Much has been said on the topic of WikiLeaks, the hacker group founded in 2006 by controversial figure, Julian Assange. But to really understand the ethical dilemma which this website turn movement finds itself in, it’s important to first examine what ethical standards are, what WikiLeaks sets out to achieve and how well it does in accomplishing its stated goals.
The most appropriate starting place for such an examination is with the role of the media as the ‘forth estate’ and its moral purpose.
The reason for this being that in WikiLeaks stated aims there is a high degree of rhetoric on politicians, corporations and other powerful figures and organisations to be held accountable by independent agents from the wider public. In the case of WikiLeaks this is done by exposing secrets which are deemed to be better off in the public domain in the interests of transparency and accountability.
It is important to note that WikiLeaks have moved away from the ‘Wiki’ form of website – that being a website which has content that can be altered by users – to taking on a hacking, monitoring and exposing function. To examine the effectiveness of this one can easily look at WikiLeaks’s mission statement but it’s also important to delve further into the founders of the website in order to better understand what is at the heart of why they do what they do.
From there, recent activity by WikiLeaks shall be touched on, namely in regards to the US presidential elections where WikiLeaks has exposed material found to be extremely damaging to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Such exposure forces any keen observer to reflect on the effectiveness of WikiLeaks tactics towards its end state. Are WikiLeaks as an organisation impartial and unbiased in their endeavours? And who is holding WikiLeaks accountable for such actions?
The inter-relatedness of the mission of the fourth estate and the WikiLeaks mission statement is a good starting point when considering how accountability and transparency maintain democracy and social order. Errington and Miragliotta describe the fourth estate’s role as being justified by three sets of arguments, those being the watchdog role, the provision of information and the facilitator of the public sphere (2012, p. 8).
Media performs its role best when it is independent from government
Errington and Miragliotta go on to paraphrase Curran (2000) and Wheeler (1997, p6) on how this can best be achieved in a liberal society by stating that in liberal tradition the media best serves the public interest when it is organised in accordance with two essential rules (cited in Errington & Miragliotta 2012 p. 9). ‘First, a critical distance must be secured through private media ownership’ (Errington & Miragliotta 2012, p. 9).
In effect the media performs its role best when it is independent from government and is comprised of privately owned entities in competition with one another, in order to provide high quality material which self-regulate by holding one another accountable for the material presented to the public.
The second point made is that the media should only be lightly-regulated and only be subject to libel laws and penalised for defamation and live up to what Wheeler describes as decency laws and the tenants of good taste and decency (Wheeler 1997, p. 6).
WikiLeaks sees itself as provider of information to ensure checks and balances upon those who are deemed beyond the reach of accountability and in this sense believes itself to fulfil a watchdog role. The role of facilitator of the public sphere is also a role which WikiLeaks seeks to take on and can be seen in its involvement in public debates, rallies and with its political party.
In reference to Errington and Miragliotta’s explanation of the role of the media best being achieved, WikiLeaks is most certainly independent from government though there has been some questions as to how close the organisation aligns itself with the Kremlin (Becker, Erlanger & Schmidt, 2016). Though WikiLeaks state that their goal is to ‘bring important news and information to the public’, they are not a media outlet in the traditional sense (WikiLeaks-What is WikiLeaks, 2011).
they do not operate in the same way as other news outlets do, yet it is the main stream media who often take up the task of holding WikiLeaks accountable
Being made up of volunteers hack into and leak information which is deliberately kept from the public, they do not operate in the same way as other news outlets do, yet it is the main stream media who often take up the task of holding WikiLeaks accountable and being – at times – extremely critical of Assange and his organisation, most notably in regards to the fallout between British Newsaper ‘The Guardian’ and Assange (Burrel, 2011).
In essence, WikiLeaks has noble goals which fall reasonably well into the model of the role of the fourth estate in a liberal society. They are independent and look to hold governments and private organisations accountable for their actions much like the rest of the media. Yet it is their methods of releasing secret data which casts the most doubt on their effectiveness in achieving their stated aims. In order to understand this it’s important to examine the underlying motivations for their activities and how consistent they are.
