At the Crossroads of Media, Culture and Technology

WikiLeaks and the Conspiracy Problem

Writing in 2006 as the president of a then unnamed NGO and Australia’s “most infamous former hacker,” Julian Assange noted that “foresight requires trustworthy information about the current state of the world, cognitive ability to draw predictive inferences and economic stability to give them a meaningful home… secrecy, malfeasance and unequal access have eaten into the first requirement of foresight (‘truth and lots of it’).”

He then noted that “foresight can produce outcomes that leave all major interests groups better off. Likewise the lack of it, or doing the dumb thing, can harm almost everyone. Computer scientists have long had a great phrase for the dependency of foresight on trustworthy information; ‘garbage in, garbage out.”

That phrase would recur in Assange’s writings later that year. On December 6th, he published on his personal website an essay on state conspiracies in which he wrote “Since a conspiracy is a type of cognitive device that acts on information acquired from its environment, distorting or restricting these inputs means acts based on them are likely to be misplaced. Programmers call this effect garbage in, garbage out. Usually the effect runs the other way; it is conspiracy that is the agent of deception and information restriction. In the US, the programmer’s aphorism is sometimes called ‘the Fox News effect.’”

Wherever on the political spectrum Assange situates his more anarchist tendencies, his reference to Fox News is confusing. On the one hand, he is obviously linking Fox News’ rather tendentious relationship to political reality to pejorative terms like distortion and disinformation.

On the other hand, there must be something about the functional consequences of this practice that appealed to Assange, because he goes on to adopt the same language to describe positively a potential set of responses to state conspiracy:

To deal with powerful conspiratorial actions we must think ahead and attack the process that leads to them since the actions themselves can not be dealt with. We can deceive or blind a conspiracy by distorting or restricting the information available to it. We can reduce total conspiratorial power via unstructured attacks on links or through throttling and separating. A conspiracy sufficiently engaged in this manner is no longer able to comprehend its environment and plan robust action.”

Wikileaks was launched in December of 2006 as well, and it is within this context that we should consider Assange’s concerns about state conspiracies. For Assange, conspiracies are terribly banal. In effect, any sufficiently developed governing agency conspires as part of its nature. Authority breeds authoritarian impulses which are necessarily predicated upon conspiracy, whether the conspiracy involves fabricated evidence of weapons of mass destruction or simple backroom dealing between politically connected agents. Wikileaks is, in effect, the actualization of the solution – distorting, throttling, separating – that Assange had previously hypothesized in the above essay.

Indeed, on December 31st, in his last personal post of 2006, Assange suggested that reading his essay on state conspiracy “while thinking about how different structures of power are differentially affected by leaks” will help its “motivations…become clearer.” The goal of his writing and ostensibly of Wikileaks is to crush conspiracy by making it paranoid of itself:

The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive ‘secrecy tax’) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power…

It is really only in this context that we can begin to understand the problems posed by the recent #wikileaks story. It is increasingly common to hear that #wikileaks is a watershed moment in Internet history, that it comprises the frontline battle in the first global information war, all because of the unparalleled response to WikiLeaks on the part of the world’s governments.

But this response, this overreaction, this sense of responding to a threat was, if we believe its founder, the core motivation for the site’s development in the first place. It was a site designed to provoke, to impose a “secrecy tax” and produce “system decline” in governments that were, by definition, conspiracies. As such, we might do better to be shocked not by the outrage expressed by various governments, politicians and pundits, but instead to be shocked by how long it took them to take the bait.

Wikileaks has been leaking stories and information for just over four years. They’ve played host for documents on subjects as varied as state sanctioned assassinations and banking malfeasance, detainee handling at GITMO and the secret lore of Scientology, manipulative climate scientists and congressional research services reports. In 2010 alone, they were responsible for leaked documents dealing with a 2007 Baghdad airstrike, nearly 100,000 documents on the state of the war in Afghanistan, including incidents of friendly fire and civilian casualties, and 400,00 documents related to past and present operations in Iraq. And yet the current kerfuffle, the start of the so called global information war, didn’t really begin until after the leak of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables on November 28 of this year.

Let’s be realistic: of all the leaks to date, the petty vices, condescension, and manipulations of the world’s diplomats and heads of state are hardly the most controversial content WikiLeaks has “exposed.”

Why, then, has this particular release ignited such a firestorm of controversy? Why have the reactions on the part of many officials, pundits and partisans been so vitriolic? And how should we contextualize the #wikileaks story amidst open government, press freedoms, and efforts at providing information transparency?

