Wikileaks is not about secret information; it’s about insiders versus outsiders

Many commentators have noted that the confidential U.S. embassy cables published by Wikileaks contain nothing that would surprise an “informed observer.” I agree and have said so as much myself. However, I think this actually is the real scandal exposed by Wikileaks: there is a fairly large circle of “insiders,” which include much of punditry and journalists, who have a fairly accurate picture of most issues, who nonetheless cooperate with, and in fact, make possible, the efforts of modern states to portray themselves as making decisions dictated by pure motives and high-minded principles rather than by power and interests. In my view, the potential impact of Wikileaks and similar efforts is not necessarily about leaking well-guarded secrets, which these were not; rather, it is about changing the audience for a particular discourse from insiders to outsiders. Rather than expose unknowns, I think it is more accurate to say that Wikileaks has collapsed the distinction between the “front” and “back stages” of the modern state, and exposed the gap between the day-to-day reality of modern statecraft and its civic front.

Let’s start with dispelling the notions that these cables were well-guarded secrets. On the contrary, they had already been available to about three million U.S. citizens from all walks of life including relatively low-level members of the military and hundreds of thousands of contractors––indeed, the leaker is believed to be PFC Bradley Manning, who was 19 years old at the time he leaked these materials. It is hard for me to believe that all motivated players in the world scene have not already had access to these cables through cajoling, bribing, seducing, misguiding, blackmailing, threatening, hacking, forcing or otherwise convincing someone to do what Manning did as a teenager––burn a CD with the whole bunch. (The widespread availability of this data was a somewhat deliberate policy after 9/11 to encourage sharing of information.) I also doubt that we will see too many names of, say, dissidents or informants, as I hope that U.S. diplomats had the sense not to put names in cables that were available to millions of people. The diplomats know they are writing for a fairly large audience; this shows in the care in their rhetoric and writing style, as in the already infamous account of the Wedding in Dagestan, which might become the Balinese Cockfight of Diplomacy.  Besides, since China and Russia know what deals they have made with U.S. diplomats, this is a bit like the British classifying the reports of the weather in Germany during World War II––as Walter Cronkite famously pointed out, the Germans presumably knew the weather in Germany. Thus, the latest uproar is not about secrets but about intended audiences.

Legal scholars have a term for information that is essentially accessible but not necessarily easily available: “practical obscurity.” For example, court records have long been public in the United States but in the past you had to haul yourself to the courtroom to do a search––something you would likely only do if you were truly motivated. Now, a few clicks will deliver all the information about anyone’s criminal record. That is indeed a game-changer. It is not that the information was secret and now it became public; rather, it was “practically obscure” but now it is easily available. A shift in audiences is always of major consequence—indeed, that is at the heart of the commotion caused by Facebook and Google Buzz in its first inception

The concept of the “front” and “back” stages has been most famously applied to the construction of personhood by sociologist Erving Goffman. Noting, for example, that a waiter presents himself a certain way in the front of a restaurant, when serving customers, and acts a very different way back in the kitchen (and might even spit in your food), he analogized this to a play, where an actor plays a role for the audience in the “front stage” and is “himself” in the “back stage.” As he notes, in a sense, there is no real back stage, only a series of different front stages where we construct ourselves for different audiences. Goffman also points out that a crucial part of your self-presentation in a given “front stage” is the active participation and affirmation of the relevant audience, all of whom are simultaneously presenting themselves and likewise expecting your affirmation. All of you are, in a sense, and at least in part for instrumental reasons, agreeing to treat a certain constructed presentation of self as genuine.

This does not mean that our  “performances” of who we are are mere cynical pretense; our different social roles are simply attached to different norms and habits. And who we are, in turn, is not something we can affirm by fiat. It is only through the active participation of relevant audiences who act towards us as if we are who we say and perform we are, do we actually become who we are in the social sense.

A claim for identity is also a moral claim in that our front stages (which vary according to audiences) and back stage (where we have no audiences) can only differ so much before others withdraw their recognition and participation. In other words, we all recognize that people do not behave the same way with their moms as they do with their peers, but, say, the claim to be an honest and upright elected official while embezzling taxpayer funds and breaking major laws will cause one audience to withdraw their affirmation of your identity as a respectable, honest person. The presentation of oneself as a particular person is a moral claim because it demands that one be treated –and honored– in a particular manner; hence there is an inevitable tension between performance and authenticity which can only stretch so far before breaking.

