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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8 thoughts on “The Importance of Understanding Wikileaks

  1. “To be sure, this was not an exercise of “free expression.” An expression would be the labeling and framing of the material”In order to facilitate effective communication, and achieve understanding, it’s important to *not* simply unilaterally reinvent the meanings of words, and hope that others will both understand and agree with you. This really should be Rule #1 for anyone interested in “public diplomacy,” “strategic communications,” etc.
    EXPRESSION–in no dictionary definition that I have seen has there been any mention that ‘labeling’ and ‘framing’ are required for an expression to be an expression. These are, instead, the established meanings:
    the act of expressing or setting forth in words: the free expression of political opinions.
    a particular word, phrase, or form of words: old-fashioned expressions.
    the manner or form in which a thing is expressed in words; wording; phrasing: delicacy of expression.
    the power of expressing in words: joy beyond expression.
    indication of feeling, spirit, character, etc., as on the face, in the voice, or in artistic execution: the lyric expression embodied in his poetry.
    a look or intonation expressing personal reaction, feeling, etc.: a shocked expression.
    the quality or power of expressing an attitude, emotion, etc.: a face that lacks expression; to read with expression.
    the act of expressing or representing, as by symbols.
    Mathematics . a symbol or a combination of symbols representing a value, relation, or the like.
    Linguistics . the stylistic characteristics of an utterance ( opposed to meaning).
    Linguistics . the system of verbal utterances specific to a language ( opposed to content).
    the act of expressing or pressing out.
    Computers . a combination of variables, constants, and functions linked by operation symbols and any required punctuation that describe a rule for calculating a value.
    It is synonymous with:
    announcement, communication, delivery, mention, narration, speaking, speech, statement, utterance, vent, voice, voicing, word, writ–among many others.
    Now, what you are NOT saying is that you had hoped to set up a catch-22 for Wikileaks, which is the mark of an unfair interlocutor. In this post, you complain about the ABSENCE of labeling and framing…but elsewhere (in Twitter) your complaint has been the exact opposite: too much editorializing, framing, etc. So, either it is “propaganda,” to quote you, or it is not even “expression.” Amazing! Which is it?
    As for the needles, yes, you are wrong–there were many more needles than what you mentioned. They range from the size of the U.S. covert presence in Afghanistan, to dealings between the Iran and the opposition, to what I found revealed about the Human Terrain System:
    The only “needles” you chose to highlight are, “coincidentally,” the same ones that the Pentagon has complained about. But I guess this is public diplomacy in action.

  2. Max, thank you for the definitions.You continue to surprise me at your selective reading and loose use of words. A long while back, I believe before Wikileaks was established, we debated and I experienced this trait of yours before. To your comment, which I honestly do appreciate you taking the time to make…
    There are no contradictions in this post and context matters. I am not complaining about the absence of labeling but that is not the key issue. My comment was addressing the question of whether the Afghan War Diaries (or other actions of Wikileaks) constituted a victory of free expression. Was this about a person’s right to label or frame something? I don’t think so.
    There is more to talk about than the “expression” of Wikileaks and Julian Assange. This is the point of this post. For you to miss that, considering your apparent attention to details, is what is amazing.

  3. Then, Matt, you have to take the blame for not being clear in your original post. The charge of selective reading is one that I can live with, because selective reading is what we all do, there is nothing remarkable there. I do not agree that my use of words is loose, and I would think that the accusation might have instead been that it was too rigid, having laid out “chapter and verse” what “expression” means, and what it does not mean.In your response, you say that this is not about “a victory of free expression.” Well, of course it is, since things are now getting said that were not being said before, and really, you need to be the source of the leaks themselves to be in a position to speak about this. You can’t dismiss this aspect in the cavalier way in which you do. “Was this about a person’s right to label or frame something? I don’t think so.” Again, the unnecessary and arbitrary focus on labeling and framing. And again, the ventriloquism. It would have been best to leave this issue aside until we know more from and about the person(s) who actually leaked the Afghan war records.
    I also disagree with the position that the label “whistle blower” does not fit the organization. There are massive amounts of leaks from dissatisfied persons within institutions, that expose wrongdoing in those institutions. A whistle blower is one who informs about another, to expose something that whistle blower thinks is wrong. I can’t believe there is even debate about this point…because the only option is to give Wikileaks authorship for all of the documents its hosts.
    You say you don’t contradict yourself here. Well, you did say it is not a whistle blower organization…and then say in the next paragraph “the real result was Wikileaks served as a whistle blower for the Taliban and other insurgent groups and perhaps the Afghan government.” Again, which is it? And yes, Matt, we all see what you’re doing here: aligning Wikileaks with the “dreaded enemy,” the Taleban. (You will need to do additional work to convince me that the Taleban are my enemy or are a “threat.”)
    That there is more to Wikileaks than “freedom of expression,” I agree. Perhaps you should be clearer about this in your post. What we likely will not agree about is what that “more” is.
    Yes Matt, we have disagreed before about the meaning of words. Last time, it was about the meaning of “milblogger,” which unlike “expression,” has no dictionary definition. In fact, what ensued was a demonstration of the fact that everyone involved in the debate had their own unique definition. That you and I will have very different understandings about emergent meanings, is the good news.

