The WikiLeaks Phenomenon and New Media Power

It's not about what WikiLeaks is, it's what it represents: the transformations of news media by distributed power

Contributed by Alison Powell London School of Economics
April 08, 2011
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WikiLeaks reveals a lot about how power works, and about its transformation. But the significance is not so much in WikiLeaks is, but what it has represented, especially for people and organizations with a vested interest in how the internet works. There are two aspects to Wikileaks: there is Wikileaks as it is, and the media phenomon of its wider reception. WikiLeaks as it is, as an organization, doesn't tell us as much as what Wikileaks as a this broader phenomenon tells us. The phenomenon - including the reporting of leaks in the mass media, the backlash by American lawmakers, the media attention to the accusations against founder Julian Assange, and the escalating tactics of DDoS by Anonymous and major US corporations - tells us quite a lot about the relationship between old media and new media, especially about the importance of the 'exploit' as a feature of new media power.

Wikileaks as it is: Before discussing how WikiLeaks became a media and cultural phenomenon of WikiLeaks, it's worth considering what exactly the original founders were hoping to achieve. When we discuss WikiLeaks, it's easy to forget that the organization itself has only a few paid staff and a small core of deeply engaged volunteers. This made the organization, at least initially, very similar to many other emergent, grassroots efforts using the internet to crowd-source content, and leveraged its global, distributed nature as a kind of fail-safe against censure in any one jurisdiction. As Lovink noted in a July 2010 article, such single-person organizations are a feature of contemporary mediated life. He writes:

Like small and medium-sized businesses, the founder cannot be voted out, and, unlike many collectives, leadership does not rotate. This is not an uncommon feature within organizations, irrespective of whether they operate in the realm of politics, culture or the “civil society” sector. SPOs are recognizable, exciting, inspiring, and easy to feature in the media. Their sustainability, however, is largely dependent on the actions of their charismatic leader, and their functioning is difficult to reconcile with democratic values. This is also why they are difficult to replicate and do not scale up easily.

The initial goals of WikiLeaks were closely aligned with individual interests of Julian Assange, and the fortunes of the organization have also been aligned with his personality. Assange's writing, as far back as 2006, critiques strict control over information as one of the factors that made state power illegitimate. From this perspective, the hactivist aims of the early incarnations of WikiLeaks formed a natural extension of these thoughts. The premise was simple: the organization would maintain an encrypted Internet drop-box that would accept submissions of material that was of public interest but that would not otherwise be published.

Most small SPOs do not achieve the level of notoriety or influence of Wikileaks. What made so much difference was not Wikileaks as it is (or was) but the way that Wikileaks as a phenomenon operated within the networks of mass media and new media. Beginning with the publication of the Afghan war logs, but certainly by the time of the release of the Collateral Murder, WikiLeaks began to more consciously push leaked information to the mass media. As luck would have it, Assange convinced the Guardian newspaper (and, eventually, others) to work with them on redacting the leaked diplomatic cables. The publication of the stories based on these redacted cables, and the resulting – and continuing – media furore, constitutes what I consider the WikiLeaks phenomenon.

WikiLeaks as Phenomenon: Network and New Media Power

WikiLeaks as a phenomenon draws attention to several aspects of our highly mediated contemporary experiences. Castells (2009) argues that the major force of power at present is communication power, and he also conceives of the main model for our society as the network. Cardoso (2009) goes even further, claiming that communication taking place within a networked organizational model creates communicational paradigms that link mass media forms of communication and interpersonal forms through a globalization of communication and a greater interactivity. In this context, the WikiLeaks phenomenon includes two elements: First, the disruption of news production that resulted from the partnerships between WikiLeaks and mass media organizations; and second, the technical and legal measures taken to shut down WikiLeaks (mostly by US commercial and state actors) and the reactions mounted against these measures by individuals associating themselves with Anonymous. Overall, this phenomenon – or drama, as Coleman (2010) claims – illustrates the interrelated elements of mediation, communication, and power, especially within the organizational structure of the network.

