WikiLeaks And Digital Activism After Assange
Assange’s cult of personality has led the media narrative to focus more on the man and the rape accusations against him, than on the work of his organization. The spectacle of trials and arrest warrants beget rhetorical bets over whether or not Assange will be extradited to Sweden, then shipped again to America, where he would be tried for espionage.
Popular opinion, however, remains incredibly divided on this issue, because Assange and WikiLeaks continue to represent a controversial cause: transparency in national government. The spectrum of commentary over the extradition case runs the gamut from those who think it is a United States-backed witch hunt, to those who call Assange, Bradley Manning, and a whole roster of “hacktivists” a threat to security and the sovereign right to national secrets.
But in reality, the WikiLeaks discourse transcends partisan politics, and instead reveals an uneasy conflict of media cultures. Journalism is at a crossroads regarding its relationship to the state. Large international newswires such as the Associated Press and Reuters are responsible for verifying and contextualizing statements from governments and figureheads, and disseminating their words throughout the world. Bloggers and independent citizen-journalists complement the work of broadcast and print journalism by producing local content that can spread across horizontal digital networks. These voices often challenge the assumptions behind bigger news organizations’ reporting of a given story.
But WikiLeaks, a nation-less, non-profit news organization, renewed the idea that a large, brand-name operation can be a credible whistle-blower, and that journalists play an important role in helping citizens keep their governments accountable and transparent. It has produced an incredible amount of “scoops”—far more in 2010 than any other news organization combined. Cables regarding intelligence contractors, Guantánamo Bay, the Syrian government and other issues have complicated citizens’ understanding of national foreign policy. WikiLeaks’ legacy is definitely worth defending, with or without Assange.
WikiLeaks is committed to telling the truth that belies official statements, and the results of this mission statement have inspired audiences’ own thirst for truth and facts, whether or not they publically support Assange. It is possible to see this attitudinal shift in U.S. election coverage: armies of “fact-checkers” have been on call to eviscerate politicians’ speeches at the Republican and Democratic national conventions. People are much less likely to passively accept what some figurehead may tell them through the loudspeaker of the mainstream press. These are all positive developments for journalism - both as an industry and as a personal vocation.
This distinction is important: what WikiLeaks is engaged in is investigative journalism, rather than political activism. As an activist with a critical eye turned in the direction of many governments, I firmly support WikiLeaks' right to continue publishing lesser-known or classified cables in the name of public interest and education. However, activists and others who identify as politically “progressive” must be careful not to put Assange on a pedestal that he may not deserve, depending on the resolution of the rape case.
Furthermore, it is one thing to identify as a supporter of Assange or WikiLeaks, but to fetishize digital exposés and “hacktivism” as political strategy risks passing the buck on responsibility for social change. It is still up to individuals to do more than share a link to leaked cables - to also genuinely respond to the information produced by journalists, and to build coalitions that can actually advocate for and produce change.
This is easier than ever in a social media-saturated universe, in which people with similar interests and the same grievances can connect instantly to debate the implications of the latest stories. For example, copycat website Tunileaks may have hastened democratic progress in Tunisia at the beginning of the Arab Spring protests, after the website distributed cables from the U.S. embassy there. The key is that the people of Tunisia had an eye toward the broader context of political change and dissatisfaction with leader Ben Ali; leaks such as these by themselves still require a reaction from activists.
In the end, WikiLeaks is not a politically activist website in itself, but is rather a platform that has renewed the synergy between journalism and activism.