In November 2015 WikiLeaks updated it’s ‘What is WikiLeaks’ which featured a quote by editor and founder Julian Assange who stated: ‘WikiLeaks is a giant library of the world’s most persecuted documents. We give asylum to these documents, we analyse them, we promote them and we obtain more’ (WikiLeaks-About, 2015). The WikiLeaks page states that ‘Publishing improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society’ (WikiLeaks-About, 2015).
WikiLeaks is a giant library of the world’s most persecuted documents. We give asylum to these documents, we analyse them, we promote them and we obtain more
This is done by use of receiving material through a ‘highly encrypted drop box’ which is examined by the staff of WikiLeaks and leaked to the public once deemed suitable for release (WikiLeaks-About, 2015). One could argue that WikiLeaks is the ultimate in anonymous, participatory media with its obtaining of material, examination and publication. At times there can be long delays in publication due to issues in identifying sources and authenticity.
Yet the manner of how these methods ‘create a better society’ are vague and who exactly benefits from this better society remains quite elusive. Given that the material is examined by volunteers, how exactly do they disseminate information from disinformation? Former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, Alan Rusbridger raised very similar questions in a 2011 expose on WikiLeaks where he points out that for every piece of material that WikiLeaks exposes that may serve to set something morally righteous, there might be other cases where WikiLeaks could be used to smear or destroy someone (2011 p. 4).
One of the questions Rusbridger poses to the reader is ‘who was determining the ethical framework that decided some information should be published and some not?’ (2011, p4). One obvious answer to this question is, Julian Assange as – even while holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London – he remains the editor and founder of WikiLeaks. It would be difficult to do an examination of WikiLeaks without mention of its founder, Julian Assange for as he himself has aggressively expressed to his former friend and colleague, Daniel Domscheit-Berg stated in his 2011 book ‘Inside WikiLeaks’, ‘It was immensely important to him to keep stressing that he was the sole founder’ (2011, p77).
Domscheit-Berg is one of many former friends of Assange who recounts him as being very charming and driven, at times rather childish, while also being extremely vindictive and narcissistic. Not only would he threaten and intimidate Domscheit-Berg while living with him in Weisbaden, Germany but he displayed an extreme complex towards figures of authority. Following an altercation with Italian authorities on a train in 2009 he remarked to Domscheit-Berg one of his favourite sayings, ‘The man in the uniform has to learn’ (2011, 76).
“The man in the uniform has to learn.”
Writing for The Spectator, Hugo Rikfind stated of Assange: ‘Assange is a blinkered zealot, a conspiracy theorist, a narcissistic and a nut. He has the politics of a teenage boy who has read too much Chomsky (which is any Chomsky). But he is not a stupid man and there remain few people who understand the frontiers of digital freedom with such precision. He got there backwards, I think, hacking not for liberty, but preaching liberty to justify his hacking’ (Rikfind, 2014).
Perhaps even with these short comings, Assange’s project could still provide ethical exposure onto the nefarious operations of power elites who seek to have their activities kept secret for selfish gain. The revelations of the Watergate scandal proved that the excesses of the Nixon administration should be exposed for the public good.
Carl Bernstein — one of the reporters who exposed of the Watergate Scandal — harshly criticised WikiLeaks’ style of reporting insisting that ‘that the best journalism was achieved through talking to people, and not through social media’ (2016).
Yet Bernstein doesn’t seem to grasp the fact that WikiLeaks style of leaking documents is not particularly comparable to the more traditional style of reporting. In this sense it seems as though Bernstein has not fully appreciated the mediatization aspects of that WikiLeaks’ activities are based upon.
One of the more poignant criticisms that Bernstein makes however, is the manner in which ‘too many people are not interested in the best attainable version of the truth. They’re really interested in information that will buttress what they already believe’ (2016). This criticism bares a great deal of relevancy on the primary targets of WikiLeaks. As Leigh and Harding’s examination noted: ‘The geeky hacker was only one part of the soil out of which WikiLeaks grew. Another was the anti-capitalist radicals – the community of environmental activists, human rights campaigners and political revolutionaries who make up what used to be known in the 1960s as the “counter-culture”’ (Leigh & Hardin, 2011 p56).
