This at 4pm, Thursday, 20 January 2011, the Burkle Center at UCLA will host the second of their three-part series on Wikileaks.
The panelists will consider the implications of WikiLeaks’ latest release for American diplomacy. Have the media played a responsible or even defensible role by releasing these diplomatic cables? What will be the effect on the future relationship of the media and American diplomats in particular and the media and the American government in general? Are the media supposed to protect the establishment or act as a watchdog in the public interest?
The third part of the series is entitled “What are the Legal Implications of Wikileaks?” This will take placed Wednesday, 26 January 2011, at 12:15pm at the UCLA Law School. The moderate is again Kal Raustiala and the panelists are Norman Abrams, David Kaye, Jon Michaels, and Eugene Volokh (blog). RSVP for Part III here.
This is the first in a series of posts that will explore our world of disappearing boundaries – from geographic to linguistic to time to organizational – that create new opportunities and challenges to agenda setting and influence. Wikileaks, as an exemplar non-state actor in this world of “now media,” requires analysis beyond the superficial and polarized debate common in today’s coverage of both the organization and the material it disseminates. The MountainRunner Institute is working to convene a series of discussions with experts across the spectrum, including (ideally) someone from Wikileaks, to discuss the role and impact of actors like Wikileaks and the evolving informational and human landscape. If you are interested in more information or in participating, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 1927, H.G. Wells wrote that modern communication “opened up a new world of political processes” where “ideas and phrases can now be given an effectiveness greater than the effectiveness of any personality and stronger than any sectional interest.”* Nearly ninety years later, this remains true with both the speed of communication and the consequences of failure far greater than possibly even Wells could have anticipated. Influence has become democratized with nearly anyone potentially capable of setting the agendas of world leaders – take for example a pastor in Florida or a person with a camera phone capturing the death of a woman in Tehran. So to has disruption become democratized to the point governments no longer need to be involved to severely impact economic, political or military interests. “Sectional interests” once divided by geography, culture, language, nationalism or ideology can be now convened and aligned with great effectiveness as the past barriers often become little more than footnotes.
Today, it is difficult and often impractical to distinguish between news consumer and creator, between mediums of information, or between audiences that have evolved to “stakeholders” and “participants.” Technology made “old media” and “new media” now quaint artifacts of a past struggle of segregation based on first platforms and then business models. Instead of “old” and “new”, we have Now Media operating across evaporating borders of technology or distance and time, within and across fluid associations and affinities, and flattens (even obliterates) hierarchies while bypassing and even co-opting traditional gatekeepers of information.
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.
Wikileaks Part 2 looks at the impact of releasing information through the traditional media on the network of interactions using social media and reflects on the potential to use network analysis in evaluation. (See also The Small World of Wikileaks, Part 1.)
From a Strategic Communications and Public Diplomacy perspective, evaluation has become increasingly important with forthcoming reports and even spending decisions, for example, in the UK. If an organisation is seeking to develop lasting relationships, seeking to subsequently identify those relationships would be a logical part of any evaluation or bid for further funding.
The example of Wikileaks has much in common with those engaged in Public Diplomacy and seeking to measure their attempts to disperse information on specific issues. In terms of Public Diplomacy, Wikileaks part 1 discussed creating a baseline of interactions and information sharing behaviours. Part 1 also highlighted that information about Wikileaks was trapped in a ‘Small World’ limiting the ability of Wikileaks to go mainstream.
The now familiar story of the release of documents by Wikileaks and reported by the New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel has been analysed from numerous angles considering potential impact on reputation and the relationship between digital and the more traditional print media.
The experience of Wikileaks has much in common with those engaged in Public Diplomacy and seeking to measure their attempts to disperse information on specific issues. Examining Wikileaks provides a case study of an attempt to map a network of influence and identify key nodes within that network.
The first step is to establish a baseline, which this post will cover, using data from June (prior to the release of documents). The increasing notoriety of Wikileaks during June was paralleled by increasing problems including the degradation and eventual collapse of the secure submission process, as reported by Ryan Singel. These technical issues and time spent dealing with the ripple effect from the arrest of Bradley Manning had the potential to interfere with the core work of Wikileaks ensuring information can reach a public audience.
Charlie Savage reports at The New York Times that Democratic Senators proposed legislation to legislatively define who is a “journalist.” Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) drafted an amendment, likely to the “Free Flow of Information Act of 2009″ (S. 448), that would apply the “media shield” to protect sources only to “traditional news-gathering activities and not to web sites that serve as a conduit for the mass dissemination of secret documents.
The actions of the Wikileaks organization will spark a much needed discussion on the roles of so-called “old” media and “new” media in to the modern environment. Just days before the public disclosure of classified material by the website Wikileaks and three major newspaper hand-picked by Wikileaks, Professor Dennis Murphy asked “Does new media really matter?” The cause of the question is itself interesting:an op-ed by Rhami Khouri titled “When Arabs Tweet” in the most classic “old media” outlets there is, The New York Times. The Times is also one of the three papers chosen by Wikileaks to disseminate initial commentary and analysis on the “Afghan War Diary“, as Wikileaks called the over 91,000 documents
Khouri argued that new media has little to no impact as it has “not triggered a single significant or lasting change in Arab or Iranian political culture. Not a single one. Zero.” Dennis responds with the big picture view:
Really? Let’s see…if you have a dialog about matters of political, national and international import is that just entertainment? Perhaps Khouri is looking for instant gratification (isn’t that ironic) through political upheaval. But perceptions change gradually over time. Perhaps this new media thing is opening up cognitive doors to an entire generation of Arab youth. And perhaps the cognitive dissonance will someday reach a point where the passivity will emerge into activism. Or, perhaps the dialog will, at a minimum, provide the variety of ideas that may spill over to the future when it is their turn to lead.
