Thursday, December 16, 2010

WikiLeaks' Fundamental Hypocrisy

Few subjects have been more in the news than WikiLeaks; few have been less understood (for example, WikiLeaks is not a wiki!).

For a great profile of both WikiLeaks and its controversial leader, Julian Assange, I direct you to the New Yorker, which posted a 12-page masterpiece. Here is the most important paragraph:

Experimenting with the site’s presentation and its technical operations will not answer a deeper question that WikiLeaks must address: What is it about?

The Web site’s strengths—its near-total imperviousness to lawsuits and government harassment—make it an instrument for good in societies where the laws are unjust. But, unlike authoritarian regimes, democratic governments hold secrets largely because citizens agree that they should, in order to protect legitimate policy.

In liberal societies, the site’s strengths are its weaknesses. Lawsuits, if they are fair, are a form of deterrence against abuse.

Soon enough, Assange must confront the paradox of his creation: the thing that he seems to detest most—power without accountability—is encoded in the site’s DNA, and will only become more pronounced as WikiLeaks evolves into a real institution.

That is the main problem I have with WikiLeaks; if you read the New Yorker piece, you'll discover that far from being an open information source, WikiLeaks produces painstakingly edited editorial content.

When Assange decides what to include or exclude from raw footage of the US military mistakenly killing a reporter and other civilians, his decisions (including the choice of title--"Collateral Murder") make it impossible for me to view WikiLeaks as an unbiased source of information.

To be fair to Assange, the piece implies that he selects inflammatory material because that's the only material news outlets will run. But that implies that his goal is coverage and attention, not simple transparency.

To me, the tragedy is that we need ways for information to be safely and anonymously leaked. Just read this article on U.S. citizens who are being prosecuted for releasing videos of bad behavior on the part of police officers.

By focusing on coverage rather than credibility, Assange is tainting WikiLeaks' ability to serve as on objective source of transparency.

Instead of providing a revolutionary service to overturn the traditional order, WikiLeaks is in danger of becoming just another media outlet.

The situation calls to mind the famous quote about the Vietnamese town of Ben Tre: "It became necessary to destroy the town to save it." Ironically, the very accuracy of that quote is in dispute, exemplifying the challenge of finding the objective "truth."

16 comments:

Steven Devijver said...

You are making a classic mistake here: not distinguishing between the two meanings of the word power.

Power by itself is an ambiguous word since it can mean immanent power as well as transcendent power.

Immanent power is a clash between equals, where each party has a fair chance of determining outcomes. Transcendent power is when one party dominates and forms (forces) other parties.

Assagne is fighting against transcendent power. WikiLeaks seems to want to restore immanent power to the people by creating a level playing field through transparency.

How this transparency comes about is a matter of debate because that process is not transparent. However, Assagne has made it very clear that WikiLeaks has much more material in its vaults than it can handle.

For the Iraq and Afghanistan material they have clearly made the point at the time of the releases that they can't redact and verify all the material and are counting on journalists and the public to vet it.

With the cables he again made it clear that this release has its own rules: small releases spread of time for maximal political impact. Fair enough.

You can come up with infinite arbitrary demands from Assagne and WikiLeaks and then complain they're not forthcoming.

I'm reckoning WikiLeaks - given it's beleaguered by the most powerful political forces on earth - is as transparent as it can be. Also don't forget Shirky's law: the first objective of every institution is self-preservation.

Don't demand things from WikiLeaks you're not willing to provide yourself, it's called whining.

Steven Devijver said...

There was another comment here, where did it go?

Anonymous said...

Maybe it was censored?

Steven Devijver said...


Anonymous said...

Maybe it was censored?


Yeah, that would be transparent!

Jackie D said...

Chris doesn't censor comments, ever.

Anyway, the mistake you're making here, Chris, is that you assume that objectivity exists in these things. You also assume that WikiLeaks is attempting to be "unbiased," another fabled state of existence.

