Wikileaks: Dilemmas in the age of social media

One of the first global dilemmas of the age of social media is the tension between individual security and freedom of information. The dilemma is illustrated by the actions of Julian Assange and the Wikileaks website following the release of the Afgan war diaries in 2010

A BBC account provides a brief history of Wikileaks which was founded in 2004. The story as a global issue has become inter-connected with the turbulent private life of its charismatic founder Julian Assange.

According to its own website, the mission of Wikileaks is:

…the defence of freedom of speech and media publishing, the improvement of our common historical record and the support of the rights of all people to create new history. We derive these principles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In particular, Article 19 inspires the work of our journalists and other volunteers. It states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. We agree, and we seek to uphold this and the other Articles of the Declaration.

…The great American president Thomas Jefferson once observed that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. We believe the journalistic media plays a key role in this vigilance.

From its origins as a little-known freedom of information site in 2004, Wikileaks became a globally significant source of news in 2010 with its publicising of a vast cache of leaked documents about the War in Afghanistan. Recognising the dilemma of security versus freedom of information, it withheld information its own censored considered would put individuals at risk. It also chose to release news via three traditional news sources, the New York Times, Germany’s Der Speigel and the UK’s Guardian. The process led to Wikileaks being described as the first stateless news organization

The distinguished journalist Jay Rosen quickly noticed the significance of the strategy.

The WikiLeaks report presented a unique dilemma to the three papers given advance copies of the 92,000 reports included in the Afghan war logs — the New York Times, Germany’s Der Speigel and the UK’s Guardian. The editors couldn’t verify the source of the reports – as they would have done if their own staffers had obtained them – and they couldn’t stop WikiLeaks from posting it, whether they wrote about it or not. So they were basically left with proving veracity through official sources and picking through the pile for the bits that seemed to be the most truthful. Notice how effective this combination is. The information is released in two forms: vetted and narrated to gain old media cred, and released online in full text, Internet-style, which corrects for any timidity or blind spot the editors at Der Spiegel, The Times or the Guardian may show.

Daniel Ellsberg, the man who released the Pentagon Papers in 1971, has been a frequent defender of WikiLeaks. In contrast,
Reporters Without Borders sent an open letter to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange

Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom organisation, regrets the incredible irresponsibility you showed when posting your article “Afghan War Diary 2004 – 2010” on the Wikileaks website on 25 July together with 92,000 leaked documents disclosing the names of Afghans who have provided information to the international military coalition that has been in Afghanistan since 2001.

Assange and conspiracy theories

Meanwhile, the founder figure of Wikileaksfaces criminal changes for alleged sexual offences in Sweden. Conspiracy theorists are claiming that the charges are politically motivated. A summary of the Assange allegations can be found in the BBC account.

When partners fall out

The Guardian, one of the newspapers entrusted with a cache of wikileaks, is now [Feb 2011] embroiled in a dispute with Julian Assage. According to its friendly rival The Independent

Mr Assange divides the Left. He appals many women. Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy [a book published by The Guardian] is an attempt to separate the message from the messenger. It may succeed, but probably not completely. If Mr Assange should end up in a Swedish jail, on sex charges rather than because he has infuriated the US government, the reputation of WikiLeaks, and potentially that of its newspaper collaborators, is likely to suffer.

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