WikiLeaks – Alternative Internet Medium and Watchdog Platform – and the Critique of the Power Elite

A journal article I wrote about WikiLeaks that is based on the thoughts in the following blog post and that holds the title “WikiLeaks: power 2.0? Surveillance 2.0? Criticism 2.0? Alternative media 2.0? A political-economic analysis” was published here.

WikiLeaks is a non-commercial Internet whistle-blowing platform that is online since 2006. It was founded by Julian Assange and is funded by online donations. Whistleblowers can upload documents that are intended to make misbehaviour and crimes of governments and corporations transparent, i.e. visible in the public. One can upload such documents anonymously by making use of an online submission form. WikiLeaks’s main servers are based in Sweden.

The power elite – large corporations, governments, and military institutions –distinguishes itself from ordinary citizens and most civil society organizations by two features: these actors have a lot of economic and political power, which allows them to strongly shape our world. They also have the resources to keep parts of their activities invisible. Therefore for example corporate crime frequently remains undetected. The topic that made the news about WikiLeaks in late July 2010 was that the platform published more than 90 000 top-secret documents (reports of soldiers about operations, protocols of surveillance operations, etc) from American military sources about military operations in Afghanistan.

According to news sources (Der Spiegel, 30/2010, pp. 70-86), the documents:

- show that and how special command forces like the US Task Force 373 have killed enemies that are defined on death lists
- document failed operations (including death of civilians)
- document that the Americans and their allies are facing serious problems in the military conflict with the Taliban and Al Qaeda
- document that unmanned fighter drones used in Afghanistan are error prone and have had many accidents

Following the leak of the Afghanistan documents, US government representatives and conservative commentators heavily criticized WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. US National Security Adviser General James Jones said that WikiLeaks “could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security”. Mike Millen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, commented that WikiLeaks “might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family”. Marc Thiessen, a former speech writer for George W. Bush, argued in the Washington Post that WikiLeaks “is a criminal enterprise”, constitutes “material support for terrorism”, and that the “Web site must be shut down and prevented from releasing more documents – and its leadership brought to justice” .

Such statements are strongly twisting reality. They are ideology at its purest. War is always about killing the enemy. In Afghanistan, US soldiers and their allies kill military enemies and, as is known not only since the WikiLeaks documents, this has also resulted in numerous civilian casualties, and Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters kill US and allied soldiers as well as Afghan civilians by suicide attacks. This double-sided violence has created a spiral of attacks and counter-attacks that sadly has caused many casualties. Violence is not caused by the materials published by WikiLeaks that document violence, it is caused by the military conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq themselves. One gets the impression that the US government thinks that military violence does not exist if it is unknown. One is reminded here of the US coverage of anti-Iraq war protests in many US mainstream media, where the protesters were described with terms such as anarchists, violent mob, vandals, rioters, mayhem, chaos, aggressive, etc and the impression was invoked that the main violent problem is not the war itself, but those protesting against the war.

The truth about the WikiLeaks Afghanistan documents is that the platform has the potential to make visible the scale of brutality, violence, and horror of warfare and military conflicts. To uncover and document such realities is uncomfortable for those powerful actors, who want to twist reality by making what really happened in the daily reality of war, corporate crime, and corporate and government corruption unknown. WikiLeaks is a project that makes unknown reality known, it transforms that which is kept secret and invisible by governments and corporations into visible reality.  WikiLeaks can be seen as an alternative media project: it tries to provide information that uncovers the misuse of power by powerful actors, it is an Internet-based medium that enables critiques of power structures.

Power is based on a dialectic of visibility and invisibility: powerful actors want to make their enemies and opponents visible, while they want to remain themselves invisible. They engage in surveillance in order to make visible and in order to keep their own operations and gathered information invisible. Power is always related to making information about enemies and opponents visible, while at the same time making and keeping the collected information intransparent, inaccessible, and secret. WikiLeaks cuts into the power dialectic of visibility of the surveilled and invisibility of the powerful by helping to make invisible power structures visible. This is itself a process of power-making and power-generation because these are processes that try to force visibility on the powerful. WikiLeaks engages in watching the powerful by making their operations and the information gathered by surveillance operations of the powerful visible. During the Vietnam war, television made visible the horror of the killing fields that would have otherwise remained invisible. In a similar fashion, WikiLeaks has made visible hidden and secret realities of warfare today.

WikiLeaks is not politically value-free and neutral in its operations, but no journalist and no medium is neutral, but rather always politically biased because how things are reported, what is not reported, which priority is given to certain stories, which quotation by which person is mentioned first in a story, how often a certain opinion is mentioned in a story, how advertising and funding influences the basic framework of a medium, etc are all political biases. Therefore the publication of the Afghanistan documents on WikiLeaks is certainly a political move intended to help putting and end to the war in Afghanistan. It is political in the same sense that any news article and any TV news report about the Afghan report carries political messages, interests, and intentions. It is politically honest when Julian Assange talks openly about his anti-war motivations in an interview with Der Spiegel: “This material shines light on the everyday brutality and squalor of war. The archive will change public opinion and it will change the opinion of people in positions of political and diplomatic influence. […] There is a mood to end the war in Afghanistan. This information won’t do it alone, but it will shift political will in a significant manner. […] The most dangerous men are those who are in charge of war. And they need to be stopped”. Political honesty is a virtue that many politicians and newsmakers are all too often missing.

