The Internet has been a tremendously empowering tool for people who have felt their voices have gone unheard by their government, the media, organized religion, and Wall Street. Armed with a laptop, a cell phone camera, and YouTube, anyone can play investigative reporter, or spy, or even amateur celebrity photographer. On its face, technology can be hugely democratizing.
Unfortunately, these same tools—combined with an angry and disenfranchised public—have led to a destructive trend. Too many people have lost the ability to distinguish between speaking truth to power and just being an irresponsible jerk.
This is how we have come to endure WikiLeaks—and its founder, former computer hacker Julian Assange—in our lives. The organization has released more than a quarter of a million documents related to U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy online. Advance disclosure was given to major news organizations, providing a clue to what WikiLeaks’s priority is: getting attention.
Some of the information in the documents is not surprising, and—as Glenn Kessler smartly noted in the Washington Post’s account—has been long-rumored in diplomatic circles. Some of it is fascinating, providing a window into how countries and their leaders deal with each other. But much of it also deteriorates into pure gossip and accomplishes nothing except to damage delicate negotiations and relationships. This balance is measured all the time by legitimate news organizations when they obtain previously unpublished documents or information. Does the public have a right to know the information? Does the public interest—and public interest cannot be defined as simple prurience—outweigh the dangers releasing the information could cause?
The Pentagon Papers fall into the category of documents Americans had the right to know about; reporting troop movements during wartime does not meet that standard. But Assange and his group appear not to have made any attempt at all at making responsible judgments about what to release. The reports of what U.S. diplomats think of various foreign leaders, for example, do nothing to check the behavior or authority of the State Department; they just puts a chill on future conversations and observations which necessarily must be frank and private. While the release of the documents is, on its face, a challenge to powerful governments and leaders, it serves more to enhance the power of Assange and WikiLeaks. Armed with a computer, a confidential source, and a list of major media outlets, Assange and his team can make governments afraid or embarrassed. That’s not the mission of journalism; it’s high-stakes paparazzi behavior.
Secrecy for its own sake is not only destructive to democracy; it’s often silly. When I was reporting in Ukraine in the 1990s, a Western businessman told me he could not distribute a memo to staffers as he had done in his home country. Initially, he would print out a single memo and list the names of recipients. Each was supposed to read it, check off his or her name, and then send the memo off to the next person on the list. Unfortunately, few did this. They saw information of any kind as power, and to share information was to share power. Employees would read the memo, then quietly put it in their desk drawers. When the businessman realized hardly anyone knew about the holiday office party—since someone on the list considered this secret information he was unwilling to share—the intra-office communication strategy had to change.
But WikiLeaks does not operate according to the standard of the public’s right, or need, to know. It is the complete opposite—and paradoxically, the same—as the behavior of the post-communist era Ukrainian staffers. WikiLeaks has information, and uses it to advance its own power, irrespective of whether the disclosures enhance democracy or national security or even the right of Americans to understand how their government operates.
The news organizations which reported the WikiLeaks information cannot be held to the same standard; once the documents were out there (or scheduled to be released online), it was impossible for media outlets to ignore them. Further, the documents are better discussed in context, as newspapers have done. Armed with perhaps the most powerful weapon—a computer—WikiLeaks ought to accept the responsibility that comes with it.