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In the wake of the latest release of classified documents by WikiLeaks, a number of people have asked me if the leaks are simply a reflection of the growing importance of social media – with its emphasis on citizen journalism, transparency and candid conversation. My answer to them is no. WikiLeaks has little in common with the ethos of Web 2.0, and it certainly doesn’t represent the best of social media. Here are my reasons:
- WikiLeaks doesn’t really qualify as a transparent activity. Though it could be argued there is transparency in making public previously confidential or buried documents (that are confirmed as authentic) the whole process around the leaks has been opaque. In fact, the leaks are closer to a secretive publicity stunt than a public service. As per the modus operandi of the site, the original source of the leaked documents is still uncertain – though an American soldier has been charged.
- The importance of transparency in social media is often discussed in tandem with honesty. On that front WikiLeaks is on equally weak ground. First, the cables and memos were specifically written for select individuals or small groups. Clearly, they were released without the consent of the original authors and recipients. Second, WikiLeaks provides no insight on the value or accuracy of the leaked materials, essentially refusing to take any responsibility for the content. Third, it appears the documents were obtained illegally. WikiLeaks isn’t talking under the guise of protecting its sources.
- It’s difficult to argue the leaked information hasn’t fueled active conversation – the foundation of social media – but it’s less certain the discourse has been positive or beneficial to anyone involved. Much like dialogue preaching hate or racism is discouraged, one could argue the nasty brush fires sparked by the leaks has done little but raise tension between countries. On the other hand, the ethical debate around the leaks themselves has been constructive.
- Even in the fluid and informal world of social media, there are norms of conduct and rules of engagement. Most participants follow these informal guidelines and/or corporate policies and there’s often a visceral reaction in online communities against those that refuse to follow rules – which are typically designed to ensure the quality of the content and conversation. It’s not clear what rules or guidelines WikiLeaks subscribes to beyond acting as a clearing-house for documents that can bring to light – and help redress – human right abuses and criminal activity.
- Social media puts a big emphasis on valuable, relevant content. What I’ve seen from the recent WikiLeaks exercise is a massive, haphazard package of confidential diplomatic memos that may have more value to conspiracy theorists and spies than ordinary readers. The value of the materials is left for the reader to decide, and the benefits to any community (if any) are unclear.
- Most fans of social media would agree that sharing information comes with responsibility. There’s a glaring absence of common sense and judgement around the leaks. Many observers are concerned the leaks could result in serious diplomatic problems, and even compromise the safety of officials listed in the documents. Whether that’s true or not is apparently of no concern to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has claimed that releasing the material is in the public interest…but has not explained why or how that is the case.
I’ve heard some pundits arguing this leak follows in the grand tradition of rule-breaking muckracking, like the celebrated events surrounding the Watergate scandal. And if I take Assange at his word, I applaud his commitment to release any information that brings to light abuses and other criminal behaviour. But again, the context here is totally different than Watergate or even the Iraq war. There is no obvious scandal or political crime to uncover here, merely thousands of sensitive diplomatic discussions (containing predictable off-color candor) that serve no obvious public purpose and clearly put negotiations at risk. The leaks are closer to political gossip than investigative journalism.
There has been robust discussion about whether the leaks should be protected under the First Amendment – more specifically freedom of the press. (Conservative pundits, in particular, are happy to see an independent watchdog tweak the nose of the U.S. Government.) I’m not a legal scholar so I can’t answer the constitutional question, but the real issue isn’t whether WikiLeaks can make this information public, but whether it should.