Kathy Dobson, Wilfrid Laurier University
About the author
Kathy Dobson is a journalist whose work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, National Post, Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette, and numerous national magazines, including Maclean’s, Chatelaine, and Canadian Living. In addition to her work as a print journalist, she has produced numerous short documentaries and news stories for CBC radio. She earned her master’s degree in Communication Studies from Wilfrid Laurier University in 2013. Her research interests include examining the potential role of digital activism and alternative media platforms for promoting the interests of marginalized groups and communities. Dobson will be pursuing a PhD at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication this Fall.
This paper seeks to examine the role WikiLeaks plays in providing the public with an alternative source of information, supposedly free from government and corporate influences. By making information freely accessible, WikiLeakes aims at subverting traditional social structures and dominance patterns. Further, the alternative narratives provided by WikiLeaks allow us to critically examine the validity of what we consider as “truth”. To investigate WikiLeaks’ impact, the infamous “Collateral Murder” incident is examined following a critical social theory framework to measure the ultimate success of this website and its impact–or lack of–on the social structures and dominance patterns it attempts to dismantle. The apparent hypocrisies of WikiLeaks are also analyzed. Ultimately, WikiLeaks demonstrates how the Internet facilitates a new type of activism that is altering the power dynamics between the public and those in power.
By depending on corporate avenues, mainstream media “are prone to pressures by advertisers, companies, lobbyists and governments that can result in filtered, censored news that are uncritical and exclude critical voices” (Fuchs, 2011, p.67). In contrast, WikiLeaks is not only an example of how the social structures that mediate, limit, and direct communication can be subverted; it also demonstrates how the Internet facilitates a new type of activism that decentralizes governmental control through the dissemination of information, altering the power dynamics between the public and those in power.
The mandate of WikiLeaks is to provide the public with an alternative source of information that is free from government and corporate influences; by making information freely accessible and exploring the validity of what we consider as “truth”, WikiLeakes aims at subverting traditional social structures and dominance patterns (WikiLeaks, 2010, section 1.1). Founded by Australian journalist Julian Assange, WikiLeaks is a non-profit Internet whistleblowing platform allowing anonymous users to upload documents, which helps to expose governments and corporations guilty of criminal acts or abuse of power so as to force transparency and public accountability (Fuchs, 2011). Since going online in 2006, WikiLeaks has created an enormous impact worldwide and become a global sensation, leading to intense debate and controversy with regards to issues of free speech, surveillance, alternative journalism and media, worldviews and social movements (Fuchs, 2011). Based on a case study of WikiLeaks’ release of the infamous “Collateral Murder” video, this paper uses a political critical theory framework–incorporating concepts of liberation and empowerment–to investigate and evaluate WikiLeaks as an online whistleblowing platform and vehicle for transparency.
Although commentators have noted that whistleblowing and leaks have “been a feature of all eras” that predate WikiLeaks, it has been acknowledged that, “never before has a non-state or non-corporate affiliated group done anything on the scale that Wikileaks has managed to do…” (Lovink & Riemens, 2010, paragraph 2). Many commentators, including WikiLeaks itself, have claimed that this whistleblowing platform represents a new model of journalism that is characterized by accountability, cooperation (rather than competition) with other media organizations, (supposed) impartiality, and perhaps most importantly, a disconnection from surrounding capitalist and corporate structures and concepts — the motivation of profit (Brevini, Hintz, & McCurdy 2013; Flew & Liu, 2011). Unlike traditional media, WikiLeaks does not place a dollar value on the presentation of news; ethical considerations, rather than financial ones, govern the release of information.
According to Manuel Castells, WikiLeaks illustrates how “cyberspace, populated by anonymous sources of information, is a fundamental threat to the ability to silence, on which dominion has always been based” (Castells, 2011, as cited in Fuchs, 2011, p.50). Further, this can be seen as “the ‘pilot’ phase in an evolution towards a far more generalized culture of anarchic exposure, beyond the traditional politics of openness and transparency” (Lovink & Riemens, 2010, p.10). McNair argues that “Transparency robs power of its capacity to abuse by making abuse visible in the mainstream news agenda”, claiming that WikiLeaks’ activities are a demonstration of the “capacity of digital communication networks to subvert the control of official information” (2012, p.77).
