Wikileaks: handle with care -

Wikileaks: handle with care


So says busy CF Capt. Bruce Rolston, dashing off a message that says “context…will have to wait” before immediately providing some useful context. Wikileaks refers to the data dump as a “diary”; but when we normally encounter this term, what’s being referred to is a continuous narrative record kept by a single person and updated and corrected on the fly. The “Afghan war diary” is more like a scrapbook of initial event reports, assembled with little post-hoc correction and with a certain amount of non-expert annotation and categorization. There is value in piercing and documenting the fog of war, but there’s a reason they use the term “fog”. Documenting it is not the same thing as dispersing it.

The media navel-gazing over the Ultimate Meaning of Wikileaks seems a bit over-the-top in the year 2010. I don’t mean to suggest that a really well-hidden drop box for brown envelopes isn’t a useful thing, but is it novel in principle? Jay Rosen’s description of Wikileaks as “the World’s First Stateless News Organization” was quickly met with variants of the observation that the internet itself is “stateless”, and doesn’t have a head office that can be raided or bombed. All this tut-tutting about “accountability” has been familiar since the grunge years, and in our grandparents’ time the world lived with news empires that were “stateless” in a much more alarming sense—that is, because they were global powers unto themselves, and the opinion-shaping abilities of elected politicians and bureaucracies simply hadn’t yet caught up. How “accountable”, in the sense Colleague Potter frets over, were William Randolph Hearst or Lord Beaverbrook or Leopold Ullstein?


Wikileaks: handle with care

  1. What strikes me about this is the very scale of the collective leak, and if our fasicnation with the means of sharing doesn't almost overshadow the substantial content of the documents.

    Not that such things haven't happened before, but it almost seems like 'ordinary' investigative journalism isn't enough to garner attention from the public these days. How much of what we'll learn might have been knowable through methodical bits of reporting and investigation? But that's something both the media and public don't have much patience for (how many Canadians are even aware of Wells' excellent work on Rights and Democracy, for example?).

    Quick version: if there's anything novel about this, it might prove that shedding light on matters of public interest is no longer a sufficient goal for journalists. Information may now need to be packaged as part of an "event", like a U2 tour or the release of the next Apple gadget.

    • agreed fully Sean.

      and i think you can make a similar observation to that you draw in your middle para Sean, but on the other side of the equation. not only is investigative journalism not enough to hold the public's attention but neither are formal mechanisms of transparency. through various forms ATIP or FoI requirements and new(ish) gov information sharing tools, we have never had so much formal apparatus dedicated to transparency, yet it gets little active engagement or attention by the public in contrast to the longstanding informal mechanism of a good ol fashioned leak (or in this case an extraordinary large one!).

      (there is little doubt that this is part, at least, reflects that much of this apparatus functions rather poorly, but i would be willing to wager a fair bit that the trend would hold).

      • Good point.

  2. What it has, or at least what it seems to have, is authenticity. Its rawness and lack of "post-hoc correction" is precisely what gives it weight.

    Media has been shaping the narrative for decades, if not centuries. I don't mean this as a pejorative per se; it was a requirement. A newspaper or news program can only cover so much ground within its pages/schedule, so the events of the week have to be sifted, weighed, and shaped into a coherent story. In the last half-century it's become a pejorative as it became increasingly clear that many organizations weren't just shaping the narrative to fit their pages, but also to fit their worldview.

    With the internet we have the means to make boatloads of information available (cheaply, so anyone can do it) to millions of people who can then do their own sifting – no shaping required. I agree that it's been done as long as the internet has been around, but it's often been just word-of-mouth accounts about events that weren't being reported. What's different with Wikileaks is that they dig up actual data to which the public has little or no access, collect it in one place, and then dump it for all to see. They're becoming the clearinghouse for whistleblower data.

    • this is prob a first,…. i mostly agree with you G. i am not sure i would frame it in terms of authenticity, though i can see that angle. I see it more as a matter of control or trustworthiness (they are obviously highly related and may overlap entirely). i made a remark to a friend the other day that is the new model for independent oversight bodies. for two reasons. first that government has lost all ability to 'post-hoc correct' as you suggest. and the independence of the source is as far removed from gov as possible, (and authenticity may come up here again), to the point where the identity of the source is largely constructed in its opposition to governments. both seem to make the information trustworthy.

  3. With all the talk of how novel this leak is, I'm wondering how different this all really is from the so-called "Pentagon Papers" on the Vietnam War?

    • Well, one of the differences is that the biggest "story" contained in the Pentagon Papers had to do with a completely secret, illegal war, i.e., the one in Cambodia that was carried out with zero congressional consultation or oversight. That was truly huge news, and in that sense (I'm old enough to remember the release of the Pentagon Papers), this wikileak does not come close to the Pentagon Papers in terms of importance or shock value, IMO. The point being that there was an entire bombing campaign going on in a country, Cambodia, that the American people knew absolutely nothing about. Some of the stuff in the wikileak is important, interesting, etc. etc., but there's nothing on the scale of the shock value of the Pentagon Papers revelations.

    • There's no 'Hi, this is Don Rumsfeld explaining that I lied to the American people'. That was the Pentagon Papers.

      Here, there's a lot of 'Al Rushd, 45, gave the US information that saved a convoy from ambush; sure hope the Taliban doesn't kill him.' Which they will now that they are reading his name off the Internet. Lots of pro-US people will die because of Wikileaks

  4. The thing I have to worry about is that WikiLeaks is going to make the mistake that American law protects them everywhere. There are countries that are going to view the leaking of information in regards to their governments as intelligence gathering and frankly the heads of WikiLeaks don’t fall under protective umbrellas like the CIA.

    So what is WikiLeaks going to do when some country demands that their leaders get deported to their territory? Try to hide under the umbrella of the 1st amendment? We don’t have that here.

    I trust our military more than some group that puts little thought into journalism and how to define what is useful to the people and what is not. The documents they leaked have no helpful purpose.

    • One purpose that has been rendered is to relight the anguish of the families who have lost sons, fathers and brothers (and female equivalents of course). The sanctimonious self-serving owner of Wikileaks seems to care not a whit about this obvious consequence, preferring instead to put himself on a pedestal as some sort of bastion of free speech and self-appointed judge of government actions.

      I truly hope that, as another commenter has suggested above, some governments will take him to task for this egregious publication of unsubstantiated, uncorroborated and unverified information orignally written in the fog of war.

      • "The sanctimonious self-serving owner of Wikileaks seems to care not a whit about this obvious consequence, preferring instead to put himself on a pedestal as some sort of bastion of free speech and self-appointed judge of government actions. "

        I agree with this to some extent. My concern is that the owner/operator of Wikileaks seems to be and act as a law unto himself, utterly without accountability. Some people seem to think that's just ducky, but of course they think so because SO FAR, Wikileaks has done stuff they agree with. But the potential abuses are not difficult to envision. What if Wikileaks leaks information that is both false and seriously defamatory? If the New York Times does that, they get sued, and rightly so.

  5. Not sure I'm following Colby here. It's come out from Assange that Wikileaks staff collaborated for a month with editors and reporters at The Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel. So I'm not quite sure what Colby's point is with specific regard to this being a "data dump."

  6. I think, given the test of time, this data may be useful as a historical document. Just have to weather the hyperbole that will initially be fueled by these documents.

    The tut-tutting about accountability has been matched by tut-tutting how free and revolutionary the Web is.