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Exposures from the dark side

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.

Recent Comments

  1. JJ Phillips

    Extremely poorly researched article. The fact that the author seems unaware that no charges have been filed against Julian Assange is proof of that. The author’s naivete about the agenda of mainstream press outlets is quite stunning, as is his inability to understand that WikiLeaks publishes what the mainstream media usually redacts (if it publishes the actual source documents at all). Given the kind of enemies WikiLeaks attracts – whom most MSM, in contrast, kow-tow to in the ‘access journalism’ model – to give out any information about staff would be to invite reprisals against them. Surprised to see such poor logical thinking from a Professor of Politics.

  2. Austin Hook

    Hillarious article. Sounds like the author is looking for some way to ingratiate himself with the powers the consider Wikileaks as the enemy. Will it swing a research grant? Must not be a big one or he could have worked a bit harder on the article.

  3. butlincat

    interesting? article from the “Warwick University professor of politics, etc., but hardly applicable to the Wikileaks scheme of things, methinks. Does any state police anywhere, or Interpol, or Mossad, or MI5. or MI6 – indeed any organisation – tax inspectors included, for example, declare their “modus operandi” to all and sundry for public inspection? Of course they don’t – and if they did the whole point of certain parts of their mission would be countermined and rendered useless – true or what? The professor states that newspapers give details about sources, and make themselves accountable for the information they publish etc….but do they really? Of course they don’t. They just make up some line to do with whichever details its published that the public is supposed to, and often does, swallow without question, and that is that. Never are secret sources revealed, as there’s no point in doing that as there would be no more info got from that source – always a source for certain types of info is protected, or the source would stop giving the info, obviously.
    Anyway, we’ve all seen what happens to whistleblowers who reveal the worst kind of government crimes – they get 35 years in an American prison – so how can this professor expect what he’s so critical about regarding Wikileaks? If he took a step back and looked at the big picture, he would see what he’s complaining about has been going on forever, by every government that ever existed, and will continue to be that way, simply because that’s how things are.

  4. Wolfgang Pauli

    This is a strangely one-sided view of both, the editor of Wikileaks and the Wikileaks organization. The author displays great naivete about established main stream media venues who received their material from Wikileaks for vetting and fact checking before publication. The old unsubstantiated ruse “innocents may have been harmed” when Wikileaks’ material was published is mentioned in passing. Never mind that actual harm to countless innocent humans was exposed by Wikileaks. Sad to see a professed academic come up so short.

  5. […] they don’t want to become the Fools entertaining the King, they need to apply their politics for transparency to themselves and explain why they have crossed path with privacy advocates aka tech […]

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