Answering these questions requires that we think pretty carefully about the stories we want to be telling ourselves. We use that term of art a lot around these parts – storytelling – and as a person trained in rhetoric, I’ve always found the term valuable. It’s useful because it concisely gives a name to the idea that the stories we tell (and the stories we believe) frame a significant amount of how we understand the world. As creatures who make symbolic sense of the world around us, narrative structures do an incredible amount of cognitive work for us.

At the same time, storytelling also implies story-listening, or critical reading, or whatever you want to call the idea that the stories we read or hear deserve serious introspection.

It may surprise most of you reading this that I don’t really believe in evolution. Oh, it’s probably true, and if you asked me about it, I’d tell you it’s far more likely to be true than something like creationism or intelligent design, but in reality I’m mostly unconcerned with its veracity. I’m far more interested in what the story of evolution, or of creationism, or whatever, tells us about how we see or should see ourselves. I want to know how we’re positioned as a result of the story.

In a similar fashion, I don’t think there’s some definitive, appropriate response to or comprehensive summation of the #wikileaks event, but there are a lot of stories, and some of them are, I think, more problematic than others.

I will no doubt be exceeding the boundaries of polite posting length already, so I won’t address all of them, but I will highlight two stories worth some critical attention: first, #wikileaks and information warfare, and second, #wikileaks and open democracy.

Info War!

The information warfare narrative goes something like this: information wants to be free, the Internet wants to be free to provide the information that wants to be free, the governments of the world can’t really prevent the Internet from sharing this information but they try really hard to do so and in the process engage in horribly unjust and authoritarian behavior, and while the leakers and information warriors will no doubt win in the end, we should recognize that we are in the midst of this global information war so that we might properly arm and or align ourselves. I’ve seen a lot of smart people discuss #wikileaks in these terms, including Roberto Arguedas, Robert Cringely,  and Xeni Jardin, among others. Brett Horvath, who offered fantastic contributions to Friday’s #opensecrets discussion at the Seattle Public Library, told the audience at one point that “if you could leave this room with one thing, it’s that there’s information warfare going on at all times…”

This “cry havoc and let slip the hacks of war” mentality reminds me of John Perry Barlow’s “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” written in response to the Communications Decency Act, a tacked-on provision to the 1996 Telecommunications Reform Act. The CDA was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court, but when the bill first became law Barlow saw it as nothing less than an attempt to colonize and tyrannize a brave new democratic frontier.

He declared that the governments of the world, those “weary giants of flesh and steel” and their “increasingly obsolete information industries” were using laws “in America and elsewhere, that claim to own speech itself throughout the world… These increasingly hostile and colonial measures place us in the same position as those previous lovers of freedom and self-determination who had to reject the authorities of distant, uninformed powers. We must declare our virtual selves immune to your sovereignty…” The rhetoric of a digital revolutionary war here is striking, and it highlights that the “information war,” like all ill-defined “wars,” has been underway for quite some time.

Barlow was writing in response to government efforts to regulate free speech online, especially offensive speech. His sense of an information war was related, but different, to that which we see with WikiLeaks. Barlow’s “Declaration” is a direct homage to the Declaration of Independence that ushered in the American experiment, the casting off of shackles from a British empire that exploited its colonies and regulated their citizens without their consent or representation.

With WikiLeaks, the goal is much more grandiose; rather than seek independence from the weary giants of flesh and steel, the leakers hope to shake their very foundations and see if they can still function as they once did. Barlow’s Declaration wanted to be left alone. Assange’s WikiLeaks, by contrast, is out to make conspiracies and conspirators paranoid of themselves, and in so doing gut their ability to continue as such. In reaction, various agents of various governments are wandering around acting as heinously and as stupidly as possible (which I suppose is the result of that system-wide cognitive decline Assange hyped back in 2006).

The problem with these us vs. them (or them vs. them, depending on your perspective) characterizations is that they don’t adequately get at the complexities wrapped up in the idea of information warfare, a complexity all too keenly sensed by many advocates of the infowar narrative. Information control implies give and take, the prevention of some information and the provision of others. It implies the red-light/green-light game applied to information, but it also implies a whole range of manipulations in the yellow-light middle of the spectrum. Governments react to forces or agents who challenge their information supremacy (so the story goes), but they also “handle” those sources, supplying some bits of information most useful to the cause – whatever that cause might be.

A prime example surfaced in Friday night’s #opensecrets conversation, and it had surfaced in a number of other online conversations about #wikileaks, including the amazingly insightful Jay Rosen, who identified the example in question as the hour of the press’s “greatest humiliation.” The example? Judith Miller and her aluminum tubes. On September 8, 2002, the now infamous story graced the New York Times, suggesting that aluminum tubes purchased by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq could really only be used to advance their nuclear weapons program. The Sunday talk shows were replete with White House officials pointing to the article’s “findings” and suggesting (as did the article) that the final proof may arrive in the form of a mushroom cloud.

