The Importance of Understanding Wikileaks

City University London is hosting a conversation with Wikileaks front man Julian Assange on 30 September 2010. The event, titled Too much information, security and censorship in the age of Wikileaks, will ostensibly ask several questions stemming from the sensational release of tens of thousands of internal military communications, labeled the Afghan War Diaries by Wikileaks:

Was this a victory for free expression? Or a stunt that put hundreds of lives in danger? Is censorship a necessary evil in wartime? And will mass leaking of information change journalism?

To be sure, this was not an exercise of "free expression." An expression would be the labeling and framing of the material. The purpose was, as Wikileaks purports is their mission, to create transparency for the purpose of accountability. City University should then ask if this mission was accomplished and, if so, was there a cost? The questions must move beyond what Assange says he wants to achieve and challenge him on the results he gets.

Fundamental to this discussion is whether the label "whistle blower" fits the organization. A whistle blower exposes wrongdoing, but does clearing house approach of massive dumps of data, as was the case with the Afghan War Diaries, in the hopes someone else will discover the proverbial needle in the haystack. That Assange says the delivery of "primary source material" will eliminate "lying opportunities" does not make it so.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the only "needles" were the names of the Afghans that worked against the Taliban, and thus the real result was Wikileaks served as a whistle blower for the Taliban and other insurgent groups and perhaps the Afghan government.

On the point of censorship, classified material not for public access should not immediately considered censored material. This is like saying the trade secrets (and bank accounts and any other data that relates to daily activities) of Apple, Cadbury, or computer hackers must be open domain and open source. The purpose of the classification system is to prevent the adversary or competitor from knowing what you know, how you know it, and what you are doing.

City University, in asking about the "mass leaking of information," will surely expand on its previous discussions that considered the increasingly shallow and sensationalist media of all stripes that Wikileaks (like it or not) effectively leverages. This is an important question, as is how the organization has successfully established the vocabulary used to describe both Wikileaks and its information products.

Regardless of what you think about Wikileaks, it is an important organization to study and understand, particularly in how it operates in and shapes the global information environment, an active environment in which we all participate (including those who claim to be only observers: you're only an observer is you don't write or speak or do anything). The ability of Wikileaks to mobilize supporters and contributors and disseminate products - for "maximum political effect" as Assange described it - highlight several important characteristics of the modern "Now Media" environment.

The influence of Wikileaks is based largely in the increasingly seamless movement of information between mediums and with little to no constraints imposed by geography, language, culture, or even time. Material distributed on the Internet in video or text form is quickly shared through social networks and broadcast and print outlets, often keeping the original Wikileaks description. This is based on and exploits the increase in individual autonomy as the gatekeepers of information, the traditional media and the state, lose control and increasingly become (and surprisingly at times) peer competitors.

As the personal level, the autonomy of individuals manifests in the opting-in (or out) of dynamic networks created and empowered by social media. At any point in time a particular network may create a connection for a moment or have some longevity, existing before or after the moment of information transference (or influence).

In my presentations, I often use a map developed by my colleague Ali Fisher on the the Wikileaks Twitter network (see Ali post here). In the "kinetic" world of bullets and bombs, commanders see this map and immediately start contemplating the relative importance of the nodes and the information that is missing: what actors are not represented (such as print and broadcast mediums, military and country leadership, etc.). The information commander, for some reason, has a tendency to look just at the big blob and thinks about containment and neutralizing the source. That doesn't work.

(A side note: it is useful to recall that the policy of "containment" of Communism was originally an information-based operation that reached across the networks to interdict primarily at the audience level to inoculate or undue adversarial influence. Another lesson from the past yet to be remembered.)

Will City University get into the serious discussions ? I don't know. I will, however, go into this territory when I co-chair a panel on the media that will explore the tension between "Media as an instrument of War" and the journalist's traditional obligations to the truth, objectivity, informing the public, and verification. This panel is at the Influence and Propaganda conference by the IO Institute, in partnership with the MountainRunner Institute.

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