Thus, my public self as a professor in front of a classroom requires that all my students in the classroom not only acquiesce to this but that they participate by performing their own role as students which in turn affirms mine. States (and journalists and pundits) are also making moral claims upon us every time they assert in public what they are about, and, crucially, every time they keep a fact from the public. I don’t disagree that certain types of diplomacy are best done away from the public eye: putting a lid on otherwise inflammatory material that might cause violence or civil strife or hammering out the details of a disarmament deal away from warmongering eyes sound like good ideas to me. I do not think “all transparency all the time” is a good idea. However, in the end, the right to keep secrets is bestowed upon states with the understanding that it will only be done so as necessary and in a justifiable manner. Unlike a person, the state does not have an inherent right to a “back stage” beyond that which is directly justifiable and accountable. Modern practice, however, has been to keep things hidden from the public to protect the state from scrutiny and debate – and this has happened with the participation and acquiescence of much of modern punditry who have become used to the insider/outsider game. The latest batch of releases is a direct challenge to this corrupted separation.

So the multiple pronouncements by many pundits that there is nothing shocking here actually expose the heart of the issue: the jaded insider game of hypocrisy and cynicism involves much of the established media and punditry. Most diplomats and journalists already know, for example, that the U.S. has been spying on United Nations officials––this had actually been exposed but received fairly little media attention, certainly less than Dancing with the Stars. Most “insiders” know how the game is played. That nations go to war for interests and resources. That, around the world, the U.S. is not seen as a pure purveyor of democracy. That lobbyists dominate policy-making. That there is a scientific consensus around global warming and that almost all the dissent is financed through the oil-coal interests. That big nations often try to use multinational institutions to advance their own narrow agendas under the cloak of high ideals.  That many politicians are corrupt, ignorant and self-interested. But most of this is rarely discussed in an open and serious manner.

There are many other issues that Wikileaks raises (such as the consequences of the corporatization of our social commons, which I had previously written about) and the relationship between the relatively open and distributed nature of Internet’s infrastructure and its ability to support a dissident public sphere (DDoS attacks cut both ways and I believe that they are counterproductive as they derail the conversation away from the real topic, transparency and accountability of the modern state, into trivial questions). However, I believe that Wikileaks also points to the way forward for civic journalism to survive as a relevant force — by first becoming an outsider to power. Without major newspapers’ role in acting as active intermediaries in focusing public attention to the revelations in these cables, these would likely get lost in a sea of confusion and clutter.

Indeed, given that there are legitimate reasons not to publish certain kinds of information, and given that a lot of information does not make sense without relevant context, and given that it would be impossible for an ordinary person to sift through hundreds of thousands of documents to find or understand the important ones, it is obviously important that the public sphere retain an intermediary between “leaks” and “publication.” If the fourth estate can stop being a semi-voluntary hostage to powerful interests, it may find that that it can not only survive, but thrive, in a world where information may be free but attention and understanding remain scarce.

12 thoughts on “Wikileaks is not about secret information; it’s about insiders versus outsiders

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  3. Ian Grant

    To take the stage analogy one step further, Wikileaks’ publication (via the mainstream press) is like the moment in the Wizard of Oz, when the curtain is pulled back to reveal the little old guy pretending to be the wonderful wizard. The US is that little old guy, impotent unless protected by illusion, and doesn’t like it.
    It likes even less people who show that the emperor has no clothes.
    That’s not to say the US can’t do real harm to real people. It can and does. But now we can see that it’s fooling no-one.
    In my expereince, Wikileaks material has been accurate. For example, it broke the news of the Anticounterfeit Trade Agreement. ACTA is a draconian multilateral treaty promoted by the music and film industry lobbyists, aided and abetted by pharmaceutical, retail and software lobbyists.
    It is on the surface aimed at cracking down on counterfeiters and copyright infringers. It is also the gateway to search and seizure without a warrant, to denial of access to the internet, and to online censorship.
    What if ACTA, or its implementation in national law, allowed a government to claim copyright to the Wikileaks material, and forced hosting sites to take it down? Without a court order? That’s the future we are looking at.