Is WikiLeaks a genuine manifestation of critical theory’s notion that the communication of information is potentially a form of liberation, undermining the typical power relations between governments, media and the public by divulging this information (Agger, 2006)? Is it an example of how the free exchange of potentially sensitive and previously censored information can undermine power relations between governments, the media, and the public? To address these questions, the present study adopts a critical social theory framework to explore how the flow of information can be used to control and manipulate people, redirecting their behaviour by altering their perceptions. When information is circulated in a ‘one way’ direction, it limits our capacity to challenge and question what is being presented to us, placing largely invisible boundaries on our conceptions and recognition of truth; our judgement and ability to criticize government and corporate behaviour is restricted (Agger, 2006). It is precisely this misdirection and opaqueness that WikiLeaks attempts to combat through its disclosure of classified documents present an alternative and supposedly more valid ‘truth.’ According to Yochai Benkler, “Wikileaks can be said to be an exercise in counter-power, because it disrupts the organizational technical form in which governments and large companies habitually control the flow of information about their behaviour in ways that constrain the capacity of others to criticize them…” (Benkler, 2011, p.728). It is indisputable that WikiLeaks has garnered international fame and led to critical debate and analysis. Less clear, however, is whether WikiLeaks has actually managed to fulfill its mandate of transparency. As Jodi Dean states, accessibility is not the same thing as actual social action (Dean, 2009). Although WikiLeaks brings attention to important issues, it may not ultimately be the agent of social change that it proclaims itself to be.
The “Collateral Murder” video released in April 2010 is regarded as being largely responsible for WikiLeaks’ hitting of “the mainstream”. This classified U.S. military video, shot from an Apache helicopter, depicts U.S. forces firing on civilians in an Iraqi suburb, resulting in the deaths of a dozen civilians, including two journalists. The released video led to a political and media frenzy, and also the subsequent arrest and imprisonment of U.S. Army private Bradley Manning, who uploaded the secret video to WikiLeaks. Although it is clear in the video that the people on the ground being attacked by the Apache helicopter were not engaged in any kind of return fire, the military’s initial public releases about the incident claimed that there was “no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force” (Hasian, 2012, p.193). As Hasian states, “the U.S. military… used several domestication strategies — apologia, recontextualization, humanization, and transcendence — as they contained what could have been a public relations nightmare” (2012, p.190).
The release of this video and the military’s response — attempts to manipulate the public’s perceptions of the events through various tactics — exemplify several crucial points of analysis in terms of WikiLeaks’ mandate and level of success. The footage was initially suppressed (Reuters attempted to gain access under the Freedom of Information act, yet was denied) and the U.S. military attempted to present a distorted truth. WikiLeaks subverted this by releasing the video and showing the ‘real’ truth (Lovink & Riemens, 2010). The military’s report presented the incident as a “military necessity”, stating that the coalition forces were acting according to an “inherent right to self-defence” (Department of Defense, 2007, pp. 9-11). This incident demonstrates that for corporations and governments, information and knowledge are commodities that must be controlled; their circulation is limited or altered to correspond with a narrative that protects or maintains their power. Just as decision-making and power are hierarchically organized, information flow is structured in a way that minimizes participation and access. It also has the potential to be used as a tool for manipulation, as evidenced by the military’s attempts at contextualizing the events according to a more favourable narrative. As Hasian (2012) points out, the military managed to take an event even as tragic and horrifying as the death of a dozen innocent and unarmed civilians and reframe it in such a way to not only justify an unprovoked attack which resulted in the murder of 12 people, but also deflect responsibility and accountability away from the U.S. military. According to Fuchs (2011), the military’s handling of the incident can be situated in a broader context, motivated by the interests of larger power structures and machinations, namely, the fact that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq “help to secure the United States’ global political hegemony,” securing “access to economic resources and markets”; further, these are matters of the “imperialistic intersection of state, corporate and military interests” (p.70). Indeed, the communication of information — its obtainability, presentation, and distribution — was subjected to broader political considerations.
However, WikiLeaks was able to subvert these power structures by making the information (which was hidden, obscured, or distorted) freely accessible, thus “threatening the imperialist military-state-corporate complex” (Fuchs, 2011, p.70). This illustrates the operation of WikiLeaks’ core principles: dispelling government and corporate lies and concealed behaviours by giving access to alternative truths. It enables the public to be more critical of the ‘facts’ presented by mainstream media or government sources. Prior to the Internet, large-scale distribution of information could only be achieved through the mainstream media. Examples of earlier leaks that predate the Internet, such as capturing events on video, or the release of the Pentagon Papers, were only accomplished through the participation and cooperation of mainstream media, which are characterized by an organizational and institutional reliance on corporate and government structures (Benkler, 2011). In fact, WikiLeaks was not the first to leak the “Collateral Murder” story. Author David Finkle had already written about the event in his book, The Good Soldiers, released in 2009. However, “herein lies one of the extraordinary aspects of WikiLeaks: its capacity to transform revelations and exposures of secrets to a global audience numbering in millions. Compared to book circulation, this is attention–getting on a massive scale” (Cohen & Castillo, 2011, p.6).
