Tagguardian

Wikileaks, Afghanistan & The New Rules Of Engagement

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As of two days ago Wikileaks has released 92.000 documents about the war in Afghanistan, leaked (most likely) from within the US military. After discussing this with quite a few folks, we all agreed that this will be one of the biggest – if not the single biggest – story of 2010.

As a former media and political science major, as well as a former editor, this stuff is pure gold to me.

First, what I am not going to go into: the Afghanistan conflict, its sense or legitimation or political implications; or the legalities of this kind of thing: does a leak like this break US law, and would that even be applicable? That’s for US lawyers to decide.

The basics first: What happened? Wikileaks got hold of some 91.000 military documents regarding the Afghanistan conflict, from analyst papers to ground reports. (What is Wikileaks?) Before releasing these documents themselves, they gave them in advance to three traditional news media: New York Times (US), The Guardian (UK) and Der Spiegel (Germany). (All of the links go directly to the Wikileaks specials.) After these media ran their exclusives, Wikileaks went public with the leaked documents, called the Afghan War Diaries:

The reports, while written by soldiers and intelligence officers, and mainly describing lethal military actions involving the United States military, also include intelligence information, reports of meetings with political figures, and related details. (…) The reports cover most units from the US Army with the exception of most US Special Forces’ activities. The reports do not generally cover top secret operations or European and other ISAF Forces operations.

So why is the Wikileaks story so big? It’s big not just because it’s something new and a huge scoop, but because it touches on so many complex and highly relevant issues:

  • the issue at hand, the conflict in Afghanistan
  • the way the US government handles information
  • … and by extension, the bigger questions of truth & trust
  • the relationship between governments and their citizens
  • the relationship between US government and their allies, and how information flows between them
  • the way media work today
  • the (new?) role that media play today (trust center verifying information scoops rather than gathering them)
  • the way the internet changes politics and media (and how news media not bound to nation states operate under different circumstances than we are used to)
  • Is it irresponsible to leak documents?

For some great background and discussion, I recommend you jump straight to Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis, both who have great write-ups.

Trying not to repeat to many of Rosen’s and Jarvis’ points, there are a few things I find worth considering.

Truth & trust, governments & citizens The White House was clearly pissed off after seeing the Afghan War Logs emerge. Understandably so, after all those documents will clearly make a dent in the war effort, so to speak. However, legalities aside and assuming the documents are the real thing – the documents leaked are internal military documents. While it’s always painful to be called out on your own mistakes, it’s not job of the media to support certain policies; and it’s most certainly not the job of a whistleblower site like Wikileaks to support any policies. It’s their job to get out information so folks can make informed decisions.

It’s probably part of winning a military conflict to occasionally bluff and put a game face on. But it’s fair game to call that bluff; I’m guessing here, but I’d say that this can happen to a government just like to any poker player. These war reports seem to be such a case where the bluff (“the war is going kinda alright”) is called. The question is: Could the US government – instead of trying to clamp down on Wikileaks and the internal military source – try to make the best of the situation, for example by trying a crowdsourced effort to analyze the patterns of what has been going wrong in the conflict? (Might not work, but should be looked into by some of the smart folks within or around the US government.)

The new role of media What I found particularly interesting is the new role that media played in this case. This is not a case of investigative journalism by the media, but by a third (non-journalistic) party. We are talking about three of the most distinguished media outlets world wide. Yet, they did not get the scoop here, they did not have the sources inside. They were not the address the military sources wanted to talk to. (Why might be a moot question, but an interesting one still. Get back to that in a minute.) Instead, the media were there to a) spread the news and b) verify the information, to lend credibility. They served as a trust center for another organization’s scoop. Once they got the information, the media then did what they do best: sift through the material and make it more accessible, as well as spread the information.

As Jay Rosen put it, referring to a New York Times editor’s note:

“At the request of the White House, The Times also urged WikiLeaks to withhold any harmful material from its Web site.” There’s the new balance of power, right there. In the revised picture we find the state, which holds the secrets but is powerless to prevent their release; the stateless news organization, deciding how to release them; and the national newspaper in the middle, negotiating the terms of legitimacy between these two actors.

So, why Wikileaks not New York Times? We can only speculate why the internal source leaked the documents to Wikileaks and not to one of the major newspapers. But there are a number of considerations at play here: First, Wikileaks is much harder to subpoena than any traditional news organization that operates under US (or European) law. Second, Wikileaks is by nature very much distributed. They are a true internet-based, decentralized organization, making it harder to suppress information. Third, Wikileaks is independent, donation-funded, without anyone to report to. This can be good or bad, of course. And on certain topics, a political biased can be assumed. But again, it makes it harder to believe there could be a reason for Wikileaks to withhold this kind of information, much unlike the news organizations that also want to send their reporters into war zones as embedded journalists along the military. Fourth, Wikileaks knows about secure communications. Maybe Guardian, Spiegel and New York Times do too, but a source wouldn’t want to take any risks. Wikileaks are strong on anonymity. They are strong on crypto. They really know how to keep communication channels secure and anonymous. All of these combined make them a more secure place to go to than any single newsroom.

