Patrice Riemens on Fri, 10 Sep 2010 12:34:10 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Christian Christensen: Wikileaks: Three Digital Myths

A good complement to our (Geert Lovink & me) 10 theses on Wikileaks.
cheers, p+3D!

Original to:
(August 10, 2010)
Also appeared (in French) in Le Monde Diplomatique, September issue.

Wikileaks:  Three Digital Myths

By Christian Christensen (Uppsala University)

Published in Le Monde Diplomatique, August 9, 2010

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

Myth 1: The power of social media

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

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

Myth 2: The nation-state is dying

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

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

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

Beyond Wikileaks, we have other reminders of the importance of states and
laws in the fluid digital world: the recent decisions by the United Arab
Emirates and Saudi Arabia to instigate bans on the messenger function on
BlackBerry handsets, or the seemingly never-ending legal ban on YouTube
Turkey. While it?s true that the Wikileaks structure is set up to bypass
the laws of certain countries (enabled by digital technology), it also
makes use of other countries? laws. Wikileaks isn?t lawless ? it?s just
moving the entire game to places where the rules are different.

Myth 3: Journalism is dead (or almost)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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