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Guest Thinkers

How WikiLeaks Is Affecting Journalism

Now that the dust has settled after the immediate reaction to WikiLeak’s release of secret Afghan war logs, clearer lines can be drawn concerning the event’s significance. The most fundamental distinction to be drawn is between the technical and moral implications of the leak. Today I will look at the technical implications, on Wednesday, the moral ones.

From a technical standpoint, the event is a sign post for how news organizations function in the information age and how small non-state actors can hold governments accountable (governments whose resources are incomparable in scale).

On the first point, how news producers work nowadays, a democratized media means that everything not behind a paywall is instantly copied and repeated on the Internet. As a result, a general economic rule holds: scarcity makes information much more precious. This is why The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel made WikiLeak’s release of the war logs a big story—they had a guaranteed exclusive. The extent to which people are willing to pay for exclusive information could help news organizations decide whether or not to erect paywalls.

The second point, that literally a handful of people have rocked the world’s most powerful government, is a testament to the group’s ability to exist beyond the reach of legal systems, thanks in large part to their adroit computer skills. But it is this same power that makes many uncomfortable with WikiLeaks. Members of the organization seem to be adept hackers, but what if they used their power for evil rather than good? And what of WikiLeak’s as the champion of transparency? They are a highly secretive organization. WikiLeak’s argument is that as a small organization whose ambition to challenge authority greatly outweighs its resources, its enemies are numerous and powerful.

A bridge to the moral side of the story, which I’ll discuss in more depth on Wednesday, is this: the sovereign state, famously defined by Max Weber, is that entity which has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. If you raise arms against it, it will end you, unless of course you succeed (a coup d’état) in which case you become the new sovereign. 

If WikiLeaks did release the names of Afghan informants serving the U.S. military, which remains conjecture, the definition of ‘sovereign’ is put into question in the same way terrorist organizations subvert the state’s monopoly on violence. 

In this case, the ease—okay, it’s not that easy; WikiLeaks’ members sound like good hackers—the ability to easily distribute information magnifies a small organization’s power. One American associated with WikiLeaks has already been interrogated by the FBI, and some are advocating that stricter measures be taken. A response to that advocacy is made here by Raffi Khatchadourian at The New Yorker, who has also written the most extensive and thoughtful exposé on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks in general.

On Wednesday I’ll ask and answer if WikiLeaks is a net boon for the world, or an overall villain.


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