLeaks, this recognition has not stopped me from raising questions regarding the activities of WikiLeaks or supporters that could, as far as I see it, have a potentially negative impact upon an agenda I consider worth pursuing (transparency in the service of justice). For anyone who has read these articles, it is clear that I mix a healthy respect for WikiLeaks with a desire to engage in honest discussion about what the organization has done, is doing, and where it is going. Without such debate, claims that the organization and the followers are democratic simply ring hollow.

It is for this reason that I sent out a tweet about a week ago following the re-tweet by WikiLeaks of a link to an article written by Al Burke entitled, “Suspicious Behavior.” In the tweet, I encouraged WikiLeaks to refrain from re-tweeting links to articles promoting a “radical feminist” thesis I described as “nonsense.” My irritation was based on the fact that the feminist line has been pushed by WikiLeaks via these re-tweets (including essays by de Noli). Of course, Twitter is not the best place to engage in a debate on why I felt the thesis was nonsense, so, following Twitter messages from 4 individuals (no more, by the way) challenging my assertion, I decided to write a blog post to explain my position, and why I feel that a promotion of this argument only serves to undercut the broader WikiLeaks political agenda. I fully accept that if I call the position “nonsense” on a public forum that I should be willing to put my reasons into writing.

However, before I could finish my piece, de Noli published a blog entry about me. I must say that I am grateful for this posting, as it made the work of explaining my general position on WikiLeaks much clearer. De Noli’s essay is, to my mind, a crystallization of everything that is intellectually wrong with a certain faction of WikiLeaks supporters, whose arguments are a melange of opinion, selective “facts” and dogma. (De Noli insinuates, based on no evidence whatsoever other than pure chronology, that my tweet was connected to a “message” that was sent to me via my blog from “an American campaigner”. It was not.)

After the post was published I wrote to de Noli on Twitter and informed him that I would be posting my own response, and that his post had re-enforced my feeling that anyone who disagreed with his thesis was automatically painted as anti-WikiLeaks and anti-Assange. De Noli sent me a number of tweets with links to logic websites and claims that he is only dedicated to “facts.” As I say, I was in the process of writing my arguments regarding the WikiLeaks-feminism thesis when de Noli posted his thoughts about me. So, I felt the need to clarify where I stand, and where I see myself in relation to WikiLeaks.

With De Noli’s dedication to “facts” in mind, I would like to address the points he raises, and use them to illustrate the intellectual weaknesses in his arguments.

Interestingly, de Noli starts his piece with an attack on the motto of my university:

“To think free is great; but to think right is greater” (att tänka fritt är stort att tänka rätt är store) Inscription engraved at Uppsala University’s library

“That a University calls on its scholars to think ‘right’ should trouble all who value academic freedom and the pursuit of knowledge. In fact, it harkens back to the old days when Universities were not independent centres of learning but were, indeed, constrained by the church and the Monarchy to “think right” or be shut down. Attacks on the scientific process and promotion of non-scientific dogma in some faculties in Uppsala University suggests that this old proclamation (still) reflects the University’s position in thinking according to cannons of political correctness imposed by an authority.” Professors blog

The quotation above was written by Thomas Thorild in 1794 and set in stone above the main university building in 1877. Exactly what this has to do with myself or WikiLeaks is an absolute mystery. Unless, that is, de Noli is under the impression that Uppsala University uses the university motto as a benchmark for all research produced at the institution. Since the university has established itself as a world-leader in the hard sciences, de Noli must be confused as to how this happened with such an anti-science motto. Either that, or de Noli is simply trying to link me, in an intellectually infantile manner, to a motto which I reject and consider to be complete bullshit.

Later in his piece, de Noli has a 720-word section entitled, Uppsala University and Swedish extreme “radical feminists” in which he discusses the hiring and work of feminist scholar Eva Lundgren (as well as a diatribe against qualitative research). De Noli explains:

The relevance of this to this article, is that it refers to the same Uppsala Faculty which has allocated several professors at the Ethical Research Committee of Uppsala that approved the “feminist” cultural-racists study by Eva Lundgren research associates – the theme which Professors blog analysed in “Throw them all out”.

