By Ali Fisher
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.
As Julian Assange told the BBC in April the aim of Wikileaks is to allow "whistle-blowers and journalists who have been censored to get material out to the public." To do this they have built systems for receiving leaked information which are cunningly simple, yet as Colin Horgan wrote ‘Wikileaks has a problem going mainstream’.
During June, the information on Wikileaks reached people in a relatively small world rather than a broad general public. In effect, Wikileaks had a vastly better system for getting information from whistle-blowers and journalists to the site and keeping the site running, than it does for diffusing the information from the site to the public. Colin Horgan offers comment on the reasons for this gap – ‘that it fell victim in the very system it tried to undermine’. The Twitter data offers a parallel view of the potential difficulties of going mainstream.
Given the vast quantities of information available, the paradox of plenty, many people use Twitter as a form of social search, relying on others to find and filter information which is likely to be relevant to them. With this in mind if information is to reach a wide audience it needs to spread from a network of users clustered in a small world to individuals that bridge to a broader range of networks so it can reach out through a higher number of social filters.
The first image shows the ecosphere in which Wikileaks exists through Twitter, using keyword data from the first three weeks in June. There is a relatively dense network in the centre of the image through which users pass information along a number of longer chains. Around the outside of this network is a halo of very short isolated chains.
Many of the key gatekeepers RT to isolated clusters that in turn RT to their followers. These can be seen by the dense green clusters. Unsurprisingly most of those that RT do so directly from Wikileaks, but in the majority of cases none of their followers think to RT that information. Those who create longer chains tend to be technology orientated sites – for example, BBC Tech & Guardian Tech, 2600 (The Hacker Quarterly), Wired and Kpoulsen, although Glen Greenwald, Drudge Report and Uruknet also have a key role.
By removing the Wikileaks data from the image it becomes easier to see the small world created by the connections between some of the other key nodes. These key nodes create a network which connects them all together without the need to connect through Wikileaks. This provides a secondary level of resilience, but limits the wider diffusion of information.
It is this level of connection which suggests a reason for the failure of Wikileaks to ‘go mainstream’; the lack of diversity of interest amongst those passing on information about Wikileaks. To have mainstream impact and reach a broad public, Wikileaks would need to have numerous clusters which were entry points into increasingly diverse networks. This is not to overlook the number of followers or traffic levels of sites such as Wired, Drudge Report or Daily Beast, but the nature of social search tends to filter out diversity to focus on those elements most likely to be relevant to the interests of a specific network.
Effectively the origin of Wikileaks, with connections to Hacker and tech communities, makes it sustainable. It demonstrated that resilience through the use of mirror sites and multiple domains after Swiss Bank Julius Baer won a court ruling to block it. However, this resilience does not result in integration into the mainstream. Instead, Wikileaks has created a relatively small world of interconnected clusters, users, and sites. As important as resilience is, only when ideas can diffuse across bridges, from one network to the next, will Wikileaks achieve truly large-scale impact.
Just at is was important for Wikileaks to find ways to bridge into different communities, so a Public Diplomacy organisation planning an event or to release of information, could adopt this approach to identify a baseline, recognise users who may be key nodes in the further dissemination of information, and develop a strategy to combine digital dissemination with engagement through traditional media.
In part 2, the investigation of this data on Wikileaks will contrast this baseline with the first days after mainstream and consider whether Public Diplomacy organisations could plan or evaluate using tools such as these.
Ali Fisher works with governments, charities, companies, and NGO on best practice for online engagement, network building and organisational change. He specialises in providing insight through network analysis to enhance organizational strategy and evaluation. More network visualisations can be seen at HumansHuddle.com.
Guests posts are the opinions of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of MountainRunner.us. They are published here to further the discourse on America’s global engagement.
- National Security will require smarter networks by Ali Fisher
- An Introduction to Using Network Maps in Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication by Ali Fisher
- The true fiasco exposed by Wikileaks
- Now Media: engagement based on information not platforms, this particular event is passed, but the MountainRunner Institute convenes it frequently, often without public notice so email me if you want to know when the next one will take place.