Monthly Archives: December 2010

Theorizing WikiLeaks and New Journalism. Updated.

Inspired by David’s comments and this slideshow by Charlie Beckett, I’ve been thinking more deeply about the relationship between WikiLeaks and the mass media.  Charlie argues that Wikileaks is “new” because it disrupts networked forms of power. Certainly it points out the difficulty in establishing a binary distinction between “old media” and “new media.” Journalism has been destabilized by WikiLeaks, but it’s also been reinvigorated, as this Columbia Journalism Report article explores through its discussion of the working relationship between Julian Assange and the newspapers that published the diplomatic cable leaks.

Given this complex relationship, perhaps some more nuanced theory is required.  I’m starting to think that the media scandal that we’re experiencing is an example of what Galloway and Thacker describe as “exploit” – which is the event, within a network, that destroys the power of the network.  Their 2007 book The Exploit: A Theory of Networks argues that decentralized networks do not necessarily route around control; instead, they have their own logics of control, which can be most effectively subverted by an “exploit” or disruption from within. The DdoS attacks that have been propagated both by opponents and purported supporters of Wikileaks are examples of exploits, meant to undermine the function of a network’s control, or what Galloway elsewhere identifies as “protocol”. Galloway and Thacker write:

To be effective, future political movements must discover a new exploit. A whole new topology of resistance must be invented that is as asymmetrical in relationship to networks as the network was in relation to power centres. . . .The new exploit will be an ‘anti-web’ (2007, p. 22)

Behind the web, the network doesn’t look as well-determined as a form of control or organization. Previous theorizations of emergent social and ontological forms have included Deleuze and Guattari’s understanding of the appearance of rhizomatic forms of organization and cultural expression, as distinct from tree-like forms. The rhizomatic form has been used to explain tactical media which in the networked age has included Indymedia and it’s open access and open source journalism. In this case though, a more apt metaphor might be the swarm, where particles are interconnected but autonomous, and where the direction of movement is influenced by a larger law or principle of collective intelligence. Galloway and Thackeray thus identify the swarm as the future of the control structure now enacted by protocol.

Galloway and Thackeray argue that the network is merely a condition of possibility for the operation of protocol, which can direct control around the network. Using the exploit (if I understand this correctly) is the way of disrupting the management system that is associated with the network. Discovering holes in existing networks can thus be a way of creating change. This is one thing that WikiLeaks has effectively done; by identifying the logic of control underlying both secrets and their media representations. The exploit in this case occurs on several levels at once. First, it facilitates the power of the swarm by hosting leaked information. Second, it takes over the mass media by slowly and dramatically leaking information which is subject to editorial control both by WikiLeaks itself and by mass media journalists. The mass media is still fulfilling its function, but its logic of control has been undermined – perhaps this is something like the way a zombie computer is mobilized by a botnet – or an organism that has suffered a neurological virus (gesturing at my previous attempt to frame WikiLeaks as a parasite).

The WikiLeaks’ “exploit” is thus more effective than it would be were it less well integrated with the mass media’s networked forms of power. Indeed, WikiLeaks is not itself rhizomatic. It is organized, and with a carefully planned interventionist strategy. It has a figurehead who has acted as a focal point for the media while the real work of undermining state control of information carries on. With the complicity of newsrooms, WikiLeaks intervenes in the power structures behind international news.

The exploit, if this is what it is, disrupts the existing logic of networked control and allows the swarm to intervene in the protocols underpinning news production. This is precisely why it has been so effective.  It is a hack – in the non-technical sense.  It uses the rules of journalism to break journalism.

As I’ve been thinking about this more, I am more taken by how the exploit, or hack, (yes, the noise in the system) has disrupted several things in several different ways.  It’s disrupted the pretense of secrecy around government information.  It’s exploited the same network of influence that is normally responsible for filtering government scandals and transforming them into headlines.  And the DDoS attacks by Anonymous,  whether pointless or amplificatory or dramatic also exploited protocol systems established to govern the web.  So there is an exploit within the technical governance level as well as an exploit within the media system. Of course, WikiLeaks’ own resilience through its web presence  is also the result of an exploitation of the network, and of the reproducibility of digital content.

When constructing the WikiLeaks case, then, it’s tempting to come up with a way of accounting for the different kinds of interventions made in technical, policy, media, and governmental networks.  Despite the fact that I’ve used this post to think through how to use the “exploit” to do this, I’m not convinced it’s the only way.  Using Milton Mueller’s 2010 Networks and States might be a way of framing the aspects of the case focused on governance by technology – but Mueller has little understanding of journalism and so wouldn’t be able to comment on the shift in power relations in that area.  So far, most commentators in this area have focused primarily on one aspect of WikiLeaks, often from one philosophical perspective.  I’m wondering if it might be more fruitful to think of WikiLeaks as a kind of prism for thinking through how (or if) exploits take place in similar ways across different kinds of networks.  We may find that the case is less significant than we thought.