This sentence sounds impressive, if you ignore the fact that it is completely irrelevant to my work. I have never met Eva Lundgren, never read or cited any of her research, never been involved in a research project, article, proposal, course, class, seminar, or lunch meeting with her. Nor has any of my work, to date, gone through the Ethical Research Committee de Noli mentions. Again, what Eva Lundgren’s job at Uppsala, or the Ethical Research Committee, has to do with me or WikiLeaks, and why he chose to spend so much time writing about someone I don’t even know and have never written about, is something only de Noli can explain. Unless, of course, de Noli feels that if Professor X is at the same university as Professor Y, that they must have some form of intellectual bond. Or, if a university hires someone questionable, or approves of their work, this de facto reflects upon all faculty members at that university. That would be like me saying that anyone who studied or worked at Harvard University, as de Noli did, has some type of intellectual connection to anyone else who studied or worked at Harvard. For example, Henry Kissenger, who green-lit the mass slaughter of Cambodians during the VietNam War, and not only wrote his dissertation at Harvard, but was Director of the Harvard Defense Studies Program between 1958 and 1971. Or, a number of documented war criminals admitted to the university after their crimes were committed. So, Harvard is a university that condoned work with the US government and military during Viet Nam and has taken on documented war criminals. Does this make de Noli an intellectual accomplice to these people? No, because to suggest so would be absurd. To me, anyway.

My Background and Work

It is always fascinating to read a description of oneself written by another, especially when that person has carefully and selectively picked portions of your work and life, and offered descriptions of that work, which help them to shape a particular image of you. As noted, de Noli admonished me for a lack of logical rigor, and asked that we stick to “facts” in our discussions. As any scientist should know, the use of facts is by no means a guarantee that an accurate image will come out, especially when a scientist decides to omit certain facts which do not fit a particular agenda. Here is how de Noli described me:

Christian Christensen is an American researcher who graduated from Texas University and who was drawn to my attention for his several twitters and critical articles he has published on WikiLeaks, notably his most recent piece “WikiLeaks vs. Sweden”.

Let’s start here. Yes, I am American and I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. I congratulate de Noli for finding those facts. Unfortunately, his ability to resist the temptation to shape reality takes hold in the second part of the sentence. His use of the term “several…critical articles he has written on WikiLeaks” is important. I have, to date, published four articles on WikiLeaks: two in Le Monde Diplomatique, one academic piece, and one on my blog. After the publication of my first piece in Le Monde Diplomatique entitled, WikiLeaks: Three Digital Myths, my name and contact information were placed on the WikiLeaks webpage as a contact in Sweden who would could “comment” on the organization to journalists. I guess WikiLeaks felt the piece exhibited enough thought to put me down as a commentator, which hardly suggests an antagonistic attitude to the organization on my part. Yet, for some reason, de Noli does not include this in his list of “facts.”

In all four of the articles I make clear my belief in the importance of WikiLeaks to contemporary society, and the ways in which the organization highlighted the failure of mainstream media to adequately tackle issues such as the Iraq War. Again, de Noli avoids these facts. Interestingly, a link to the Sweden vs. Assange article was re-tweeted by the @Wikileaks twitter feed (together with Kristinn Hrafnsson’s piece, which was placed as an “opposing view” to mine); to date, the essay has been viewed 452 times. This isn’t a massive number, but one would assume that if the essay was perceived as unfair or unbalanced, that I would get at least some negative feedback or accusations from WikiLeaks supporters of being anti-Assange or anti-WikiLeaks. I have not.

De Noli continues:

Christensen was academically stationed in Turkey after 2002 where he wrote several pieces on Iran and the role of social media (Facebook, Twitter, blogs) in, among other areas “enabling the spread of state propaganda and surveillance”. Inferred from his CV, he has been also active in Finland or Norway before moving to Sweden where he has resided since 2006. In 2010 he received a professorship at Uppsala University. The Swedish government’s agency Council for Working Life and Social Research – a Swedish authority under the Ministry of Social Affairs – currently finances Christensen’s research with the equivalent sum of 383,484 USD (2.7 million Swedish Kr, or 300,000 Euro) for the project “The Social Journalist: News Work and News Organizations in an Age of Networked Sociality.” Christensen is professor of media and communication studies and in his personal presentation at the Uppsala University directory, he describes his primary special area being the “use of social media during times of war”.

Apart from the factual errors that I wrote these pieces on social media while living in Turkey (they were written in Sweden), and that I have have lived in Norway (I have not), the key here is de Noli’s description of my research project, which he writes is financed by “the Swedish government’s agency Council for Working Life and Social Research (link added by CC, not in original quote)– a Swedish authority under the Ministry of Social Affairs.”

