Wikileaks as an Exemplar of Now Media, Part 1

Wikileaks as an Exemplar of Now Media, Part 1

by Matt Armstrong (Cross-posted at MountainRunner)

This is the first in a series of posts that will explore our world of disappearing boundaries -- from geographic to linguistic to time to organizational -- that create new opportunities and challenges to agenda setting and influence. Wikileaks, as an exemplar non-state actor in this world of "now media," requires analysis beyond the superficial and polarized debate common in today's coverage of both the organization and the material it disseminates. The MountainRunner Institute is working to convene a series of discussions with experts across the spectrum, including (ideally) someone from Wikileaks, to discuss the role and impact of actors like Wikileaks and the evolving informational and human landscape. If you are interested in more information or in participating, email me at blog@mountainrunner.us.

In 1927, H.G. Wells wrote that modern communication "opened up a new world of political processes" where "ideas and phrases can now be given an effectiveness greater than the effectiveness of any personality and stronger than any sectional interest."* Nearly ninety years later, this remains true with both the speed of communication and the consequences of failure far greater than possibly even Wells could have anticipated. Influence has become democratized with nearly anyone potentially capable of setting the agendas of world leaders -- take for example a pastor in Florida or a person with a camera phone capturing the death of a woman in Tehran. So to has disruption become democratized to the point governments no longer need to be involved to severely impact economic, political or military interests. "Sectional interests" once divided by geography, culture, language, nationalism or ideology can be now convened and aligned with great effectiveness as the past barriers often become little more than footnotes.

Today, it is difficult and often impractical to distinguish between news consumer and creator, between mediums of information, or between audiences that have evolved to "stakeholders" and "participants." Technology made "old media" and "new media" now quaint artifacts of a past struggle of segregation based on first platforms and then business models. Instead of "old" and "new", we have Now Media operating across evaporating borders of technology or distance and time, within and across fluid associations and affinities, and flattens (even obliterates) hierarchies while bypassing and even co-opting traditional gatekeepers of information.

Now media is remarkable for not only the speed and persistency of information, but also in the "fragmegration" of the human environment that is at once fragmenting and integrating along new and often multiple lines. Multiple identities and voluntary associations lead to "turnstile allegiances" that may be potentially leveraged by anyone. Consider the motivations of Colleen LaRose, aka JihadJane, and Bradley Manning, the alleged leak (and thus the real "whistle blower", a point I'll return to below) of hundreds of thousands of Defense and State Department documents. Neither LaRose or Manning apparently acted out of ideology (in the traditional sense) or money or because of some other connection that a "loyalty check" or security clearance would have flagged.

The opportunities, threats and challenges of this new environment are represented by Wikileaks. A non-state actor with no territory or assets to seize, bomb or blockade, and no trade to threaten or leverage, Wikileaks manages to have the media and governments leap at every utterance, making Wikileaks one of the most influential organizations in the world right now. When Fox News offered to release Apache gun camera footage for Wikileaks earlier this year, Wikileaks smartly declined, opting instead to distribute the material and thus ensure greater distribution and ownership over the meme.

It claims to be a "non-profit media organization" bringing "important news and information to the public," but any context added to the anonymously received content is not intended to create a more informed public but, in the words of Julian Assange, co-founder and front-man for Wikileaks, to get the "maximum political effect" out of the material. Paul Steiger, the editor-in-chief at ProPublica, a major non-profit U.S. media organization, recently said, "Wikileaks is not the A.P."

So what is Wikileaks? Wikileaks is despised and feared because it has emerged as an agenda-setter, capable of establishing the grammar and vocabulary of topics of its choosing, to the delight of supporters and frustration of its targets. Today, this vocabulary is a touchstone of support and alliance (but not allegiance) with the organization: Wikileaks is a whistle blower if you support their mission or an "independent organization" if not. Glenn Greenwald's lambast of The New York Times for its framing of the reported torture of Iraqi detainees could easily have been an attack on not using "whistle blower" as each of his examples of "appropriate" acknowledgement came from sources that adopted the label while The New York Times did not.

The effort to cast Wikileaks as a whistle blower extends to now-frequent associations and appearances with Daniel Ellsberg. The differences between the two are numerous, not the least of which is Ellsberg sought an outlet and Wikileaks is the outlet that packages and propagates the content for worldwide consumption in a way the media in Ellsberg's day could not.

Wikileaks, and particularly Assange, has adopted a single focus: the U.S. Department of Defense. This new myopia, acquired after the release and "success" of the inflammatory titled and edited "Collateral Murder" video. Now, for example, the only material available on or through Wikileaks.org, after being offline "for maintenance" for weeks, is the latest product, the "Iraq War Logs." This apparently frustrates core Wikileaks supporters and activists who want Assange to change his tactics and a broader focus of the organization.

For his part, however, Assange, picked a fight with an adversary that is, ironically, proving to be unarmed. The Defense Department has shown it does not know how to deal with Wikileaks. Geoff Morrell, for example, demanded Wikileaks "return" the stolen military documents on Afghanistan and Iraq. While the request to "return" electronic document was likely to help in gauging the extent of the leak, it was mocked by Wikileaks and most observers as being out of touch with the electronic reality. (Not surprisingly, the Armed Forces Press Service article linked above uses "whistle blower" to describe Wikileaks, which should be a taken as a mark of success for Wikileaks.)

The Defense Department is vexed on how to mitigate the threat and damage of Wikileaks. There are several avenues the Defense Department could approach this threat, beyond decrying the release of material as a threat to lives and limb (which Assange has already publically stated is, in his calculation, a fair cost) or that there is nothing new in the material. It also has the platforms -- from podiums to Blogger Roundtables -- and partners -- from the White House to the State Department to think tanks -- to counter accusations, distribute facts and clarifications and to address the implicit, if not explicit, charges by Wikileaks and related communities. The department staffed a "120-person task force" to prepare for the leaks, however except for the occasional denunciation from senior leadership, the only thing heard from the department is silence.

This struggle shows the department remains unprepared for "informatized" warfare, as China calls it. Networks actors (see the picture here) are ignored while focus remains on the primary instigator. If this map (or another simplified map from a different slice in time) were viewed by a combat commander, contingency plans would be developed to engage, isolate or ignore each node (or pocket) or significant activity. For some reason, this remains out of the grasp of the department (and, to be fair, most government agencies).

Part 2 of this series will explore possible opportunities for the Defense Department to bolster its reputation and counter Wikileaks.

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