Wikileaks certainly could be considered a model of the collaborative, somewhat anonymous Wikipedia (only with classified information rather than “public knowledge”) and I’m sure you could consider it file trading from one person to another.. But that’s as far as it goes with those two. Even if they do resemble these models, I’m not sure that means it is trying to be as much of a comparable program as the other two options (online journalism and hacking).
Here’s where I have to take issue with the provided question: I believe that online journalism practically entails hacking these days, as it is quite inevitable that no matter how much journalistic integrity your work tries to preserve, once you open a can of worms online about a controversial topic, someone is going to dig deeper — and Julian Assange is certainly not one to hold back on the digging.
In order to respond to this blog prompt, I decided to take a look at how wikipedia defines “hacking”, and it gave a few options, but the one I deemed most appropriate was the one about “computer security” (I’m pretty sure the key issue, after all, is information security). Wikipedia tells me that a “hacker” is “a person who breaks into computers and computer networks for profit, as protest, or sometimes by the motivation of the challenge.” This sounds exactly like how Wikileaks was described to me. The documentary even began by discussing how Assange began hacking as a kid in Australia, going so far as to include NASA in his targets. He apparently wanted to correct injustice and create a worldwide movement and political weapon, which (according to Wikipedia’s definition of a hacker) sounds something like a protest or a challenge to the rest of the world. Assange certainly made use of the most talented hackers in the world, many of which were at his disposal.
However there is still the journalism aspect, which I am sure cannot go unmentioned. Certainly all four options closely compare to Wikileaks, but the documentary continued to hammer in the idea that Wikileaks was motivated by some sort of overarching journalistic mission. It was a fight for free access to information. His choices in what and where to publish his information were quite grounded in freedom of information laws, leading to his decision to go to Sweden where the law permitted publication of a lot more than most nations – making it a sort of safe haven from which he could publish his information. Freedom of the press in Sweden compared to most nations was, in a word, freest. In a way this was a battle against censorship, a battle against what the press is allowed to know or say. Wikileaks was shrouded in secrecy because it realistically was a threat to national security.
This may be a sign of a new revolution in media: a new intense desire to have open access in journalism – no secrets, no reliance on traditional, tired stories. Assange and Wikileaks were able to get “more scoops than the Washington Post in the last 30 years” according to Daniel Domscheit-Berg. If the former spokesperson of Wikileaks refers to their information as “scoops” then I don’t know how anyone else could not refer to it as journalism or news. They have apparently released more stories in the past three years than all the news agencies in the world.
So here’s where the hacking comes into play… how about we just combine the two into one new theory — that journalism can’t exist in the future without a reconstruction of its standards, one that calls for a reevaluation of what it means to hack, and what methods of accessing information are realistic vs. unethical.
The “power factor” in the new media landscape is a tremendous one. The helicopter footage got the attention of some of the biggest players in the news industry, and the business itself was able to help distribute the rest of Wikileaks’ material. Wikileaks was able to contact some of the biggest names in news (The Guardian, NY Times) and have their material published in a coordinated fashion, with them pulling the strings. Competitive organizations would otherwise be rivals to access this information, but in a way with this separate, non-respected “journaistic” entity feeding the information, it made for a tamer way of the main organizations accessing the stories.
Assange was able to use a network of experienced journalists to put out his next publication. Though the US claimed that this wasn’t an act of journalism or transparency but a political war against us, the information was released in a way very treated somewhat similar to any other breaking news story in the media. However the fact that the American hackers were detained, questioned, and had their computers confiscated, was a sign that this event was quite different. News reporters would be treated quite differently, and that’s why these “sources of information” were treated as hackers rather than journalists.
Wikileaks certainly functioned like a news organization in the fashion they decided to release information (and they are rethinking it now). Rather than, as Domscheit-berg suggested, leaking information step by step and growing the project, the biggest releases were just thrown out there in order to get attention; all of the effort and resources were put into producing these releases. When he eventually started OpenLeaks, it was meant to serve that journalistic purpose: an aggregator or online distribution service to distribute material online to the media. He wanted it to be a service provider for third parties looking to distribute material through anonymous online sources.
I think if Wikileaks is going anywhere (besides being a political lightning rod, which it certainly does enjoy), this is what it is. At the very least, it is paving the way for journalistic organizations to attempt new ways of accessing important information and new standards for what should reasonably be protected under freedom of the press. Hackers are certainly looked down upon now, but it is inevitable that they will hold all the cards in the future.