See the clever rhetorical angle here? I can see the headline: “Professor who hates WikiLeaks and Assange has research paid for by Swedish government.” Yes, but, then again, everyone who is an academic in Sweden works for, and is paid by, the Swedish government, as universities are state institutions. Including de Noli, by the way, who made a career accepting Swedish government money as an academic in Sweden. And, as de Noli decides not to tell readers, the state is one of the largest funders of academic research in Sweden, regardless of discipline, so having a project funded from the state budget is hardly evidence of bias. And, for some strange reason, de Noli has forgotten to mention the very latest last academic article I published: a peer-reviewed critique of the current Conservative administration’s policy regarding Swedish state aid to global net activism (in addition to a large number of critical tweets I have directed at the current administration regarding this policy and other technology-related issues).

Finally, I would like to end by discussing de Noli’s key complaint against me: that I do not understand (or simply reject) the difference between the leaks that WikiLeaks release via their websites, and the information that they relay via, for example, Twitter. And, that I am part of some type of right-wing elite alliance to stifle freedom of speech. On the first issue, de Noli writes:

In sum, the interpretation errors here appear to be two-fold, in form and in content Formally, because it is up to WikiLeaks editors to decide both what to make public in disseminating information at their official sites and with whom and how to interact in their Twitter account; and also because it is erroneous to equate different modes in the societal interaction of WikiLeaks.

 Had de Noli bothered to look at what I had written in WikiLeaks vs. Sweden, he would have read the following:

Following the allegations made against Assange, and the rapid deterioration of the relationship between WikiLeaks and their former partners in the mainstream media (such as the New York, Times, Guardian and Der Spiegel), the organization has taken what appears to be a far more aggressive role. Rather than discussing relationships between media and governments, and citizens and governments, it is now necessary to address the direct relationship between WikiLeaks and these groups.  In particular, WikiLeaks has made use of Twitter (the organization has over one million followers) as a platform for the spread of information and opinion regarding a wide variety of issues. Via the use of this technology, WikiLeaks has expanded its brand beyond the collection and dissemination of leaked documents, to what appears to be a more direct advocacy-oriented strategy, with the organization mounting a campaign against perceived bias with the Swedish justice system in general, and those involved in the Assange case in particular. (…) What is clear from the Swedish case is that WikiLeaks has become something more than this: it has become an organization that is willing to confront not only governments, but also media outlets and even individuals via a variety of digital tools, not simply via leaked documents.

I am well aware that WikiLeaks representatives have denied that there was or is a deliberate campaign against Sweden; but, as I very clearly state, I suggested a clear campaign against perceived bias and those specifically involved in the case. And, as the section above also indicates – and in contrast to de Noli’s “analysis” of my position – I am also aware of the difference between leaks and what WikiLeaks releases via social media. In fact, that was the entire point of the article: how WikiLeaks was utilizing social media in contrast/addition to the leaks, and asking how this new angle could be considered in light of the organizations brand and raison d’etre. I would like to think this is a valid, important question for anyone genuinely interested in the future of WikiLeaks. It is also worth noting that in the entire article, the word “feminism” is used twice: once where I state that I am “surprised” that feminism was targeted so clearly in the tweets (which I am); and, the other was part of a quotation from the Swedish journalist Karin Olsson’s Guardian piece attacking Julian Assange: an article I described in my post as being “vitriolic.”

There is a real irony here. After 9/11, those of us from the United States who opposed the war in Iraq were often accused by conservatives and pro-war advocates as being un-American, pro-terrorism, anti-democracy and, worst of all, in favor of the troops being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, in this blinkered intellectual view (exemplified by Fox News), it was simply impossible to be a “good American” and be against the war. The lack of rational thinking in the argument made it difficult to counter. Unfortunately, I see many of the same tactics being employed by certain WikiLeaks followers, many of whom are quick to paint anyone who disagrees with any element related to the organization as anti-WikiLeaks, anti-Assange agents of US power. In other words, in this case, it is simply impossible to be a WikiLeaks supporter and critique the way in which the organization has tarred feminism in Sweden with a broad brush (which is the essential critique I will offer in my next post).

A decade of my popular research and writing is available online to be read, and so to be linked with right-wing think-tanks and conservative journalists as part of some kind of pro-US, pro-Sweden, anti-Assange, anti-WikiLeaks campaign would be funny, were it not so sad.

