Bursting Wikileaks' Bubble

by Steven Aoun

22 September 2011


The internet as liberation theology (Marc Rotenberg, “Internet Liberation Theology”, 7 November, 2001) is arguably its first meme. It has certainly remained its most pervasive. From email to Wikileaks, the Net has helped liberate its users from (say) the tyranny of distance and autocratic regimes (John Nichols, “Revolution 2.0: The People of Egypt Win a ‘Media War”, 11 February, 2011).

The good news continues to be spread through word of mouse: computers will set our minds free and lead us to the promised land. The ‘promise’ is of a shared domain — the internet remains a place where anybody could go and be themselves.

There have always been naysayers, of course. Becoming masters of our own domain was also seen as a mixed blessing (Cass Sunstein, “Is The Internet Really a Blessing for Democracy?”, Summer, 2001). The freedom to “filter” (customise, personalise) content in the information age threatens to limit people’s “exposure to topics and points of view of their own choosing”. The concern was that the promised land might turn into a mere “echo chamber” (William Saletan, “Bubble Think”, 3 May, 2010). Creating the world in our own image therefore has a potential downside — enclosing the ‘liberated’ within their own filter bubbles (Eli Pariser, “Beware Online Filter Bubbles”, 11 March, 2011).

The possibility of creating the world in our own image invariably raises the question: to what extent do we really live in a self reflective culture? On the one side of the looking glass, computers enable us to limit our view of the world to an ‘image’ we create online (by making it reflect personal tastes and sensibilities). On the other side of the looking glass, computer programs will reflect that world back to us by trying to “predict what we want” to see online. (Natasha Singer, “The Trouble With The Echo Chamber Online” 28 May, 2011). Consequently, “you start to become more and more like the image of you because that is what you are seeing.”

Its for this reason that we need to beware of the internet as liberation theology (Trevor Butterworth, “Beware The Internet As Liberation Theology”, 8 September, 2010). The promise of personal freedom remains an interpersonal issue, and so raises concerns about the status of our choices. As Butterworth observes, the internet should therefore be seen “within the context of what it does for us and how we use it”.

Witness the ascent of Wikileaks in the information era. The rise (potential fall and possible rise again) of Wikileak’s founder Julian Assange is particularly informative. Perhaps the best way to look at the internet’s liberation theology is to explore the rape allegations within the context of Wikileak’s own assumptions. Wikileak’s own allegation of mass murder will provide our entry point into the looking glass.

As we shall see, freedom is just another word for contemplating our own reflections. Indeed, the way internet users process information predates the advent of computers, and merely reflects the way we want to see (filter) the world in the first place.

Wikileak’s has therefore held up a mirror to the world in a different way – by inadvertently revealing that reasoning is often motivated and directed towards “goal supporting perceptions or beliefs” (Dan Kahan, “What is Motivated Reasoning and How Does it Work?”, 4 May, 2011). We obviously don’t have to look too far to observe how Wikileaks sees itself. According to its own site, Wikileaks believes that the sharing of information “improves transparency, and this transparency creates a better society for all people”. Wikileaks clearly views itself as a freedom fighter and purports to fight the good fight by acting as ‘the people’s’ mediator.

Wikileaks can liberate us all from the tyranny of false imagery through the sharing of information. A (more) transparent society will supposedly let us pass through the veil of appearances. And it fights the media war by deploying other media (leaked documents, classified videos, etc). Consequently, Wikileak’s goal is to freely share information “so readers and historians alike can see the evidence of truth”. Wikileaks actively works towards the “improvement of our common historical record and the support of the rights of all people to create new history”.

It’s no accident, then, that Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides the template for setting our minds free. Specifically, this new media outlet – aka the people’s press – defends the “right to freedom of opinion and expression, this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers”

Few can deny that Wikileaks provides an invaluable corrective (or supplement) to official versions of events. The site is obviously designed to level the playing field by ensuring greater truth and responsibility online. It gives power back to people like you and I by calling on our elected representatives to be more truthful and accountable in the real world.

Wikileak’s liberation theology couldn’t be more transparent, and gives rise to the possibility of a Utopian ideal through the use of the internet. “Principled leaking…can alter the course of history in the present, and it can lead us to a better future”. It isn’t difficult to see that there are two interdependent assumptions being made in this proposed information utopia: that facts speak for themselves – they act as their own truth bearers – and they need to be spoken for (attested to in the public domain).

A third assumption can be clearly seen, too: that a free exchange of information can improve our collective understanding and/or heighten our sense of civic responsibility. Leaking information will therefore motivate us to think and act more rationally. Unfortunately, these assumptions are simply taken on faith, and obscure something apparent to anyone who frequents the internet: ‘facts’ are filtered through the prism of sensibility and are subjected to interpretation and re-contextualisation. Consequently, the ‘evidence of truth’ (and the corresponding issue of accountability) remains contested terrain.

Witness the war of words over the leaked video provocatively called Collateral Murder. While the video footage is remarkable for providing an unvarnished view of the theatre of war, there appear to be conflicting interpretations of what the images might actually mean (or be saying).

Do they really depict the cold blooded murder of civilians or are we witnessing killing done in the heat of a perceived battle? Is it even possible to see a moral (or legal) distinction in these images anyway? Is our view of them clouded by the fog of war or made even murkier in the cold light of day?

The classified footage clearly documents three air to ground attacks from inside the cockpits of two Apache helicopters. Collateral Murder depicts the deaths of predominantly unarmed people (reports vary between 12 and 18), and includes two Reuters reporters mistaken for armed combatants.

Perhaps what is most telling is that these images ‘speak’ to people in different ways. That is to say, conflicting interpretations reveal the way ‘facts’ can convey different information to observers. Compare the viewpoints of Salon’s Glenn Greenwald and Hudson Institute’s Gabriel Schoenfeld. Their informed views may be divided along partisan lines, and so, displace the conflict onto the battlefield of public discourse.

Greenwald – a liberal critic of American foreign policy – says we are witnessing a a slaughter that has become “standard operating procedure” within an “occupation” that has turned an entire nation into a theatre of war. Indeed, Operation Iraqi Freedom has culminated in “hundreds of thousands of dead innocent civilians” and a “deceitful cover up”.

The leaked footage therefore merely provides a snapshot of American forces waging war against a “vast majority…of clearly unarmed people”. Further, what we are seeing includes the “plainly unjustified killing of a group of unarmed men (with their children) carrying away an unarmed, seriously wounded man to safety” (Glenn Greenwald, “Iraqi Slaughter Not an Aberration”, 6 April, 2010).

Gabriel Schoenfeld – a member of a conservative think tank – counters in the Wall Street Journal that the images fail to depict the bigger picture or what had been happening off camera. He says American forces typically “refrain from attacking targets precisely because civilians are in harm’s way” Further, the “video makes plain that in this incident, as in almost all military encounters in both Iraq and Afghanistan, our soldiers are up against forces that do not wear uniforms—a violation of international law precisely because it places innocent civilians in jeopardy. Responsibility for civilian deaths in such encounters rests with those who violate the rules of war” (Gabriel Schoenfeld, “Warfare Through a Soda Straw”, 23 June, 2010).

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