Khouri’s mistake, as my colleague Dennis points out, is the focus on immediate payback. True the “passive” online media means support can be expressed by means other than physical exposure, which Khouri describes as “passive”. While “new media” is characterized by the speed and persistency of potentially very visceral information, it is still simply a dynamic collection of information mediums in the struggle for minds and wills, and thus is just another element, as Dennis points out, in a broad environment. Flooding the zone with tweets will not itself cause action.
Flooding the zone from multiple sources of varying trustworthiness as well as providing, or merely suggesting, valid opportunities of actions, and you have something else. Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking platforms do not cause rebellion, but they can (and do) empower it by building the necessary confidence, trust, and support across groups of individuals that may otherwise not have known so many shared their convictions. This can lead to action in the real world. But the boiling point for action will vary as will the resulting backlash.
After crossing the line from self-purported “whistleblower” to propagandist with the release in April of a video packaged for “the targeted manipulation of public opinion,” Wikileaks is now hunting for US military email addresses in a May 7 tweet. Adrian Chen at Gawker wonders if this was preparation for the long anticipated release of another video Wikileaks may have of a bombing in Afghanistan. According to Chen, Julian Assange, Wikileak’s co-founder and public face, responded “not yet.”
The intent of Assange is to affect change. The “real diplomacy and real politics,” Assange said, “is something that is derived from the flow of information itself through the population.” Assange certainly tries to increase the flow of information and has primed his pipeline for his next package in the wake of “Collateral Murder,” the edited April video in which a US Army helicopter killed armed and unarmed men, including two employees of Reuters, and injuring two children. Claiming it received more than $150,000 in donations within days of releasing the video, Wikileaks reiterated its claim that it was actually doing journalism.
However, Wikileaks crossed the line from pushing for transparency or change with its selective packaging and willful disinformation regarding the content of the video in interviews (particularly on positive identification of the presence of weapons). Interviewing Assange, Stephen Colbert described the release as “emotional manipulation” and “not leaking” but “pure editorial.” Assange stated Wikileaks propagation is done in a way “to get maximum political impact.”
You are probably already familiar with the Wikileaks-edited video released April 5 of the 2007 airstrike in which a number of people were killed, including armed and unarmed men as well as two employees of the news agency Reuters. As of this writing, the initial instance of the edited version of the video titled "Collateral Murder" on YouTube is over 5 million views, not including reposts of the video by others using different YouTube accounts, and, according to The New York Times, "hundreds of times in television news reports." An unedited and not subtitled version upload by Wikileaks to YouTube, in contrast, has less 630,000, reflecting the lack of promotion of this version.
This video represents the advantages and disadvantages of social media in that highly influential content is easily propagated for global consumption. The persistency provided by the Internet means it will always be available and easily repurposed. Further, this situation highlights the ability to suppress unwanted information, both by the propagandist (omission of information) and by the supporter (removing an adversarial perspective). Lastly, the official response to this video shows the Defense Department still has a long way to go in understanding and operating in this new global information environment.
This video is, on its face and in depth, inflammatory and goes well beyond investigative journalism and creating transparency. It has launched debates about the legality of the attacks and questions of whether war crimes were committed. The video, as edited, titled, and subtitled is disturbing. It will continue to get substantial use in debates over Iraq, the US military, and US foreign policy in general.
Russia Today, the English language Russian government news agency, interviewed Julian Assange, Wikileaks editor and co-founder, on April 6, the day after the release. In a segment titled "Caught on Tape", the interviewer starts by describing the video as "gruesome, to say the least." Assange portrays Wikileaks as a Fourth Estate and says the military was "scared of the information coming out," which Reuters had been requesting through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for over two years, "for fear of the reform effect." Originally broadcast, the RT interview is also on YouTube has, as of this writing, with nearly 40,000 views. In the first day of release it had over 10k views and was on YouTube’s front page.
One of the few, if perhaps the only, serious attempt to respond to "Collateral Murder" is another YouTube video titled "Wiki Deception: Iraq ‘Collateral Murder’ Rebuttal":
This video, shown above, adds scenes left out of Collateral Murder but in the longer, and less promoted and thus less viewed, complete video. This "rebuttal" annotates and highlights pertinent details left out of or ignored in Collateral Murder that could have been done April 5 (or even before).
UPDATE: The "rebuttal" video was removed from YouTube for "violation of the YouTube Community Guidelines." The cause of action: "graphic or gratuitous violence is not allowed in YouTube videos." The "rejection notice" at right was sent by someone close to the "rebuttal". Neither Collateral Murder nor the unedited video have been removed from YouTube. It appears the "rebuttal" video is a clear victim of manipulation by supporters of Collateral Murder or its cause. The method was social media’s "democratic" ability to suppress or silence opposing viewpoints by flagging content as inappropriate, a feature in YouTube that is often used by insurgent and terrorist propagandists. Conversely, content can be promoted and rise to the top of search results with a "thumbs up." Jillian York has documented the same silencing technique on Facebook.