Is Wikileaks acting irresponsibly? One could make the case for either the value of keeping information secret, or for absolute transparency. In a military conflict, that’s a tough one. But it seems to be like Wikileaks is going to great lengths to be as careful and responsible as the overall context allows (once it’s decided to publish leaked info, that is). They are holding back a significant number of documents until further review and clean up (think removing names etc):

We have delayed the release of some 15,000 reports from the total archive as part of a harm minimization process demanded by our source. After further review, these reports will be released, with occasional redactions, and eventually in full, as the security situation in Afghanistan permits.

Giving the documents to some trusted traditional newspapers of making sure the information is getting a decent journalistic treatment, followed by full disclosure of all the source material for extra vetting.

In other words, it’s a perfect example of getting it all right: Responsible dealing with the information as well as working the media right.

Jeff Jarvis raises an interesting point in his post: Will leaks like this incentivize organisations not to write down as much because they fear leaks, leading in the long run to less transparency? I certainly hope not, but it’s not a fear I share. Large-scale organizations need documentation, and where there is documentation there is a chance of leaks.

What I’d hope for instead is that the mere chance of leaks alone will lead to more transparency up front. After all, if an organization is more transparent the chance of getting called out on grounds of hiding information is a lot lower.

We’ll have to wait and see. Until then, if you do appreciate this kind of document leak, I do recommend you consider donating for Wikileaks.

Guardian: We need to become a platform!

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Now here’s a bold move by a major newspaper: The Guardian is becoming a platform.

And boy, is that a smart move compared to many other newspapers that try to lock up their content and try charging readers directly, be it by subscription model or pay-per-view.

Quoting GigaOM:

While some newspapers like the Times of London and the New York Times have either implemented or are expected to launch paywalls for their content, The Guardian in Britain has taken the exact opposite approach: Not only does it give its content away for free to readers, but through its “open platform” and API, it allows developers and companies to take its content as well, and do whatever they want with it — including building it into commercial applications.

It’s interesting to see so much movement in the newspaper market. Just earlier today I’ve discussed with a friend how it comes that so many people don’t read newspapers anymore in paper. (Including myself: The days when I had a newspaper subscription are long gone. These days I occasionally buy a newspaper for certain articles – usually when journalist friends recommend it – or read all my stuff online, usually for free. I do buy print magazines and subscribe, for example, to Wired UK. Of course, that’s a purchase more as a fetish than for its actual use, plus I want to support some magazines because they rock. Not sure how a tablet device might change my behavior there. I also subscribe to a wearable magazine.) Long story short, a theory bubbled up: That maybe we (our group of freelancers in the discussion) don’t read newspapers anymore since we stopped commuting. Asking Twitter about this theory, the response was clear: Some pointed out that there are more reasons than just the commute. One was even harsher. One mentioned that other media like podcasts suffered the same problem. But no one defended newspapers. Ouch.

German newspaper taz announced to experiment with donations through Flattr. Traditionally left-leaning, taz had been ad-free online until 2006, for both better or worse: of course there’s not much money to be had without ads in a strong ad market, but there’s much less to lose in a bad ad market like we’ve seen recently. For taz with their strongly committed reader base, donations might turn out well – the rational certainly makes sense. The question will be: Is Flattr the right platform? It’s still tough to provide readers an easy, hassle-free way to send money your way on a non-subscription basis, particularly in Germany where credit cards just aren’t ubiquitous.

But back to the Guardian. Where German publishers have been complaining about Google News “stealing” their content and making money off of it (both parts of this statement not necessarily true as Google only quotes teasers and doesn’t run ads on Google News), the Guardian not only gives away their content, but encourages commercial use:

“We not only say that you can use the content in a commercial application, we encourage it,” Thorpe said. “It gets our content to places where it wouldn’t be otherwise, and then we can build relationships with content partners around that.” The platform, which is still in the experimental stage, has attracted about 2,000 developers who have signed up for the API and created over 200 apps and web services. Platform developer Matt McAlister has called it an attempt to “weave The Guardian into the fabric of the Internet.”

The Guardian’s “developer advocate” Chris Thorpe summarizes the move:

Update (31 May 2010): On a related note, the BBC plans to increase the number of outbound clicks from its site by 2013. That right: They aim to double the number of readers they send away. Someone got it right!