Barriers such as distribution concerns do not impede WikiLeaks because it exists within a highly networked society. The communicative power of the Internet is distinguished from earlier media by its function as a “means of information production, diffusion and consumption [that] is more global in reach,” and characteristics such as “fast, cheap, and easy distribution” (Fuchs, 2011, p.67). WikiLeaks has made a significant contribution to participatory communication, opening the door for transparency and widespread dissemination and accessibility of information. WikiLeaks has not only challenged and led to a closer scrutiny of the role and ‘rules’ of journalism (Cohen & Castillo, 2011), and communication, but also the relationships that mediate these activities with larger corporate and governmental concerns.
Weaknesses, Limitations and Hypocrisies of WikiLeaks
Despite the promise of a new age of democracy heralded by digital innovations, Kaul warns: “the old hierarchies and power systems persist” (2012, p.2). Moreover, the Internet has in fact “widened the political information and participation gap between societal ‘have’s’ and ‘have not’s” (Kaul, 2012, p.2). The alleged facilitation of democracy and open discussion notwithstanding, “the ability to attend only to information and online communities with which one agrees results in… believing assertions which have been proven to be false” (Kaul, 2012, p.8). This means that WikiLeaks’ releases of classified documents and the “Collateral Murder” video seem to only confirm the pre-held beliefs of anti-war and anti-military proponents, failing to sway those loyal or subservient to these structures. It has been argued that the Internet (and by extension, sites such as WikiLeaks) merely reinforce elite voices in politics, rather than increasing the opportunity for more diverse voices to be heard (Hindman, 2008). Indeed, WikiLeaks may reflect this notion, as Assange has control over which documents are leaked, what spin they are given, and which media outlets documents are released to. In the age of digitalization, “while information is now at everyone’s fingertips, so is misinformation, which can appear and circulate virally across the Internet” (Kaul, 2012, p.8).
One of the apparent hypocrisies of WikiLeaks is its own lack of transparency–a clear contradiction of its core operating principles and philosophies. The “Collateral Murder” video released by WikiLeaks is a narrated, shortened version of the original footage, and as some commentators have discussed, the very title of the video incorporates an anti-war bias of Assange (Lynch, 2011). By framing the “Collateral Murder” video in the manner that it did–adding commentary and reducing the forty seven minutes of raw footage to seventeen–WikiLeaks attempted to present a specific ‘narrative,’ manipulating viewers in much the same way that readers of a newspaper or government report often are subjected to, and to some, this represented a clear attempt at the manipulation of the public’s perception (Domscheit-Berg, 2011). This demonstrated WikiLeaks’ own form of censorship and manipulation to help promote the personal agenda of Assange to end the war in Iraq (Domscheit-Berg, 2011). As Meikle reveals, the viewer is directed towards a particular destination; imagery and captions contextualize the content to fit a predetermined narrative (2012). Indeed, by manipulating and packaging the message, WikiLeaks may have betrayed its proclaimed principles, altering the context of the information and presenting a self-serving narrative–essentially the very practice that they are fundamentally opposed to.
The news media, according to widespread public perception, fulfills a civic purpose: it supposedly informs citizens, strengthening democracy by facilitating access to this information. Yet from a critical social theory perspective, it can be demonstrated that due to surrounding political and economic institutions, the news media often obscures – rather than facilitates – the truth. The very same power structures that must be critically examined are capable of manipulating the news media through corporate and government pressures. However, by existing outside of the nation state WikiLeaks is not subjected to these corporate and government pressures and therefore is capable of fulfilling the civic role that many assume the news media is fulfilling. This whistleblowing site–much like the Internet itself–is still in its infancy. The ambitions and ideals that motivated its founders may have not yet come to fruition, and the site itself betrays some of its own principles. Yet WikiLeaks represents an important evolution in communicative media and a clear example of the intersection between technology and the pursuit of social justice.
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