Writing about the influence of networks on power, Alex Galloway claims that the power in a distributed network is rooted in protocol. In contrast to power in a modern, liberal formation, speaking to individual agency within a structure, protocol power deals with autonomous entities interlinked within smooth networks with some set parameters governing their connections (2004; p. 157). Because it takes a different formation than previous instatiations of power, resistance is differently configured. Instead of a resistant block, other theorists like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri propose models of “nomadic” resistance, or forms of “multitude” where actions are not centrally coordinated but nevertheless contribute to resistance. Castells (2001) thinks of these groupings in terms of their ability to be 'networked organizations'. In its transformation from a group of hacktivists using the opportunities of the internet to let data speak truth to power, to a phenomenon that leveraged much of the internet and impacted the production of mass media, Wikileaks illustrates the new possibilities of protocol and resistance.

In their 2007 book The Exploit, Galloway and Thacker argue that the network is merely a condition of possibility for the operation of protocol, which can direct control around the network. Within the form of power that is protocol is the potential for an 'exploit' or disruption of protocol. The exploit is a property of the system, but it is also the thing that disrupts the system. This is one thing that WikiLeaks has effectively done; by identifying the logic of control underlying both secrets and the way that secrets have in the past and may now become news

The Wikileaks phenomenon displays a couple of exploits. First, the insertion of Wikileaks into the production of news exploited features of the journalism process, inserting a new intermediary into the process and potentially creating a kind of disruptive innovation in the production of journalistic content. This disruption is based on the permanence and reproducibility of internet data . Second, the response of Anonymous to attempts to shut down the WikiLeaks organization reiterated how the exploit is a central property of a system of protocol: despite the increasing state regulation and governance of the internet, it still to some degree operates based on principles of distributed power.

Exploiting the news process

WikiLeaks became significant because of its lucky ability to exploit the news production process. Through the summer of 2010, internet scholars, security specialists and hacktivists gleefully discussed the tidbits of scandal and deluges of data that WikiLeaks released.  This ranged from Sarah Palin’s e-mail to thousands of pages on the US involvement in Afghanistan.  But these leaks were not effective at drawing attention to the secrets in the way that Assange may have initially intended, at least in his writings. Thus, the partnerships with news organizations became important in advancing his single purpose. It also contributed to the conflation of WikiLeaks as an organization with Assange as a character, as Anderson's piece in this collection describes in detail.

The partnerships, as they expanded beyond Assange's goals, began to attract significant attention to the leaks. Whereas the leaked information about Afghanistan was so voluminous that only a few media stories broke, the diplomatic cables were redacted by journalists working with large newspapers. As Sarah Ellison's Vanity Fair article describes in wincing detail, this partnership was awkward for Assange, for the other members of WikiLeaks, and especially for the various journalists and newspapers involved.

We can read this unique partnership with a leaker, a non-national holder of leaks, and the conventional mass media as an exploit of the news-making process, and an innovation in reporting. As Aaron Bady notes,

The way most journalists “expose” secrets as a professional practice — to the extent that they do — is just as narrowly selfish: because they publicize privacy only when there is profit to be made in doing so, they keep their eyes on the valuable muck they are raking, and learn to pledge their future professional existence on a continuing and steady flow of it. In muck they trust.

The partnership between the mass media journalists and WikiLeaks has provoked much reflection by the journalistic community. Like Ellison, many of them concentrate on the incongruity of negotiating with Assange, who often threatened to release underrated diplomatic cables if the process did not go as smoothly as he had hoped. This was exacerbated by the media attention and legal threats placed on Assange himself. However, what these reports have in common is description of a shifting role for the journalist: not necessarily collecting breaking news, but instead working to validate and contextualize raw data that has come from another source. In this way, WikiLeaks has exploited the network of news production and transformed it. Using the capacity of the internet to easily reproduce and maintain identical data, ithas created a unique and persistent digital repository for the type of information which in the past would have been provided to journalists by trusted sources.

With the complicity of newsrooms, WikiLeaks has created a significant new innovation in the way that international news is investigated and released. It has succeeded in having previously unavailable material put out in to the public domain. But it has not done this by maintaining a 'people power' wiki with every leak freely available. It has instead, through a combination of luck and strategy, added an innovation to the function of newsrooms strained by budget cuts. The publication of stories based on leaked cables continues even now, with a string of revelations appearing this week in India's national newspapers.