  4. Dr. Max Forte,I couldn’t help but notice you using what I would consider either verbal judo, or a lack of contextual understanding.
    Given your inclination towards (obsession with) anti-militarism I assume it’s the latter. What Matt was referring to in “expression” deals specifically with the Afghan War Diaries. Your comment about his Twitter posts is a moot point, for those were dealing with the leaked Apache Helo video, which showed American forces firing upon a group of armed insurgents. Wikileaks editorialized and “labeled” the material in such a way that was propaganda at best and criminal at worst.
    Judging by your background, writings, and organization(s) you belong to, and after watching your interview with al-jazeera(I speak Arabic, btw), it is clear to me that you are so heavily influenced by far left ideology that you only choose to engage in polemic discourse that ultimately ends up you pontificating semantics.
    Let’s face it, the real reason you are debating this issue is because you dislike (Western) militarism and Western influence. Thus, you will support anything that is in opposition.
    You claim the Taliban is not the enemy. Well, no, clearly they are not *your* enemy, per se. All your musings about colonialism and imperialism and other topics you deem intellectual sounding and revolutionary enough to perhaps score yourself some tail at the local wine tasting party impresses, however, no Afghan civilian fearing for his life; knowing that the Taliban will now target his family thanks to an Army pvt. and Australian rape suspect who have no clue about global politics.
    You condescend to Matt by putting “Public Diplomacy and “Strategic Communication” in quotations. One would think that somebody “interested” in “Anthropology” would know that anthropology is the study of all humanity. Without considering realpolitik, you are merely exploiting anthropological discourse to suit your narrative.
    Wikileaks and the leaking of the Afghan War Diaries was the theft and propagation of classified information.
    As far as the Taliban… you might want to point your moral compass away from those who stone and cut off noses and ears of women.

  5. …and that is the typical right wing, jingoistic, militarism that dismisses itself as intellectually irrelevant and harmful to world peace. The sexist note adds some real old fashioned chauvinism for good measure.You might want to study up on the hoax that is the Aisha story, or is propaganda to be equated as coterminous with public diplomacy?
    As for the issue of semantics…now there’s a moot point. We are discussing the meaning of words here, semantics are hardly irrelevant. Semantics are critical to any effort aimed at shaping public perceptions. So get to the back seat with the rest of your fellow smurfs, quiet down, and pay attention.
    As for my “ideology” (anti-imperialism…and an American above all should bloody well know this!…is not confined to any one ideology–which is why on the same page in some places I am accused of being a Marxist, and a Conservative Libertarian)–I have absolutely NOTHING to apologize for: I did not send anyone one to war, I did not launch into a war of naked aggression, and I don’t siphon off millions of hard borrowed dollars to be wasted on destructive purposes that benefit a few. As if being anti-war were a sin: that rather proves my points about militarism then.
    So if you think you have me on the ropes, you are quite delusional…and that is probably the most clinical of all possible conclusions here.

  6. Aisha story a hoax. Yes, I recall reading that on “theunjustmedia” and “alemara”… two Taliban websites.I suppose other female victims of Taliban atrocities shot, stoned and doused the acid themselves.
    I suggest you go to youtube and search “Yuri Bezmenov”
    This gives an excellent explanation of the ideological subversion that has taken place in the West, and that you have apparently succumbed to.
    Also, I am not trying to send you into the ropes Max, I am just calling you out for what you are: anti-Western power. You chastise western militarism, but where is your manufactured outrage against communist aggression.
    I also don’t think you really understand the military or national security elements. For example, you state in your al-Jazeera interview that under the guise of national security the US spies on its own citizens (at least that’s how it was translated into Arabic, I couldn’t hear the English). This goes to show you have no clue about USSID 18 and other directives that strictly prohibit such actions.
    I know, I know, they are all lying. It’s a conspiracy; the military covers it up. Brass tacks: You know nothing about militarism other than what books, peered reviewed by other like-minded individuals, tell you to think. You don’t know what the community is really like: the intricacies of the culture or the neutering, mind-numbing bureaucracy.
    You state:
    “I did not send anyone one to war, I did not launch into a war of naked aggression, and I don’t siphon off millions of hard borrowed dollars to be wasted on destructive purposes that benefit a few. As if being anti-war were a sin: that rather proves my points about militarism then.”
    True, but your words and people like you give comfort to the enemy, yes the e-n-e-m-y. Go look at the Taliban sites, see what media they quote: it’s all left-wing drivel. Let me rephrase that for clarity: The Taliban and al-Qaeda and their ilk quote western, far-left media to justify their actions against the “evil west.” I wouldn’t be surprised if they quote your website, if they could find it. They’d appreciate you sticking up for them.
    And it’s not anti-war that is the problem, it’s when you are anti-war when Americans or Canadians do it, but are silent when it comes to others. In that regard, you are not really for peace; you just want western powers emaciated.