The Public Professor: Critical Intellectual Discourse in the Age of Social Media

(THE FOLLOWING IS THE TEXT OF MY PROFESSORIAL INSTALLATION SPEECH GIVEN AT AT UPPSALA UNIVERSITY ON NOVEMBER 16, 2011. AS IS THE CUSTOM, THE INTENDED AUDIENCE FOR THESE INSTALLATION TALKS IS BROAD AND NON-ACADEMIC.)

The Public Professor: Critical Intellectual Discourse in the Age of Social Media (CLICK FOR VIDEO)

Professor Christian Christensen, Media & Communication Studies

Professorial Installation Talk

Uppsala University, Sweden (November 16, 2011)

In 1967, in a piece entitled The Responsibility of Intellectuals, Noam Chomsky wrote the following:

It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies. This, at least, may seem enough of a truism to pass over without comment. Not so, however. For the modern intellectual, it is not at all obvious.

About one week from today my daughter will celebrate her second birthday. This means that she will be entering university – should she choose to go – in the year 2027. The title of my talk today is, “The Public Professor: Critical Intellectual Discourse in the Age of Social Media.” Part of my talk will be about what I see as the role of the university professor in a highly mediated environment, and in relation to what Noam Chomsky said about public intellectuals. But, it is also in part about my daughter, and the future of universities in what is rapidly becoming a highly commercialized academic environment.

As a media and communications scholar, many people take it for granted that I am able to communicate effectively in public fora. Communication to the public is not, of course, the central role of the communications scholar. We analyze and investigate various phenomena related to media and communications, but that does not necessarily mean that we are “good communicators” ourselves. In actual fact, this is probably one of the weaknesses of those of us who work in academia: that is, our inability to take the fascinating and critical ideas that we discuss in our journal articles and in our books, and translate them into what we might want to call, “popular language.”

In the academic world, the presentation of intellectual material in popular form is generally looked down upon.  I am educated in the United States, where the position of the “public intellectual” is significantly less defined (and respected) than it is here in Sweden and Europe. It is, I feel, a central duty for those of us working within academia to take the material that we do research on and to discuss it publicly, to make public – in some form and in some way – the knowledge that we have spent years gathering and shaping.

What does this issue – being a public professor – have to do with my daughter, and what does this have to do with social media?  I see these three issues as inter-linked. One of the things that I am most worried about in relation to my daughter starting university in 2027 is whether or not the university will come to exist in a form that we recognize today. What I mean by this is: a space within contemporary society not entirely dictated by commercial interests and considerations. It is one of the things that I am grateful for: that, as an employee of a university, at least to some extent, I work within a space where my thinking can be divorced from purely profit-making and commercial considerations.

Spaces such as these are becoming increasingly rare in contemporary society. The media, urban spaces, politics are all zones where the communication that we encounter (from text to visuals to speech) are soaked in the logic of the commercial. We are surrounded by advertising, from the moment we wake up in the morning, to the time we spend walking on the streets, to the very logos that we wear on our bodies in the form of clothing. Our media systems are almost exclusively commercial, and even countries with a history of public service broadcasting have seen that  history slowly erased, replaced with a commercialized reality.

As capitalism continues its march forward, there exists a drive to locate new elements of our existence that have yet to be turned into products to be bought and sold. Even our personal experiences have become fair game. The social media site Facebook essentially commodifies various elements of our private life: our thoughts, our pictures, our likes, our dislikes, our families, our friendships.

However, I do believe that social media – and I recognize that the very term “social media” is problematic – provide opportunities. I do not wish to stand here and sound like a techo-phobe or neo-Luddite,  and one of the positive byproducts of the development of the internet, digital technologies and social media has been the ability of what we might wish to call “ordinary citizens” to  make their voices heard. Now, again, let me say that this ability has been vastly overblown by the mainstream media. The vast majority of bloggers, videos on YouTube, postings to Facebook and tweets on Twitter, fall into digital black-holes, never to be seen or heard by the billions of users around the globe.

But, I myself have a blog. I use Facebook. I use Twitter. This is because opportunities do exist. Recent events in north Africa and the global Occupy Wall Street movement have shown that digital technologies can be utilized by ordinary citizens – those not wealthy or privileged enough to own a newspaper or  television station – for the greater good. Digital media use is not the ONLY factor in these cases, but it is A factor that cannot simply be dismissed. In the same way I would argue that academics, those of us employed as public sector workers, should make the most of these technologies in order to spread the information that we gather. To spread the research, the knowledge, the critical thinking that we have spent years and years cultivating.