    Reply
  4. rick

    Your post is a useful “first draft” — the purpose of which,
    is for others to improve by “throwing darts at it”. Hence …

    1. You wrote:
    “I also doubt that we will see too many names of, say,
    dissidents or informants, as I hope that U.S. diplomats
    had the sense not to put names in cables that were
    available to millions of people.”

    That statement is incorrect: Diplomats understand their reports
    are initial writeups of “raw sources”. They provide initial input
    into a subsequent process of intelligence analysis. It is vital
    to include info to identify those sources, so that analysts can
    assess credibility, investigate suspicions of hidden agendas,
    initiate wiretaps or covert contacts with those “raw sources”, etc.

    Although the newspapers selecting and publishing these wikileaks
    stories are redacting specific names of (what they deem to be)
    vulnerable informants, some of those sources still will be at risk
    of retaliation. E.g, external camera surveillance of embassies
    is designed both to track the movements of “diplomatic cover” spies,
    and to detect walk-in informers from one’s own host nation.

    2. Likewise, you miss the intelligence context, when you believe that,
    “all motivated players in the world scene have …
    already had access to these cables”.

    Gaining access to guarded info entails risks — of discovery,
    of disinformation, of sting operations, etc. It would be more
    correct to say that, “all players with sufficient power,
    opportunity, and a favorable risk-reward perception have already
    accessed these cables — or custom-tailored disinfo.”

    3. You wrote:
    “Modern practice, however, has been to keep things hidden
    from the public to protect the state from scrutiny and debate –
    and this has happened with the participation and acquiescence
    of much of modern punditry who have become used to the
    insider/outsider game.”

    Much modern secrecy occurs because the state is not monolithic.
    Secret info becomes a currency of power, as factions and institutions
    compete for resources and influence. Modern punditry largely serves
    as a conduit for “tactical leaks” — salvos fired by “an anonymous
    administration official” against other Insider power centers.

    4. You wrote:
    “I believe that Wikileaks also points to the way forward
    for civic journalism to survive as a relevant force –
    by first becoming an outsider to power. Without major
    newspapers’ role in acting as active intermediaries
    in focusing public attention to the revelations in these cables,
    these would likely get lost in a sea of confusion and clutter.

    I would like to believe this. But to survive as an Info Broker
    in a capitalist society, one must cultivate both sources and
    audiences, and money must come from somewhere. We know that
    Third-party (e.g, advertising) money shapes, subsidizes,
    selects, and censors “objective” info content.

    Unfortunately, the Subscriber model in America increasingly
    distorts info too. Much of the American public actively “subscribes”
    to certain simplistic, polarized ideologies. It’s not just that
    we want “trusted media intermediaries” to summarize and select
    the “most important” wikileaks info — we want summaries and
    selections that support our preconceived notions. The alternative
    is an agonizing reappraisal of our comfortable ideologies and
    worldviews … and we “trust” our chosen media intermediaries
    to titillate us and pander to us, but not to seriously challenge
    our comfort level.

    Reply
  5. zeynep Post author

    @Jonathan: thanks.

    @Ian: The cables obviously have truths as well as whatever the diplomats thought was reporting, including gossip, innuendo, their impressions, wishful thinking, etc. It does show us what many U.S. diplomats were thinking/reporting and that, of course, is just one part of U.S. foreign policy. I don’t think everything in the cables will necessarily turn out to be correct.

    Reply
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  8. TomTom

    The biggest thing that comes out of Wikileaks is that it showed how afraid the American government is afraid of political discourse (thanks Poly Sci course!). That is, the American public actually discussing politics. American’s are not politically active, if you look at the voting records, and there is more yelling that discussing.

    The problem is that with discussion, Americans would likely vote differently, changing the terribly flawed system anybody informed already knew about. The issue is that the American economy, more than most if not all countries, is based on consumer confidence. If Americans truly realized the terrible position their economy is in, then the consumer confidence would drop, and then the economy would be in complete shatters. Combine that with that almost all politicians would lose their job, and it’s obvious why America fears Wikileaks.

    I, myself, would love to see some change for the better in the political atmosphere in the USA. But, it’s already very difficult to get a job. It’s not like Americans are becoming informed anytime soon, so nothing to worry about, but it’s a pity we have gotten ourselves into this mess in the first place.

    Reply
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