As The Guardian’s John Naughton has pointed out, there is a delicious irony to the relatively indiscriminate way in which Wikileaks has attacked the sacred cows of the left and the right. It was Wikileaks, remember, that published the hacked emails of UK climate researchers — leaks which commentators and politicians on the right were happy to seize upon as incontrovertible evidence of a giant cover-up in climate science.
Now that Wikileaks has turned the blowtorch on the cherished organs of US national security, those same right wing commentators are calling for punitive action to shut down the organisation.
Many on the left have been equally discomforted, as the confused and savage reaction of many in the Australian Labor Party demonstrates. As Simon Longstaff argued yesterday on The Drum, "it would seem incumbent on those who criticise Wikileaks to renounce the use of leaks in general".
As with every revolution, Wikileaks has also forced politicians, corporations and officials to make snap decisions about where they stand — and with whom they stand. In the case of US internet firms like Amazon and PayPal, that decision was to side quickly and decisively with the US government. Further down in his article, Naughton makes the point that:
the attack of WikiLeaks also ought to be a wake-up call for anyone who has rosy fantasies about whose side cloud computing providers are on … you should not put your faith in cloud computing – one day it will rain on your parade.
The other really penetrating account of Wikileaks comes from European media theorists Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens. In "Twelve Theses on Wikileaks", they make a number of telling observations — including that some of the most uncomfortable Wikileaks revelations involve the rapidly declining potency of the media itself. They write:
The steady decline of investigative journalism caused by diminishing funding is an undeniable fact. Journalism these days amounts to little more than outsourced PR remixing. The continuous acceleration and over-crowding of the so-called attention economy ensures there is no longer enough room for complicated stories. The corporate owners of mass circulation media are increasingly disinclined to see the workings and the politics of the global neoliberal economy discussed at length. The shift from information to infotainment has been embraced by journalists themselves, making it difficult to publish complex stories. WikiLeaks enters this state of affairs as an outsider, enveloped by the steamy ambiance of "citizen journalism", DIY news reporting in the blogosphere and even faster social media like Twitter.
Or, as Assange told the Sydney Morning Herald back in June, "how is it that a team of five people has managed to release to the public more suppressed information, at that level, than the rest of the world press combined? It’s disgraceful."
Instead, of course, much of the media coverage has concentrated on Julian Assange’s sensational personal conduct, and the sexual assault allegations levelled against him by two Swedish women.
This is a different — although obviously connected — issue. It should be possible to distinguish the Wikileaks website and organisation from the personal conduct of Julian Assange. If allegations presented to the British court by Swedish authorities are true — allegations which have yet to be tested — Assange has committed a crime.
It is frankly disturbing to see many on the left who one would expect to see defending the rights of women, like Naomi Wolf (Naomi Wolf!) make disparaging remarks about the seriousness of these allegation. One of the allegations is for a rape under Swedish law: a non-consensual sex act in which Assange allegedly forced the claimant’s legs open and of ‘"[used]his body weight to hold [her]down in a sexual manner." The facts of this matter can and should be established in a free and fair judicial process. But as a matter of principle, no should still mean no.
Ultimately, the importance of Wikileaks may be that it is beginning to reveal the contours of a new sort of social contract between citizens and their rulers: a type of relationship that historian and academic John Keane has called "monitory democracy." For Keane, "monitory democracy is a new historical type of democracy, a variety of‘ ‘post-Westminster’ politics defined by the rapid growth of many different kinds of extra-parliamentary, power-scrutinising mechanisms."
Monitory democracy, in which non-government and non-media organisations start to exert meaningful and impactful scrutiny of the state and the corporation, holds the promise for a more balanced informational relationship between ordinary citizens and the power elites. But it also implies some disturbing corollaries.
There is a reason conservative commentators are likening Wikileaks to a kind of informational terrorist group: it uses its military-grade encryption tools for the political goal of destabilising governments and states. In this sense, Wikileaks and especially Anonymous, the hacking group suspected of attacking Amazon, Visa and other sites in retaliation for the Wikileaks crackdown, are "non-state actors" — the term given by security and international relations analysts to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda.
We aren’t really at the beginning of the first global "information war", but there is a grain of truth to the claims that the willingness of hackers and cyber-activists to attack web infrastructure represents something new and important. And in this analysis, the flip-side of monitory democracy is informational insurrection.
This is the second of two articles by Ben Eltham on Wikileaks. Read the first here.
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