  7. Max,You are either a poor anthropologist or a clever propagandist. Your manipulation of vocabulary, avoidance through subject changes, and the constant employment of ambiguity is the mark of either laziness or manipulation.
    To start, at the beginning of this thread you tossed out nearly every definition of “free expression” except for the obviously applicable one, the legal definition. Further, you “innocently” claimed I wasn’t being clear (nice attempt to shift) to which you dismiss my point about the “right” to do something.
    On the point of “whistle blowing”, Wikileaks posts far more documents than the few needles the media (new, old, now, whatever) seeks and latches on to spotlights. A cursory examination of the Wikileaks repository shows WL is a clearing house for information.
    As Wikileaks is about openness, it should, as I stated in my post above, also struggle to shine light on the trade secrets (and bank accounts and any other data that relates to daily activities) of Apple, Cadbury, or computer hackers. These must surely also be placed into the open domain, yes?
    How is what you and the Wikileaks community strive for not the same as espionage or treason? Is it based on a moral determination made by the WL community (whoever they are)? The WL community has already made calculations, either intentionally or unintentionally, on the potential damage of information it provides (such as failing to redact names of Afghans, which the “traditional” media took the time to protect). So are we to submit to “smarter” WL community to protect us in their strive for a utopian world of transparency where there are no reprucussions and where there is no distinction between professional and amateur, tactical or strategic.
    Wait, I don’t think so because that only applies to others.
    Take for example the situation with Daniel Domscheit-Berg, aka Daniel Schmitt, a now former member of Wikileaks. From the Wikileaks community comes this brilliant piece of advice (no irony here):

    * Dissension can happen. Especially in times of war. And don’t look now but WikiLeaks is in the midst of a huge war. Julian Assange hasn’t mentioned anything about dissension even though he’s had ample opportunity. Those covered wagons are supposed to form a circle when the natives attack. If Schmitt feels loyalty to the cause of WikiLeaks above and beyond any loyalty and friendship to Julian Assange, and if he’s not been compromised, then he’d be keeping his priorities straight and his mouth shut – at least for now.
    * Schmitt gains nothing (at least for the WikiLeaks cause) by ‘going public’ with this story. All he does is gain a bit of notoriety for himself and hurt the WikiLeaks cause. If all these people are going to quit WikiLeaks because Assange is behaving badly, then that’s the only message they need send. As with Birgitta Jónsdóttir earlier, you’re supposed to have the basic perspicacity to know you don’t hang your laundry out in public and you never ever talk to one another through the media.
    * There are more people involved besides Schmitt. One must not forget the whistleblowers. The welfare and the lives of the whistleblowers – the true heroes here – are at stake with any publicly disclosed dissension in the ranks at WikiLeaks. There are also the lives of countless civilians and others that can be saved if pressure can be brought to end wars.
    This WikiLeaks thing is not a hackers’ game – it’s deadly serious. Lives can already be at stake. So it doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong in the current debacle – it might very well be Julian Assange! But what matters is you don’t go public.

    Yes, there are lives at risk. (I’ll ignore the proper attribution of “whistle blower” to the contributor of the information not in the massive clearing operation that is Wikileaks… which is the point of my argument anyway – but of course one you like to focus on).
    I could go on with your adroit use of misinformation or disinformation to frame the discussion or discussant – such as your comment to some to the effect that what I say should be tempered by the fact I work for the State Department. In our exchange, apparently if I do not attack the State Department I work for them. If that’s not the case, then my relationship with State is an awful lot like your known relationship with Human Terrain Teams. Which is it, Max?
    Shifting gears for a moment from you to Wikileaks and propaganda, can you explain the publication of “Red Cell” or “red team” products from the CIA on Wikileak as documents of substance? There’s the recent “exporter of terrorism” document and a March document on European support for the NATO mission. The latter was described as a “recipe for the targeted manipulation of public opinion in two NATO ally countries”. First, it was a document that could easily have been written by any other agency or a think tank or a university (in the US or Europe, including an “ally” country). Second, the labeling as “manipulation of public opinion” is humorous considering Julian Assange’s admitted efforts to do the same. (Admit a spade is a spade.) Is the publication and accompanying narrative online and on Twitter clear attempts to manipulate opinion based on the hope the audience doesn’t understand the documents real purpose?
    Max, again, I do appreciate your commentary. I would like it if you stuck to the facts and debated those. Your community is paranoid and if effects their ability to discuss the issues. Then again, because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get you.

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