Universities have become increasingly commodified: universities in the UK charge students tuition fees, and we in Sweden have begun to charge international students tuition fees, things that have been done in my own country, the United States,  for a number of years. Commodification was, for a long period, seen as anathema to higher education in Europe, but, as time as gone by, we have seen the increasing commodification of university life. In the same way, departments that are considered to be “unprofitable” – in other words, they do not have large numbers of students, or do not produce “cutting edge” research that attracts the interest of outside financers – simply begin to disappear. Language departments, and niche intellectual areas of inquiry struggle financially, and are therefore not “of value” to universities.

If we look forward to 2027, when my daughter will begin at university, then it is critical to ask if the departments that I have just discussed actually exist? Will the majority of universities, for example, have a French department? Will universities and their leaders be willing to stand up and defend the existence of departments that are, in fact, vital symbols of what a university SHOULD be in a modern society. That is: a space, a bastion for free thinking outside of market constraints and outside of market logic.

What will the 2027 university look like? To return back to social media and technology, I would hope that university faculty will be much more willing and able to spread information from inside to outside of the university walls. We exist in a privileged world. Of course university work is difficult. Getting a Ph.D. is hard. Many people do not understand this, and are amused by the suggestion that academics do hard work. Academia is hard, and especially so if you want to be a serious scholar.

What I mean by privilege is the degree of freedom I have within my working life: a degree that I can quite confidently say is not matched in most other areas of labor.  When I enter the classroom, I am given permission to discuss what I feel is important – from an intellectual and disciplinary standpoint – for students to know, and to do so in a manner of my choosing (within reasonable bounds, of course).  I am also able to pursue research fairly freely. Of course, there are constraints within external funding, theoretical paradigms and publishing practice, but, in large part, my decisions regarding the topics I will research, what I write and how I write are essentially my own. In this way, academia is a very, very rare environment.  It is a place where critical thinking is at least given a chance to develop, and it is one of the few places where critical thinking is actually encouraged.

While we often hear about the virtues of critical thinking in various segments of society, real critical thinking involves the questioning of power, the questioning of authority, the questioning of what we might broadly call “common sense” ideas. The questioning of these areas is not something that usually goes hand-in-hand with profit-making ventures, or the maintenance of status quo power. The open questioning of authority simply does not lend itself well to closed structures: be they political, corporate or theological. On the contrary, the recognition and acceptance of authority is the cornerstone of these types of structures. Despite the many problems that we see within academia (from the aforementioned 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 return again to social media and technology. Traditionally, academics have published their work in academic journals and books, given lectures to classes and seminars, and presented papers to conferences. I am by no means a proponent of eliminating peer-review and rigorous oversight. On the contrary. However, the increasingly commodified way in which we publish our material, in particular the ways in which journals take free labor – paid for, in fact, by universities – and convert this labor into large profits, should make us consider some alternative venues for publication and public discourse. We should attempt to take advantage of the public channels available to us, in addition to the increasing number of open-access journals.

When my daughter enters university in 2027, I hope that the intellectual stimulation that I have been able to participate in might be made available to a broader population.  As you have noted by now, my talk today has not been about my current research, but it is, nevertheless, linked to my work. I simply wished to take this opportunity, during my installation speech, to  restate my hope that when my daughter enters university in 16 years that there will be many public professors, and that critical intellectual discourse, whether it be distributed by social media, or whatever form of communication is the norm at that time, is widespread and accepted.

Our society, as it become more and more commodified, is in dire need of open critical discussion about the underlying nature of that society, and the potential impacts of commodification upon socio-political structures. We need only look to the political systems in the US and Europe to see the detrimental impact of commodification upon the democratic process . The same is even more true in relation to the media systems in these two regions of the world.  While entertainment is an important element of our daily life, we are also in need of open, critical information and debate. If the media, or other institutions of society, cannot or will not provide us with such debate, then, at least in part in 2027, it is my hope that the university and its employees will contribute to a broader critical intellectual discourse, and to do so through  any and all technological means necessary.

Let me conclude with another quote from Chomsky, written 45 years ago, but as relevant today as it was then:

Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us. The responsibilities of intellectuals, then, are much deeper than what Macdonald calls the “responsibility of people,” given the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy.

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