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.