More specifically, there is an unmistakable anti-American agenda which drives WikiLeaks’ activities.
A New York Times examination noted that during Mr. Assange’s time in exile that there was a very clear pattern, and that ‘Whether by conviction, convenience, or coincidence WikiLeaks’ document releases along with many of Mr. Assange’s statements, have often benefitted Russia, at the expense of the West’ (Becker, Erlanger & Schmidt, 2016).
In essence, WikiLeaks highlights the importance of transparency in a world of heavily guarded secrets but it also highlights the limits of ethics in participatory media. Serious questions arise as to just how much the public can benefit from information released by any group that has a clear agenda and obvious double standards. WikiLeaks only wishes to expose secrets of those whom it deems itself to be ideologically opposed to and sets out to wage a political war on them by means of smear campaign.
This clear method of choosing its targets at opportune times to most effectively damage them was demonstrated in July 2016 ahead of the Democrat National Convention in the US, when WikiLeaks released almost 20,000 emails from January 2015 to May 2016 which detail the DNC’s lack of impartiality and disdain towards presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (Abramson & Walsh, 2016).
Within the email exchanges were questions over Sanders’ religious convictions (or rather lack thereof), the building of a narrative to use against Sanders campaign, doubts about just how much of a Democrat Sanders is and insulting language from DNC chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, towards Sanders campaign manager, Jeff Weaver (Abramson & Walsh, 2016).
So damaging were the revelations that Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned one day prior to the Democrat National Convention in Philadelphia. It is believed by the party and by a cyber security firm that Russian hackers ‘stole material from the DNC’s email system’ (2016). WikiLeaks did not comment on how they acquired the information and Russian president Vladimir Putin stated that Russia does not ‘meddle in the affairs of other nations’ and that Russia is willing to work productively with whoever the American people elect as their president (2016).
But there have been very obvious signs that Putin and Donald Trump are on particularly good terms and that Putin and his cabinet are favouring the Trump campaign.
Trump has not only spoken of an easing of tensions between the two superpowers but has taken a more isolationist stance especially in his support for NATO, which is very much in line with what Putin’s ruling party would like to hear from a US president (Nemtsova, 2016). What is perhaps most interesting about the pro-Kremlin bias in WikiLeaks’ revelations is the fact that Russia has some of the most draconian laws for a developed nation which restrict free press and website blocking.
It is currently ranked 148 on the World Press Freedom index, a website by Reporters without borders who note that the imprisoning of journalists and ever increasing of new laws restricting the press have been on a sharp rise since Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012 (RSF-Russia, 2016).
This puts WikiLeaks in a position where it has very little credibility for all of its noble aspirations.
None of WikiLeaks’ principles of accountability and transparency seem to apply to Russia and the entirety of Julian Assange’s tough rhetoric towards the Kremlin’s increasing authoritarianism has fallen completely silent. This puts WikiLeaks in a position where it has very little credibility for all of its noble aspirations.
In sum, WikiLeaks has set itself greatly high levels of ethical aspirations in its pursuit of truth in order to bring about transparency and hold governments, corporations and the like accountable for activities which could be deemed unethical and damaging. A participatory media made up of dedicated volunteers who seek to uphold the principles of the fourth estate in the liberal tradition.
Unfortunately, WikiLeaks’ fundamental failing is in its methodology and the fact that its principles seem to be used more as a cover for its activism which possesses a clear anti-American (and allies) agenda.
Not only does the founder and editor Julian Assange have some strange bedfellows and a long list of former allies, but his mental complexes and contradictions are on display for the world to see. The ‘political warfare’ which WikiLeaks has embarked on seem predominantly geared towards smearing and damaging western targets particularly those who Assange has personally displayed a disdain for (Yates & Whitton, 2010).
In essence, WikiLeaks have attempted to do something of great nobility in their stated aims but their true contradictory biases and activist nature have surfaced, and have thus rendered the organization entirely devoid of any credibility.