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: Losing Suburbia

(The following has been published as an Open Access article by Le Monde Diplomatique.)

WikiLeaks: Losing Suburbia

By Christian Christensen

The release by WikiLeaks of hundreds of thousands of raw, unedited US embassy cables this week has resulted in a firestorm of criticism from a broad range of international media organizations and journalists. Most notably, WikiLeaks’ former collaborators – The Guardian, the New York Times, Der Speigel and El Pais – took the unusual step of issuing a joint statement condemning what they considered to be an irresponsible and potentially dangerous act on the part of Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks organization.  Similarly, citing the practical impossibility of scanning through 250,000 cables to find and redact the names of sources who could be compromised by exposure, Reporters Without Borders decided to temporarily suspend their WikiLeaks mirror site.

Many of the articles and web postings devoted to the story have addressed Wikileaks’ professional and ethical responsibility vis-à-vis their whistleblowing sources and the individuals named in the files. This focus is understandable, as the protection of sources is the cornerstone of professional journalism. Any person or organization who leaks sensitive information is looking for two things: maximum exposure of the information leaked for maximum impact, and minimum exposure and risk for themselves as whistleblowers. The function of WikiLeaks was to provide both: exposure through the fame and reputation of the website (resulting in, for example, contacts with major media outlets), and the elimination of risk through strict encryption and security routines. When WikiLeaks cannot provide either one of these, it simply falls apart.

While a fractured relationship between WikiLeaks and mainstream media organizations has made for interesting debates over questions of journalistic codes of conduct, transparency and whistleblowing, it is also worth considering how this potential divorce will impact the spread of explosive material on US foreign activities to what can loosely be called a “mainstream audience”. Though editors and journalists might disagree with the terminology, the newspapers previously working with Assange acted as efficient distribution arms for WikiLeaks. In exchange for access to rare, sensitive material, the papers provided research, write-ups and distribution. As I noted in an earlier piece on WikiLeaks, there were, of course, alternative venues they could have chosen for distribution (such as progressive radical newspapers and websites), but these do not have the organizational structure and market clout to have the impact WikiLeaks (and presumably the whistleblowers) wanted.

With the current acrimonious relationship between Assange and major mainstream media outlets (particularly The Guardian and New York Times), the issue now is where WikiLeaks will turn for collaboration – if collaboration is even on their agenda. Working with newspapers such as the Guardian, New York Times, Der Speigel and El Pais opened up the mainstream market to WikiLeaks material that could likely have remained within the realm of the alternative and radical media. This is not to say that alternative media outlets are not important actors for those interested in real democratic change. On the contrary, radical newspapers and magazines are often the only outlets willing to raise critical voices in the face of massive political and corporate pressure.

This having been said, one need only think of the “Collateral Murder” video released by WikiLeaks (showing the killing of scores of innocent Iraqi civilians), and the widespread media coverage given to the clip, to understand the role played by mainstream news outlets in reaching a broader audience. In my own research, I looked at hundreds of videos posted to YouTube not unlike the one released by WikiLeaks.  Many of these clips received a fair amount of exposure in the alternative press, yet were not widely known amongst the general public, and did not become issues of national debate and scrutiny. In other words, while WikiLeaks material is tailor-made for the critical eye of the alternative press, the political economy of most capitalist media systems means that these alternative outlets, and their contents, are de facto marginalized.  While a deal with mainstream newspapers could be seen as a Faustian bargain for WikiLeaks, it was a deal that Assange was willing to make, probably because it would enable access to a sizeable chunk of citizens not part of the core of WikiLeaks lovers (who follow the organization no matter what) or haters (who detest WikiLeaks no matter what).

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. And, during this period, the issues contained in the leaks garnered as much attention as did the WikiLeaks organization, something that happens now with less and less frequency.

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, in light of the breadth of the popular exposure of the leaked material, the murky world of US power might now be forced to concede ground to transparency advocates. The current fight between WikiLeaks and their former mainstream partners by no means signals the death of this possibility, and these newspapers need not collaborate directly with WikiLeaks in order to use the information they provide. But it is reasonable to wonder whether the fight may have a negative impact on how those in the political center-ground will come to view WikiLeaks and their material.

In the fight against the abuse of power, the suburbs matter.

Christian Christensen is Professor of Media and Communication Studies in the Department of Informatics and Media at Uppsala University, Sweden. email: christian.christensen@im.uu.se; Twitter: @chrchristensen

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