New Media Power, redux

So now that Anonymous, the hacker agglomerate that gathers on 4chan messageboards but that remains anonymous, online, and multiple has launched Operation Payback, and now that has gone down under a denial of service attack, now that the companies are losing money and business because individuals can’t access their websites, should we declare that new media power wins the day?

Or should we instead notice that new media power works the other way around as well:  the WikiLeaks group has been booted off Facebook, and the Visa situation was sparked by Ebay’s PayPal cutting WikiLeaks off.

David Weinberger argues we should be “standing with the net.” We should definitely be standing for freedom of expression.  What we need to understand is that the same thing that makes the internet a platform for freedom also makes it powerful in a way that we haven’t seen yet on a large scale.  Yes, we understand that state barriers are dissolving and individual networks are becoming ever more important.  But is this the first major case of new media power?

Mass Media Parasite. WikiLeaks and New Media Power

Everyone, including Umberto Eco, has now weighed in on the impact of Wikileaks.  Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens have advanced a set of hypotheses about WikiLeaks.  Aaron Bady has identified the cybernetic obsessions of Julian Assange.  Blogs, newspapers, and the beloved BBC are licking their chops talking about new media and the seemingly unstoppable drip of scandals and secrets over the internet, and the counterattacks depriving WikiLeaks of hosting, funding, and Julian Assange’s freedom.  But I think that the narrative thus far has focused too much on the dichotomy between new media openness and the enclosure of old media, state power, and secrecy.  There’s actually something else happening – a shift in power that depends on new media power’s parasitism on mass media.

Through the summer, internet scholars, security specialists and hacktivists gleefully discussed the tidbits of scandal and deluges of data that WikiLeaks released.  This ranged from Sarah Palin’s e-mail to thousands of pages on the US involvement in Afghanistan.  As others, including Julian Assange himself have identified, the goal of WikiLeaks was partly to open up the information structures of conspiracies, to defang ministries of secrets by revealing their secrets to all.  This goal, and its execution, is an exquisite representation of the distributed nature of power in a network society.  Power cannot be exerted only from above: someone can glean information, post it to a wiki, and *presto* the information is openly available, undermining state power and revealing its illegitimacy.  This is WikiLeaks reconfiguring media power – and redefining media democracy.

Beginning in July, there were attempts to undermine the effectiveness of this counterpower.  One of the features of distributed forms of power is that it is difficult to censor them using strategies designed for broadcast or more centralized forms of distributing information.  As Ethan Zuckerman has pointed out, when such conventional strategies fail, the strategy is often to take out the individuals – since even though communication networks can be self-healing, individuals who hold important positions in small organizations are not.

But this week’s events, which have escalated far enough that WikiLeaks is the top evening news story, reveal something interesting about why this exercise of new media power is so effective:  it is a parasite on the mass media, and through the mass media, it blows open many of the power structures established around both information (as Assange points out) but also communication.

Whereas in July the leaked information about Afghanistan was so voluminous that only a few media stories broke, this month’s leaked cables were sent out to selected media sources including the Guardian, Das Spiegel and Libération, creating dozens of headlines and well-written primary sources that trained investigative journalists have been investigating.

The mass media then, has been the host for the WikiLeaks parasite, which, like a virus, is transforming the building blocks of the media organism.  The journalists salivate at the leaks, and publicize them.  This keeps the new media power in the mass media sphere, while simultaneously discrediting them. As Aaron Bady writes,

The way most journalists “expose” secrets as a professional practice — to the extent that they do — is just as narrowly selfish: because they publicize privacy only when there is profit to be made in doing so, they keep their eyes on the valuable muck they are raking, and learn to pledge their future professional existence on a continuing and steady flow of it. In muck they trust.

WikiLeaks, as long as it slowly drips muck towards mass media journalists, is the parasite living on the host.  But it is also making the host change its shape.  It is making the mass media ask, even as it publishes the WikiLeaks cables, what journalists should do.

More importantly, the WikiLeaks story, with the help of the mass media press, is revealing that the relationship between new media and mass media (not to mention diplomacy) has entered a new phase.  Perhaps the release of the cables will indeed destroy the “invisible government” of corrupt secrecy, as Assange wanted.  But it cannot do this without the mass media.

I am not alone in thinking that this week, and this case, will likely define a key moment in the future history of media, information, and democracy.

Where do good ideas come from?

If you’re a new reader here, you might wonder why I’m not posting here as regularly as I used to.  There are several reasons.  First, I’ve just finished my first term of full-time teaching, and I’ve been spending a lot of time working on ideas with the students in my seminars.  Second, and perhaps because of this, I’m feeling like a lot of my ideas are wearing out.  Rereading posts from a few years ago, I recognize shapes of big ideas that are still sailing through my consciousness.  I still think they’re good.  I just don’t know that I have all that many new ones.

I’ve been wondering this for years:  do we only get one (or two) really good, big ideas in our lives?  Where do they come from?  What do you do when your ideas run out?