Julian Assange is an unusual figure in the world of hacktivism. He embraced his notoriety as leader of Wikileaks, and on 4 February 2016, he appeared on the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy holding a copy of a UN panel report that declared that he has been “arbitrarily detained” while avoiding extradition to Sweden for alleged rape for almost six years (British and Swedish prosecutors still seek to detain him).
There was more than a hint of a double standard in Assange’s demands that the UK should defer legally to the UN panel. Hacktivism often seems to disregard legal constraints in force in the offline world. It is typically anonymous, making it hard to hold people to account when things go wrong. It is not always open or democratic — even when it is practised in jurisdictions with strong democratic traditions.
Wikileaks allegedly exposes the wrongdoing of governments and other powerful global actors, based on inside information given to it by leakers or hackers. Yet the transparency it demands of others does not apply to itself. It collects its leaks through electronic drop boxes that it has helped to design to protect the anonymity of its sources. Wikileaks claims to support human rights and to engage in processes of democratic accountability, but its own failure to disclose much information about itself denudes its credibility and contributes to an objectionable kind of impunity.
Consider the difference between Wikileaks and two of the media organizations with which it cooperated: The Guardian and The New York Times. Both newspapers have a long tradition of investigative journalism and have engaged in big journalistic exposures, sometimes based on leaks. Their journalists fact check articles, edit them in ways to make large amounts of information digestible by their audiences (not to mislead), and sign their names. Their (publicly known) headquarters are located in countries with strict libel laws and laws prohibiting hacking, even in the service of bona fide investigative journalism. When they make mistakes, they issue retractions and often apologize or pay damages. They are also open when they or their journalists are guilty of fraud or of some other kind of criminal activity.
Wikileaks is systematically different. Although it says quite a lot about its convictions on its website, it displays no masthead identifying its editors, and, apart from Julian Assange, few people connected with the organization in general or its news gathering in particular have ever been named. This might make sense if those running Wikileaks were based in human rights-violating jurisdictions, but it is known that much Wikileaks technology is based in Scandinavia, where there is no tradition of censorship or government interference in the media. Since Wikileaks does not necessarily go in for disclosures that are more far-reaching than those of its mainstream collaborators, it is unclear why it is so shadowy. On the contrary, its secrecy about itself detracts from both the credibility of its news and the credibility of its adherence to human rights. Though Wikileaks claims to check all its information before publishing, it does not back up this claim with an indication of numbers of people working for it, or their competence, or the methods by which information is tested for accuracy and authenticity. This would be bad enough in a media organization with a relatively local coverage, but Wikileaks publishes leaks about the powerful in a wide array of countries. Again, it has not been quick to report allegations of wrongdoing by its own employees. On the contrary, it has avoided doing so. For example, it did not publicize charges of sexual assault against Assange in Sweden. Finally, its dumps of documents with identifying details of individuals have sometimes put people in danger.
Wikileaks illustrates some of the difficulties of human rights-supporting journalism conducted anonymously and from the legal no-man’s land of cyberspace.
Featured image credit: The Subtle Roar of Online Whistle-blowing: Julian Assange by New Media Days / Peter Erichsen. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Flickr.