We know now that the tubes were not used for the nuclear program, and that administration officials had used “anonymity” of source information and the desire of a competitive media outlet to be “first to the story” to get the story into print. The method worked like this: leak the story to the reporters even though the information requires conjecture and anonymity, launder the information by then citing the paper as an objective investigative record, rather than citing the conjecture of anonymous administration officials, and then assert the need for quick, coordinated action.

This bit of information manipulation worked because the administration found reporters willing to report as the script required, not out of malfeasance, but out of a good faith desire to adhere to (bad) journalistic standards for reporting. And the manipulation worked because the New York Times, the paper of record, did not properly question or vet the information. As Rosen suggests:

This was the nadir. This was when the watchdog press fell completely apart: On that Sunday when Bush Administration officials peddling bad information anonymously put the imprimatur of the New York Times on a story that allowed other Bush Administration officials to dissemble about the tubes and manipulate fears of a nuclear nightmare on television, even as they knew they were going to war anyway.

Let’s assume that press outlets have learned, at least slightly, from the mistakes made by the New York Times. As the old saying goes, “fool me once, shame on — [pause] — shame on you. Fool me — [pause] — You can’t get fooled again.”

Alas, whatever lessons learned about the citing of sources, the use of anonymity, and the vetting of claims of fact, these lessons are largely irrelevant if. as an institution, a news outlet has none of these procedures in place, and opts instead merely to publish and make available raw data as is the case with WikiLeaks. Jimmy Carter’s former National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, has suggested that while much of the diplomatic cables seems trivial, some of the more concentrated document dumps all seem to help particular political positions or other state interests (the relative lack of any serious commentary on Israeli officials, for example, coupled with documents asserting widespread Arab support for a military strike on Iran). Brzezinski:

Seeding — seeding it is very easy. I have no doubt that WikiLeaks is getting a lot of the stuff from sort of relatively unimportant sources, like the one that perhaps is identified on the air. But it may be getting stuff at the same time from interested intelligence parties who want to manipulate the process and achieve certain very specific objectives.

And while the NYT has certain editorial procedures in place, even if and when they fail, it is nonetheless understood that what they publish reflects upon their editorial policies.

By publishing the raw data without any selection protocols, without any serious vetting or document verification procedures, WikiLeaks presents the information as being both unfiltered (and hence more “true”) and uninhibited by other ethical considerations (revealing Iranian businessmen who provide pro-Western support, for example).

The appearance of unmediated, raw data lends a sense of honesty and openness to the document dump, but if the document collection is itself “seeded” with information representative of or resonant with particular sets of interest, then we’re talking about the same sort of press manipulation we saw at work with Judith Miller taking place, but with a veneer of significantly more robust “truthiness.”

Is Brzezinski right? I have no idea. I’m not concerned with the truth of the claim – it’s a conspiracy about a conspiracy about a conspiracy to uncover conspiracies. As such validation is hardly necessary or even appropriate. But one can’t invoke the specter of an ongoing information warfare without ratcheting up and accounting for all the potential permutations.

This is why I think calls for “radical transparency” simply do not work within the context of the discourse of information warfare: if you assume a certain set of operations as precepts (information is controlled by those in power; those in power use information to control those not in power or who challenge that power; the worthy goal is to put truth to power by exposing power’s hidden operations), then you can never be confident that information that appears as a challenge to (some of those who are) powerful is in reality not another aspect of the information war.

What seems like a sudden burst of truth, a powerful spotlight on secrecy, may in fact be highlighting one set of “truths” while keeping others more readily in the dark, since all the attention has now gone elsewhere. Political objectives can be accomplished by different shadowy political operatives by exposing other shadowy agents with whom they maintain substantive policy or partisan disagreements.

I’m not suggesting that this is the case. Rather I’m suggesting that when we tell ourselves that the story of #wikileaks is the story of a budding or full-fledged information war, we encounter what critical and cultural studies scholars sometimes refer to as hegemony, a set of powerful discursive operations (the “info war”) so pervasive, so amorphous, so all-encompassing that it is the Big Bad and the conspiracy behind the Big Bad and the solution to the Big Bad that hides the other Really Big Bad all at once.

As an expository device, it seems pretty powerful, in that it explains a lot – motivations, consequences, the scope of the challenges – but in reality, it explains too much, without sufficient nuance, and as such there’s always the risk of an infinite regression (behind this door is the key to another door behind which is the key to another door behind which is the key, and so on – there’s always one more door before we get to the truth of things). As such, it’s an argumentative cul-de-sac, a sort of Phantom Tollbooth world in which there’s no real way out once you latch on to the rather polarizing set of assumptions underlying the information warfare plotline.

