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Wikileaks as reality television

There’s something very 21st century about the Wikileaks/Julian Assange affair.  And not in a good way.

The Wikileaks saga dominated the airwaves for the last months of 2010: the revelation of a huge mass diplomatic communications between the US and the world, drip-fed to newspapers and searched incessantly for data to support each and every pet theory in the world.

The story undoubtedly has enormous colour, and superficially is a story for our time. The data is released on the web, and the authorities strain to close the offending site down. Pressure is put on service providers to withdraw support. This only leads to extensive mirroring of the site, frustrating any attempt to close-off access to the data, while the service providers are the subject of distributed denial-of-service attacks by outraged groups of hacktivists. The site’s founder has on-again/off-again troubles with the law, being threatened with everything from espionage to treason in the US (despite not being in the US, and despite not being a US citizen, which would seem to make treason rather a long shot), but is arrested and bailed in the UK on foot of a warrant from Sweden for a seemlingly unrelated matter. It sounds like a soap opera, and I’m rather afraid that that’s all it really is.

Let’s start by recognising the legitimate tension between a desire for transparent government and a desire for anonymity and even secrecy in government communications. On the one hand it’s clearly in the public interest to have the whistle blown on unsavoury or illegal State activities, and a blanket claim that national security trumps this interest is absurd. On the other hand, some of the Wikileaks data identifies individuals who may be endangered by having their names publicised. Anonymity is often essential for people to reveal information; similarly, it’s in the public interest to have diplomats be able and willing to express their opinions openly without fear of public censure or ridicule, since the alternative would be to distort the open exchange of ideas. This is the principle that underlies scientific and other meetings held under what in the UK are referred to as Chatham House rules: any comments may be used in any context, but with no individual or institutional attribution.

The Wikileaks disclosures are still on-going, but what strikes me about what’s been seen so far is the almost complete absence of anything that would justify disclosure — or indeed secrecy. It’s simply a recitation of diplomatic chit-chat that sometimes supports information already in the public domain but certainly provides nothing of any additional significance. It’s surely not a revelation, for example, that Arab governments are concerned about the Iranian nuclear programme, or that UK diplomats suspected that Sinn Féin knew about the Northern Bank robbery by the IRA (to take two stories at random): we either knew or could surmise this already.

Many have made allusions between Wikileaks and the release of the Pentagon papers in 1971, classified information leaked to the New York Times which fuelled the growing sentiment against the Vietnam war. But in that case there actually was information revealed — the extent of the military’s prior analysis and its subsequent dilution — that could be argued to be of importance. Wikileaks lacks this sense of solidity.

To me, the whole affair feels like a piece of reality television that happens to have happened over the web, happens to have a frisson of illegality, and happens to have a link to the diplomatic and intelligence communities. The chatter that we’re seeing is just that: chatter. It’s surprising only to the extent that it’s unsurprising. There are no smoking guns, no support for conspiracy theories, no examples of significant ineptitude or corruption — nothing. It is to a real journalistic coup what “Big Brother” is a television documentary.

Perhaps we can draw three conclusions from this, The first is the fascination that the 21st century has with real-world data, regardless of its information content. People watch “Big Brother” despite the fact that most of the time nothing happens, and when something does happen it’s probably been contrived by the participants or the producers. But even when nothing is happening it can be obscurely compelling. Wikileaks is similar: no real content, but a compulsion to keep looking just in case. And of course if (for the sake of argument) some interesting revelation does surface, how will we know whether it’s real or contrived? How will we tell information from dis-information?

The second conclusion is that data is no substitute for interpretation in context. The Pentagon Papers’ significance came from the fact that the journalists involved could see there was a story there, and link it to the rest of the news happening alongside, to the people and organisations involved. This journalistic addition is conspicuous by its absence in relation to Wikileaks. This of course goes against Tim Berners Lee’s recently-asserted position that the future or journalism is basically data analysis. I have the greatest respect for Tim, but on this point I think he’s badly mistaken. The problem is that real journalism isn’t exclusively, or even primarily, about the data: it’s about the people, their motivations and behaviours, which often aren’t represented in the raw data with which web science concerns itself.

Thirdly, even though the Wikileaks affair is really just an old-fashioned leak to the press, we can see that the web has changed things somewhat. The US authorities moved quickly to attack the site initially hosting the data, but only succeeded in triggering its replication to a enough geographically-distributed sites to defy further suppression. Once data is out there and judged to be significant, it’ll stay out there through the independent actions of concerned individuals. This makes further analysis and contextualisation possible, but doesn’t guarantee that it’ll happen — and that’s where the real value lies.


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