Not to mention that I'm not quite sure why you think the burden is on WikiLeaks - and not the US government - to keep these secrets.

Above everything, I'd love to hear your case for why WikiLeaks is more dangerous than the people running the governments involved in the data released. Frankly, I think the Taliban is less dangerous than those governments, but let's set the bar low. Why do you think WikiLeaks is the danger and not the people running scared because they're being exposed as unrepentant liars?

Sid M said...

I do think you have a point in arguing that WikiLeaks needs to be careful about editing solely for the sake of gaining publicity. I don't have a problem with their doing that so long as they also make available a version not edited with an eye on publicity. Sort of like releasing a movie trailer to drive people to the actual movie.

However, I think the issue of editing is more complicated than that.

Yes, as your New Yorker quote argues, democratic citizens often acknowledge that governmental secrecy is sometimes necessary. However, I would suggest that most citizens are nervous about granting such authority to the government, and believe that their government likely abuses that authority some of the time. Thus the value of leaks.

So the challenge is to negotiate a murky terrain where some secrecy is good, some is bad, and some is just silly or stupid.

Just publishing everything one receives means risking publishing things which should be secret. For example, one probably wants to be careful about publishing things which will likely get people killed (note I am not saying that this should never be done).

My sense is that WikiLeaks' actions indicate that they believe there is sometimes a need for secrecy, and that they are looking for ways to vet material before making it public so as to avoid releasing material they believe should be secret.

For example, my understanding is that they asked the Pentagon to help determine which information from Afghanistan might endanger the lives of individuals, such as by revealing an informant's identity. That the Pentagon refused to help doesn't lessen the fact that WikiLeaks asked them to do so.

Similarly, my sense is that they are pre-releasing leaked information to major media outlets first in the hope that those outlets will help with vetting the material (and in fact, that has been happening as the government is working with the New York Times in a way that it refuses to work directly with WikiLeaks).

So the issue isn't whether anything should be secret, or whether nothing should be secret, but rather what should be secret, and who gets to decide. Which is to say that WikiLeaks is trying to negotiate a difficult set of issues that can't be resolved by just releasing everything.

Finally, I would suggest that the actions I've pointed to are examples of WikiLeaks trying to deal with exactly the issue raised by the New Yorker article.

chemDroid said...

No. Wikileaks has no actual power. It does not have the authority to arrest you, imprison you and take away your freedom. Wikileaks does not have the authority to take your labor from you (taxation). It is entirely a voluntary organization.

There is no hypocrisy in being a secret organization where participation is voluntary. There is, hypocrisy, rather in being a organization that wields real institutional power, and claims to be "accountable and transparent" and blatantly abuses that institutional power every day.

Chris said...

Steven,

It is my contention that WikiLeaks would be better off separating out two functions:

1) Serving as a secure and anonymized way for people to leak information

2) Serving as a curator of information that Julian Assange feels is important to reveal to the world

It is my sense that combining the two in a single entity opens WikiLeaks up to criticisms that obscure the real debate over how to hand the issues of function 1.

Chris said...

Note to readers: There was a long comment about WikiLeaks that had been posted, then removed by the commenter. I didn't remove it, nor would I remove any comments unless they were illegal and thus endangered me.

I still have the email that Blogger sent me when the comment was made, and I suspect that the comment was removed because the commenter mistakenly thought I said that WikiLeaks had released raw footage of the attack that killed a Reuters reporter, whereas I said precisely the opposite.

Chris said...

Jackie,

My argument is somewhat subtle, because I always prefer to argue on what I feel is solid ground.

My criticism of WikiLeaks is that Julian Assange has transformed it from a useful provider of transparency into a media outlet.

For example, if I leaked information to WikiLeaks, and then the organization sat on it for 5 years, I'd be pretty upset.

Releasing information that dispels government lies is a good thing. Selectively releasing information based on personal motivations creates opacity rather than transparency.

Chris said...

