WikiLeaks: The Next Phase of Journalism?

Colin Hannifin

WikiLeaks (which, despite its familiar name and minimalist layout, is not at all associated with Wikipedia) was founded in 2006, with the intent of sharing confidential, sensitive documents for the common, concerned citizen while protecting the identity of the whistle blower. Since then, it has reportedly built up a database of over one million documents.
Despite having a relatively short history, WikiLeaks has enjoyed a powerful impact on world politics, and has had several notable leaks. They range in relevance from a rash of documents concerning Scientology and the contents of Sarah Palin’s Yahoo Account to corruption in the Kenyan government unveiled right before an important election, effectively changing the outcome.
The people behind WikiLeaks, if they weren’t known well before, certainly put themselves on the map this year. In April, they released a video titled “Collateral Murder,” which shows a recording of a 2007 American airstrike on Baghdad. Specifically, the video shows soldiers in an Apache helicopter opening fire on Baghdad civilians, ultimately killing twelve—including two Reuters journalists, whose camera equipment had been mistaken for weaponry. The leak lit up the web, and rage poured forth from the American government and military—but journalists and consumers ate up the information and, with interests piqued, began paying more attention.
Since then, the popularity of WikiLeaks has increased substantially, even though the rate of leaks has diminished. In a recent TED talk, Julian Assange, editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, commented that this was due to being under-staffed as well as a revamp of the site. Notable leaks still dribble out, including the “Afghan War Diary,” which WikiLeaks refers to as “an extraordinary compendium of over 91,000 reports covering the war in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2010.”
As previously mentioned, the nature of WikiLeaks’ work has left many governments stilted and angry, including our own. Posting sensitive or classified documents on the Internet is no small-time prank, and the U.S. government, for one, responded accordingly—angrily. WikiLeaks has been lambasted by the White House, NATO and more for releasing documents which it is felt could put American soldiers in harm’s way. Similarly, when it came apparent that the leak of the video of the air strike was provided by Army Spc. Bradley Manning, according to the Washington Post, the US military wasted little time in retaining Manning, and is currently considering leveraging charges against Assange himself.
It seems, for its stated purpose, WikiLeaks is performing splendidly. They have leaked thousands upon thousands of documents, often at the expense of political goodwill, and only one of their sources has been discovered—and that was by fault of his own (turning to a friend online), not of WikiLeaks. However, it’s too easy to put blind trust in an organization like this—and who would we be if we were not skeptical of even the whistle blowers?
WikiLeaks claims to have a substantial vetting process. They get many, many documents, and each one is taken in, vetted, formatted correctly then released as appropriate. Upon receipt of a document, according to WikiLeaks “About Us” page, it is immediately stored at servers around the world (to ensure it won’t be lost) and all information about the submitter is erased—if it was ever taken up. In this way, the true source is anonymous, even to those within WikiLeaks. At that point, it is vetted by the staff, who, like Assange himself, are unpaid volunteers. These volunteers try their best to verify the information, and to remove any information that might cause harm. According to July’s TED talk, WikiLeaks has a strict harm minimalization policy.

Ultimately, however, the documents that come out of WikiLeaks—just as with any organization, be it journalistic or governmental—is only as trustworthy as the process behind it. WikiLeaks preaches transparency and openness—yet they must keep their sources and processes well-guarded. Users of WikiLeaks are putting faith in the behind-the-scenes work that cannot be verified, that WikiLeaks will not post fraudulent material (accidentally or otherwise) and that the staff are truly dedicated to transparency and open news, and do not have a ulterior motive.
Evidence, however, has been on WikiLeaks side. Perhaps the strongest evidence of the WikiLeaks power is the reaction of the governments. It is so strong that Assange has to carefully monitor where he is scheduled to make appearances for federal agents. He has had to cancel several U.S. speaking engagements due to the presence of federal agents, and the TED talk in July was previously unannounced. Assange himself has come under further, seemingly unrelated trouble—namely, allegations of rape in Sweden. Assange insists the encounter was consensual, but this public relations nightmare has greatly damaged the reputation of WikiLeaks. Assange, as the editor-in-chief, has been largely WikiLeaks public face, one that many associate with the site—when his name gets tarnished, so too does that of the site.
There is little doubt that WikiLeaks—or an organization similar—has a role in world journalism, if only for now. It remains to be seen where WikiLeaks will go from here, but their insistence on sharing not only the story and analysis, but the source documentation for any user to download is setting a new precedence on transparency within the world of journalism. No longer will notes on a given report be enough—WikiLeaks gives us the ability to see the actual report. There is nothing more empowering to the people, to voters, as information, which is WikiLeaks’ number one product. As evidenced in Kenya, this information has the power to change the world, if only the people pay attention.
Our current president swept into office promising increased governmental transparency and a new age of openness. It turns out that President Obama was right—but who predicted it’d come at the hands of a nearly 40-year-old Australian man with sharp gray hair and on the run from federal agents?

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