Of course it could happen that WikiLeaks publishes fake material. But this can happen and does happen in any mass medium. There are no reasons to assume that it should happen more often on WikiLeaks than in corporate mass media. To the contrary, WikiLeaks does not have the advertising and financial pressure characteristic for the corporate mass media that Chomsky and Herman have characterized as propagandistic filters that distort news reporting. Therefore one should be less concerned about manipulated information on WikiLeaks than one should be concerned about media manipulation in the corporate mass media.

WikiLeaks defines itself in its self-description first of all as a liberal project that protects freedom of speech and tries to strengthen democracy by making government corruption visible: “WikiLeaks is a multi-jurisdictional public service designed to protect whistleblowers, journalists and activists who have sensitive materials to communicate to the public. […] We believe that transparency in government activities leads to reduced corruption, better government and stronger democracies. All governments can benefit from increased scrutiny by the world community, as well as their own people. We believe this scrutiny requires information. Historically that information has been costly – in terms of human life and human rights. But with technological advances – the internet, and cryptography – the risks of conveying important information can be lowered. […] We believe that it is not only the people of one country that keep their government honest, but also the people of other countries who are watching that government. That is why the time has come for an anonymous global avenue for disseminating documents the public should see” (WikiLeaks self-description).

The problem of the WikiLeak self-description is that in the first third of the text, only documenting government corruption is mentioned, whereas documenting corporate irresponsibility and corporate crimes is not. This creates the impression that corrupt governments are the main problem of our world, but not also or not even more corrupt and criminal corporations. The document in its first third conveys a liberal impression that talks about the problems of big government and at the same time – or even by doing so – ignores the problems of capitalism. Fortunately the self-description then takes a twist in a section titled “Does WikiLeaks support corporate whistleblowers?”, where the need for documenting corporate crimes and corporate irresponsibility is discussed:

“It is increasingly obvious that corporate fraud must be effectively addressed. Corporate corruption comes in many forms. […] The number of employees and turnover of some corporations exceeds the population and GDP of some nation states. When comparing countries, after observations of population size and GDP, it is usual to compare the system of government, the major power groupings and the civic freedoms available to their populations. Such comparisons can also be illuminating in the case of corporations. […] While having a GDP and population comparable to Belgium, Denmark or New Zealand, many of these multi-national corporations have nothing like their quality of civic freedoms and protections. This is even more striking when the regional civic laws the company operates under are weak (such as in West Papua, many African states or even South Korea); there, the character of these corporate tyrannies is unobscured by their civilizing surroundings. Through governmental corruption, political influence, or manipulation of the judicial system, abusive corporations are able to gain control over the defining element of government — the sole right to deploy coercive force” (WikiLeaks self-description).

So WikiLeaks fortunately finally makes clear that it explicitly is not only a government watchdog, but also a corporate watchdog. But the first time that corporations are mentioned at all and at the same time mentioned as governments comes relatively late in the document, namely in the passage which says that the “power of principled leaking to embarrass governments, corporations and institutions is amply demonstrated through recent history” (WikiLeaks self-description).

The problem that remains is that in the WikiLeaks self-description, corporate crimes and corporate corruption are only mentioned late, whereas government power is mentioned in the second paragraph. Another problem is the assumption that it is possible to civilize corporations:

“WikiLeaks endeavors to civilize corporations by exposing uncivil plans and behavior. Just like a country, a corrupt or unethical corporation is a menace to all inside and outside it” (WikiLeaks self-description). One can hear daily stories about corporate irresponsibility: stories such as the one that British Petrol caused one of the worst ecological disasters are in all news, that iPods and iPads are produced in China under inhumane conditions by workers who commit suicide because they cannot stand the working conditions, etc cannot be overheard in the media, there are daily stories about child labour, precarious labour conditions, etc. The problem is that such a multitude of stories, and WikiLeaks here is no exception and directly admits this in its self-description, makes us believe that corporate irresponsibility and corporate crimes against humanity are the exception from the rule and can therefore be fixed within capitalism by “civilizing corporations”. But what if corporations are uncivilized as such, if their behaviour is always exploitative and irresponsible? Then capitalism and corporations cannot be civilized, and exposing uncivil plans and behaviour should be aimed at transforming and civilizing the whole.

I applaud the critical political potential of WikiLeaks as corporate and government-Internet watchdog, but think that WikiLeaks’s self-description and self-understanding should be changed as soon as possible.

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