Sid,

I agree that WikiLeaks is navigating tough waters. The issue is that we shouldn't think of it as WikiLeaks. We should think of it as Julian Assange.

Julian is making the decisions over what to release and what not to release.

I have no problems with him exercising his rights to free speech, and taking risks that others won't, all in the name of transparency.

That makes him a heroic figure.

I do have problems with his exercise of editorial control under the cloak of objectivity. I sense that he himself struggles with that particular issue.

Anonymous said...

Chris does edit comments.

Why was my comment deleted? Was it the link to LiveLeaks?

Wikileaks was wrong in its portrayal of the US Military mistakenly killing innocent Iraqis. The "Collateral Murder" footage was heavily edited and biased. The raw footage and the events leading up to the deaths of the insurgents paint an entirely different story. Death is never pretty, but the Iraqis were not innocent. Wikileaks was WRONG.

Otherwise, I support what WikiLeaks is doing to get the TRUTH out there, but not when they edit it to paint the message they feel is the "right" one.

Chris said...

Here's the missing comment--and I have no idea why it wasn't shown. I assumed you removed it, and I refrained from reposting it because I didn't want to violate your privacy. But since it sounds like you didn't remove it, here's the original comment:

Really enjoy your blog.

You have mentioned several times the Wikileak report on the "raw footage of the US military mistakenly killing a reporter and other civilians". This is simply not true. Wiki clearly edited the 17 min raw video to fit their meme.

The raw film footage released by Wiki clearly shows men carrying Aks and RPGs. The military also claimed that the black van, once examined, had RPGs present. Believe the military or not, that is what they have reported. This is the same black van that Wiki claimed was there 'helping' out the wounded.

The video released by Wiki Leaks is EXTREMELY misleading, and propagating it as “murder” is borderline criminal. Their 17 minute version edited out any mention of hostile gunfire on the part of insurgents for the purpose of defaming U.S. Defence Forces. WikiLeak head Julian Assange has since reluctantly admitted to AK-47 and RPGs being present. To their credit, they did release a full 39 minute version, but for “research” purposes only. Their edited version tells a very different story. http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=c1b_1270800204

And, for the record, I totally support what Wikileaks is doing to promote transparency and freedom of speech.

Anonymous said...

Cool... Thanks. Not sure how that happened.

Paul said...

I'm just not sure what I benefit from knowing the things Wiki chooses to report on. It's 'gotcha' material which pertains nothing to my life and will only do so when I meet others who hate America and see all her 'evils' - as much as I love her and mostly see her good. These little snot nosed John Kerry twits and their 'see! see! America is bad! Soldiers kill each other when they aren't just out murdering and the military industrial complex blah blah blah'

And let's not fool ourselves into thinking they (Assagne/Wiki) are anything more than a newspaper of some twisted sort. In fact, I mention this in my last comment ... Wiki isn't about freedom of speech, nor is it about 'transparency' - as you say, it is about EDITING and as the editor, they choose what to report. These pukes will use any excuse to elevate themselves and try to hide behind the tenets that allow them the freedom to do so. The problem they have now is, even an argument for Freedom of the Press (investigative journalism) and the protections there of I don't believe will satisfy as they themselves have not positioned themselves as actual 'press' but 'freedom fighters' (which pretty much means they exist to stop freedom as expressed in American ideals).

I'll be happy when they leak how these worthless twits spent their last days on earth before pushing up daises after being convicted of treason - but that's just me.

Ultimately, I've not talked to one person -- not one regular off the street person, who finds even one thing they've released as even REMOTELY relevant to their own personal daily life. None. Now, maybe that's not the merit by which this should be judged - but it does say a lot.

Paul said...

It's funny, when you fundamentally think like someone regardless of the topic or conversation, you think you know how they will respond to something - but I just now read Anne Coulter's latest piece and it's just spooky because she says it about as well as I could ... reads my mind, that girl. http://www.anncoulter.com/