On July 5th WikiLeaks released their second big document release of 2012- a year that has seen prolific and damaging attacks against the organisation. The Syria Files expose nearly 2.5 million emails from Syrian political figures, ministries and associated companies. The release provides a vast amount of material from which a context can be mapped around the on-going conflict in Syria that has already led to the death of tens of thousands of people.
During the initial press conference the mainstream media displayed a consistent lack of ability to grasp the function that WikiLeaks is playing in revolutionising investigative journalism. In asking repeatedly for WikiLeaks staff to interpret and comment on the stories within the data set the attending press revealed a failure/unwillingness to appreciate the fundamental shift in news production that WikiLeaks is demanding. Rather than using the opportunity to, for example, explore the pioneering technology that has been developed by WikiLeaks to search through this tremendously large document collection, to question the relevance of the information or to enquire into the intention behind the data release, the press asked for nothing but headlines and content. This is perhaps revealing of the differences between traditional methods of news dissemination where media agencies clamour for the trading of information and the method of inquiry promoted by WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks is building a form of journalism which has two specific functions- to provide access to the raw and verifiable information that media stories can be anchored to, and to provide the technology by which large data fields of such material can be stored, accessed and analysed.
From the outset WikiLeaks have denounced processes that claim ownership of information in order to hold not just governments and powerful institutions accountable, but the media also. In exposing large sets of raw material the mainstream media are forced to report on atrocities that may be otherwise deemed too sensitive to handle. It also demands a witnessing of the process between data collection and the resulting news story, reminding us that information can be approached from different angles, wrapped in different contexts. This encourages our vigilance and provides a feedback loop that helps to demand the integrity of news reporting.
The struggle that the mainstream media perhaps have in accepting WikiLeaks into their fold is that this approach calls into question the fundamental relationship between knowledge and power. WikiLeaks demands that journalism gives up its perceived entitlement to the ownership of information and positions the right to knowledge as belonging to us all. Traditional media is financially dependent on our dependency on them for information, this is unavoidably problematic despite the usefulness of mainstream media in terms of ease of access and availability. In reminding us of this tension and offering a viable alternative model, WikiLeaks encourages us to look beyond headline news to think critically and for ourselves.
WikiLeaks set out initially to release information with the intention that the public and journalists would work through it collaboratively and with vigour. What they found, however, and what they exercised in the release of the collateral murder video in 2010, was that information needs to be anchored to a context before people will engage with it:
“….it was our hope that initially…. that if we just put it out there people would summarize it themselves. That, very interestingly, didn’t happen. Quite an extraordinary thing… our initial idea was that “look at all those people editing Wikipedia, look at all the junk that they’re working on. Surely if you them a fresh classified document about the human rights atrocities in Fallujah that the rest of the world has not seen before… surely all those people….and all those bloggers that are busy pontificating on the abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan and other countries and other human rights disasters who are complaining that they can only respond to the New York Times because they don’t have sources of their own, surely those people will step forward given fresh source material and do something.” No….very early on we understood from experiences like this that we would have to at least give summaries of the material we were releasing- at least summaries, to get people to pick it up, to get journalists to pick it up, to get them to dig deeper and if we didn’t have a summary to put the thing into context it would just fall into the gutter and never be seen again…..in cases where I have have understood the material is more complex, or other people in our group have understood the material is more complex, especially military material which has lots of acronyms you understand it is not even enough to do a summary you have to do an article or we have to liaise with other journalists to give the material to them on some sort of exclusive basis or semi-exclusive basis to get them to extract it into easily understandable human readable form. Otherwise it goes nowhere.”
Julian Assange, speaking at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, April 18th 2010, accessed via youtube
What distinguishes WikiLeaks from other media endeavors is that it seeks to package the information only to the point where it is then picked up and engaged with. The tantalising prelude to the big leak disclosures and the initial framing of the leaks provide a necessary vehicle in which the information can reach our awareness. The focus, however, remains on the momentum that continues after the initial data release and the democratization of truth that ensues once access to the data becomes open.
This aspect of the role WikiLeaks plays has not been particularly well received. In The US Army Counterintelligence special report into WikiLeaks it is repeatedly suggested that the collaboration and openness encouraged by WikiLeaks is implicitly dangerous:
“Julian Assange and other Wikileaks.org authors continually encourage other persons with an interest in the information to comment on their work or conduct their own research and publish the results on Wikileaks.org.”
Wikileaks.org—An Online Reference to Foreign Intelligence Services, Insurgents, or Terrorist Groups? NGIC-2381-0617-08
Amidst this WikiLeaks are forcing a necessary and long overdue eruption in the lineage of news production, documentation and ownership. This is being met with trepidation and reluctance by an industry of journalists and news outlets that are heavily dependent on the traditional structures of disseminating information. That WikiLeaks and its figureheads will have to bear the force of an industry fighting against this revolution is regrettably inevitable and perhaps one of the clearest indications that they, and those of us supporting them, are on the right track. Through this agitation we, the people, are seeing more clearly the bind between the media and political expediency. We are choosing not to consume knowledge but to position ourselves within it, we are learning to become more than passive recipients of information and deciding instead to engage.
We are bearing witness to the greatest shift in the role of citizenship that our age has known. WikiLeaks are a vital pillar in ensuring this is a shift we will be proud of. Despite (because of) this Wikileaks are facing:
Over 579 days of banking blockade
Over 659 days of a US secret grand jury
Over 576 days of detainment of the editor Julian Assange, despite there being no charge against him
Support WikiLeaks and Julian Assange by:
Making financial donations :
Arming yourself with knowledge and correcting inaccurate media reporting:
Make your support visible: tweet, post, blog, photograph. If you are near London or have the means to get there, visit Julian Assange as he continues to plea for political asylum at the Ecuador Embassy: Flat 3B 3 Hans Crescent, London SW1X 0LS taking some of the material from our demo kit with you.