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.