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.
Interesting points and great use of Galloway and Thacker. I am part of a reading group (which includes Galloway) and for our next meeting, which is on wikileaks, I suggested we read the exploit and will send this along as it applies it.
A few minor points.
I am not sure I would describe Indymedia as tactical: it institutionalized in serious ways pretty much off the bat. It did not fully succeed in part because it caused so many to follow in its foot steps but it was never meant to be short term and tactical, even if certainly it had some flexibility.
I don’t think rhizomatic works for Wikileaks as you note (it is tightly organized) but I think it does for Anonymous, perhaps one of the only digital phenomenon that fits the rhizomatic bill, which I wrote about some in Savage Minds. Swarm I think grants it too much chaos. There is order, although in many regards it is aesthetic and tactical (in the sense of tactics).
Finally “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.” That is true in terms of the mirroring of the data but something i have been thinking about and will write about its success: in many regards it has to do with what they released. Back when they were releasing a lot of stuff, much of which I found very important (notably the Ivory Coast environmental disaster material) the mass media was barely paying attention. It took extremity *in every sense of th word for the media to notice and notice they did. I wonder how things might have been if the mass media took wikileaks seriously back when it was releasing damning but not such extreme stuff. I think the outcome of future leaks could have looked differently if the mass media took an earlier interest in Wikilekas. Of course this is hypothetical but opens some interesting questions about the role of the mass media in this.
Great post. And excellent point about The Exploit. Totally agreed that this isn’t the only way to look at it, but it’s a great example the kind of meta-level attack and asymmetry against existing power structures they talk about. Two other ways the exploit has disrupted the current system is the US government’s cracking down against information sharing and increasing the discussion of leaked information in general.
Agreed that Wikleaks by itself is too controlled to be rhizomatic but the broader ‘leaking/publicity’ system (OpenLeaks, whatever regional and topical leaking organizations get more prominence as a result of this) might be.
And great point in the comment about how Wikileaks has steadily changed the terms of engagement with traditional and new media. From the outside, it seems like this has been the result of experimentation and iteration (which is very much how you refine any good exploit). So yes it would have been fascinating if media had engaged differently earlier on; but they’re part of the system that’s in need of an exploit, so it’s not that surprising that they didn’t.
> I’m wondering if it might be more fruitful to think of WikiLeaks as a kind of prism …
Yes! I’m working on a post around the idea of WiklLeaks as a lens 🙂
[…] Excerpted from Alison Powell: […]
[…] It’s difficult to know what to think about wikileaks right now. I tend to gravitate towards the nothing-new-under-the-sun camp on most alleged changes to the media landscape, but I don’t know where to put this yet. I’m pretty sure all those comments that were immediately sure what to make of wikileaks can be dismissed out of hand. Among the more thoughtful responses, I liked Bruce Sterling’s reflection on hacker culture best. I also thought that the pdf discussion panel on wikileaks was worthwhile, and Jay Rosen’s point that the press got on the ‘wrong side of security’ after 9/11 is certainly well taken. And last but not least, Alison Powell has suggested some interesting first leads to theorizing wikileaks from a perspective informed by network theory and cultural media studies. […]
Thank you Jon and Biella for your thoughts – and thanks to others for the pingbacks. It might be interesting to push this idea further by coming up with a kind of taxonomy of how institutionalized these various actors are, and what kinds of work they are themselves doing to institutionalize internet spaces. So Biella, your insight about what cables were released is important: choosing the cables and making the partnerships with the mass media was a way that Wikileaks was a way of using the existing media institutions (with their expectations of scandal) and a way of disrupting them.
Thanks as well for reminding me about the institutional structure of Indymedia – what I was gesturing at here was the idea that individual Indymedias did have their own editorial control, whereas Wikileaks is a much more centralized project.
Jon, I’m not sure that G and T would think of systems as being “in need of” an exploit as much as “creating the conditions for” an exploit. It’s hard not to make normative claims about transformations as they happen, but I’m inclined to think that the idea of protocol power is that it has restructured power, and opportunities for resistance. Nothing is more or less “expoit” able.
I’d be very interested to hear the insights from the reading group.