The story of information warfare, then, is the story of the struggle – not a story of solutions.

Now, sadly, and to no one’s credit, the television and radio waves are awash with folks condemning Assange, suggesting that his swift imprisonment or assassination would be a swell idea, and just generally fuming at the mouth about WikiLeaks as an organization. Unsure of their legal footing, various governments have coordinated (via strong suggestions) with large corporate stakeholders to limit WikiLeaks domain services, its funding, and a variety of other operational components. It’s easy to be swept up in the discourse of information warfare when these sorts of authoritarian impulses are indulged.

At the same time, and still to no one’s credit, hackers from Anonymous and Operation Payback are off wreaking havoc, and a number of killer information dumps and poison pills are supposedly hanging over our heads like some sort of digital sword of Damocles. That’s the thing about the information warfare narrative – it’s great at perpetuating itself.

In the end, I would suggest that “information warfare” is simply not a good frame for this discussion. The idea of “radical transparency,” despite sounding reasonable, never really provides solvency in an information war, because one can never guarantee it’s sufficiently transparent, given all the potential Wizard of Oz permutations on the power side of the information warfare equation. At the same time, I agree with Brett Horvath that “insane transparency” (i.e. complete transparency) is simply unacceptable/untenable.

All of which means, I suspect, that we should be rethinking “transparency” as the label we’re attaching to our set of hypothetical positive outcomes.

I’ll tackle what I’m calling the “open democracy” narrative in the second and final (feel free to sigh in relief) post on WikiLeaks, and talk more broadly about some potential conclusions then.

This post is categorized in: Social Media

About Ken Rufo

Kenneth Rufo holds a Ph.D. in Communication, and teaches the occasional class for the MCDM.

6 Responses to WikiLeaks and the Conspiracy Problem

  1. Pingback: WikiLeaks and the Conspiracy Problem (1 of 2) – Flip the Media | Wikileaks Secret

  2. Lucas says:

    It seems to me that Brzezinski is falling head first into Assange’s intented trap : turning paranoid about his own “conspiracy”‘s organisation, limiting the exchange of data inside the US diplomacy/intelligence agencies (surely that’s what Assange means by “cognitive decline”…)

    Hadley however seems to be seizing this problem as the main one in the Wikileaks scandal. I quote him :

    ” So, just exactly — this is the challenge. How do you try to limit the risk of this kind of activity in going — in a way going forward, while still making this information available to those who can use it, particularly in the field in their day-to-day activities? ”

    How can you share information without it leaking ? To put it fast : information is a form for discourse. The main issue with Wikileaks, even for the high-level intelligence players, may also be a “metanarrative” one.

    I like to think of this “infowar” as a place where two shapes of discourse meet : politics structured as a symbolic order ; and the internet structured as coded information. Two different metanarratives, with different logistics, the one embodied in telegraphic style confidential memos, the other in “data dumps”, peer-to-peer networking, encrypted “insurance” files. But since the army and diplomacy heavily rely on computers, the two worlds collide.

    I read in another blog that it is interesting to notice that, while the diplomatic cables seem to carry less compromising information than the Iraq & Afghanistan ones, they are the one that the US government could not stand. I’d say that, as the most symbolic one, they cause more reaction because they highlight the need for the symbolic order that took shape since the spreading of printing, to be able to handle the constraints of the Internet age. One of them, as ex-Sun CEO Scott McNealy said it, is : “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

    By the way, I have read nothing about this question. Was 23-years old Manning supposed to have access to the 250000 confidential or secret files ? Or did he just happen to be able to get them through a poorly-configured document policy ?

    Thanks for this great article, I’m waiting to read the second part.

  3. Pingback: Grad school for working professionals made easy at UW – Blog Down to Washington | Stories & Links about the University of Washington

  4. Ian says:

    Ken, thanks for your post.

    This occurred to me as I was reading it, and I’d like to hear your thoughts.

    To what extent does the notion of “information warfare” presuppose the primacy of the nation-state as the principal arbiter of information? Why does it feel like, as you expressed in your post, both Assange and his detractors accept an “us vs. them” mentality, where each side is engaged in tactics of conspiracy and coercion, when I can’t tell who “us” and “them” are. And, moreover, isn’t warfare a poor metaphor for a situation that doesn’t lend itself to a simple oppositional, two-sided schema of information flows?

  5. Pingback: WikiLeaks information isn't important, but WikiLeaks is – Daily Kos | Wikileaks Secret

  6. Pingback: What WikiLeaks did was not criminal – Reno Gazette-Journal | Wikileaks Secret

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>