The Significance of WikiLeaks’ Recent Release of Diplomatic Cables
Over the course of the past three days, WikiLeaks has been making headlines again. This time the headlines actually have to do with the work the organization aims to do as opposed to drama media organizations sometimes have played a role in instigating. The media especially news blogs and aggregator web sites have been picking up stories from the more than 120,000 US State Embassy cables the media organization released.
Much of the buzz being created around the cables can be attributed to the fact that a number of supporters and bloggers (including this author) have been “crowd sourcing” the cables. (If you search for tweets with the hashtag #wlfind right now, you will find quite a number of tweets that include revelations from the new cables.)
Reports on the cables have been coming out every so often over the past months, with the most coverage happening in the immediate weeks following the beginning of the release (“Cablegate”) on November 28, 2010. At least eighty media organizations have partnered with WikiLeaks to cover the cables. So, it is worth noting that some of the “revelations” being shared on the Internet and social media are not really “revelations” from the cables. However, that should not diminish the significance of some of the findings being rediscovered.
One could make the argument that the fact people are rediscovering these “revelations” is giving the cache a second-life. The major news media organizations that had access to the entire cache had their chance to sift through the cables, now it’s time for citizens of the world to have a turn. Additionally, regional news organizations had access to cables relevant to their region. They wrote about the cables in their newspapers for the people of their country. Those stories did not always make international news. So, for the first time, people are seeing the cables that made big news in various countries, which perhaps even had the effect of creating a massive political crisis in the country.
There is no way the seven or eight organizations that had full access to the cables actually applied the resources necessary to fully understand the contents. The material is so vast. Plus, don’t forget news organizations had to keep covering “the news” while also covering this cache. They inevitably had to choose to move on before all possible stories were exhausted.
Interestingly, journalists tapped into social media, especially those who covered some WikiLeaks stories, gave off an air of elitism as a whole group of people proceeded to analyze the cables. Reporters tried to tell supporters these were already reported. But, supporters mostly didn’t care that some of these stories were old. And, many didn’t even know some of these details were reported in the first place.
Keep in mind The Guardian, New York Times and Der Spiegel, which had the cache from the beginning, never picked up on any of the cables that have provided key insight into the Arab Spring until the uprisings were making headline news. So, as time goes by, developments naturally make revisiting the cache worthwhile. Reading the cables now as opposed to December is a profoundly different experience given world developments in the past months.
It is possible the decision to involve WikiLeaks followers in “crowd-sourcing” the cables further adds to the way WikiLeaks has changed journalism. One may argue “crowd-sourcing” the cables is what WikiLeaks should have done all along. But, maybe this is the best way for the organization to handle large document releases. Give all media a chance to do a coverage that demonstrate interest in doing coverage. Give all media months to report. Then, after media has had plenty of time to do coverage and moved on, start releasing all the documents or information in the cache.
As people stick with the cache and continue to pull out cables and write stories, one will be able to grade the media that had access to all the cables on how they did. Did media miss key stories related to the way US diplomats use democracy and human rights to undermine countries? Did media overlook key stories related to the way the US “war on terrorism” is inducing countries into forcing citizens all over the world to give up civil liberties and ignore human rights violations? Is it possible significant instances involving disinformation and propaganda by diplomats was ignored? And, did major media see stories about diplomats advancing the interests of specific corporations and choose to only do a few because there were so many?
One could also say the New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel should have turned people on to “crowd-sourcing” the cables. But they didn’t. WikiLeaks, however, did. And, WikiLeaks’ ability to turn a dedicated group of followers, including committed information activists, on to researching a cache, one might imagine is a whistleblower’s dream.
The renewed interest in the Cablegate cache led me to revisit what I thought about the release when it began. The few paragraphs I wrote then give a jarringly accurate prediction of what would happen to WikiLeaks, its founder and supporters and how the leak would not lead to US diplomats reforming how they engage in relations on what would happen in the aftermath:
Will this leak frighten US diplomats and other leaders into being less truthful when sending out a cable? Probably not. The Washington Consensus will be defended and there will be no reason to cower and hold back what one thinks in reaction to meetings. Access to cables that was increased after 9/11 will likely become more stringent and the U.S. will likely become more vigilant against the press and all types of whistleblowing.
That’s because what the world is dealing with is a US government that behaves like a corrupt policeman; that, as WikiLeaks’ statement on the leak notes, spied on allies and the UN, turned a blind eye to corruption and human rights abuses in “client states,” engaged in backroom dealing with supposedly neutral countries, lobbied for US corporations, etc
The policeman is in no position to show remorse for his actions. Its people engage in little popular resistance, which might compel the policeman to reconsider its attitude and perspective toward the world. So, the policeman need not take responsibility. Instead, he is free to mount a defensive; incapable of thinking of an alternative way to engage in police duties, if the leak comes with real repercussions, the world can count on a brutish response that will be argued as proportional to the damage incurred by the leak.
Now, here’s a round-up of some key revelations that have caught people’s attention. (Look for an update later — I’ll do a Round 2.)