Exploiting the Internet

The WikiLeaks phenomenon also introduced a second exploit. This one was the not the result of any actions of Assange or WikiLeaks volunteers. It was the outcome of a perception by individual internet users that powerful government and corporate interests shouldn't use technical tools to shut down Wikileaks without some retaliation – of the same type, of course.

After the release of the diplomatic cables, Wikileaks experienced censure by the US government, as well as the suspension of its bank accounts. Yochai Benkler describes the events this way in a February 2011 working paper:

Responding to a call from Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, several commercial organization tried to shut down Wikileaks by denial of service of the basic systems under their respective control. Wikileaks' domain name server provider stopped pointing at the domain “wikileaks.org,” trying to make it unreachable. Amazon, whose cloud computing platform was hosting the data, cut off hosting services for the site. Banks and payment companies, like Mastercard, Visa, and PayPal, as well as the Swiss postal bank, cut off payment service to Wikileaks in an effort to put pressure on the site's ability to raise money from supporters around the world. It is hard to identify the extent to which direct government pressure, beyond the public appeals for these actions and their subsequent praise from Senator Joe Liberman, was responsible for these actions.”

This government pressure, although it was coupled with pressure from the US companies was not centrally coordinated. Instead, it took the form of an 'integrated, cross-system attack” in Benkler's terms. In response, another exploit took place. Individuals aligning themselves with online group identity Anonymous staged DDoS counter-attacks, succeeding in shutting down MasterCard and Paypay'swebsites temporarily. In a Foreign Policy article from December 2010, Evgeny Morozov likened denial of service attacks to “sit-ins” that are intended to disrupt institutions, temporarily. He considered the actions of Anonymous to be a kind of direct action against internet censorship, which is separate from the role of WikiLeaks as a whistle-blower with ties to non-governmental organizations and the mass media. In particular, the use of distributed denial of service attacks, which flood web sites with requests, is inconvenient from a technical point of view and requires resources to mitigate, but which is not inherently damaging. Following these retaliatory actions, thousands of individuals set up mirror sites of all of the wikileaks.org content, defeating the purpose of cutting off access to the site. Both of these activities were undertaken not by action coordinated far in advance, but by thousands of individuals who could be mobilized quickly to act in the support of a shared principle

The response from Anonymous and other internet users is a reminder that the Internet is not structured the way a broadcaster is. It can be 'killed' in one country, but for the moment it remains a set of interlinked distributed networks, where data that can cheaply and easily be reproduced can be maintained for long periods of time, across national borders. Exploits of these networks don't only come from powerful actors. They can come from individuals and collectives, and may indicate a new role for the multitude.

Conclusion

What these two exploits visible within the WikiLeaks phenomenon demonstrate, is that the logic of contemporary media power is not one of blocks of massive resistance to centralized power. Nor is it only a matter of hactivist projects were decentralized networks route around centralized control. New media power, as we have seen in these examples, operates on distributed networks. These have their own logic of control, which create the opportunity for an “exploit” or disruption from within. In 2007 Galloway and Thacker wrote:

To be effective, future political movements must discover a new exploit. A whole new topology of resistance must be invented that is as asymmetrical in relationship to networks as the network was in relation to power centres… .The new exploit will be an ‘anti-web’ (2007, p. 22)

WikiLeaks reveals that the logic of networked power can be anti-web. It is not making an alternative to the production of mass media. It is innovating upon it. Similarly, it is not demonstrating that the Internet is a brave new world with a new logic unlike that of conventional hierarchy: instead it is demonstrating that corporate, activist, and governmental interests all use overlapping strategies to exploit the organizational and power structures provided by the internet.

References

Castells, M. (2001). The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Castells, M. (2009). Network Power. Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress.

Cardoso, G. (2009) “From Mass Communication to Networked Communication: Thoughts 2.0” LINI Working Paper no 1: Lisbon Internet and Networks International Research Programme.

Galloway, A. (2004). Protocol: How control exists after decentralization. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Galloway, A. R.(2007). The exploit : a theory of networks /. Electronic mediations ;. University of Minnesota Press,.