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An Echo Chamber

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The echo chamber allowed itself to turn into a star chamber, as evident by the sharing of their names, photos, contact information and home addresses , an online investigation into alleged CIA ties and profiling of the behaviour of ‘real’ rape victims , and the invitation “to the blogosphere to…be a WikiSleuth” in order to prove that one of Assange’s feminist accusers is really an “undercover… lesbian”. 


Now, I don’t want to imply that it’s impossible to judge certain facts presented online. As we have seen, the court of public opinion appears to have already delivered its verdict there: since it’s difficult to reconcile the image of a freedom fighter with that of an accused rapist, many appear to feel that they have no choice but to decide in Assange’s favour. And in the prejudicial court of the internet – where there are no rules of evidence or independent adjudicators – a free for all could be seen to take place.


Witness the widely distributed reports making a mockery of the rape allegations. The initial stories blatantly editorialise information and then presented it as factual. At the very least, the tabloid approach provided the context in which the allegations have been generally reported and discussed (by Moore and Wolf, amongst others).


In the first report we briefly encounter two women who “realised to their horror and anger that they had both been victims of his charm” and wanted an assurance that they didn’t catch anything from the man straight of a “Stieg Larsson blockbuster”. The (poorly) translated “police report” goes on to claim that the “basis for the rape charge” was that Assange “made love” to the women without a condom. (Angela Johnson, “Supporters Dismissed Rape Allegations Against Wikileaks Founder”, Women Involved Tell A Different Story”, 29 August, 2010).


In the second report, we were told that the “international manhunt” apparently “stems from a condom malfunction”. In fact, Julian Assange was “not wanted” for “rape” but for “for something called ‘sex by surprise’...with a woman known for her “radical feminist views…and subversive activities” in Cuba. Indeed, this troublemaker (and implied CIA operative) “once wrote a treatise on how to take revenge against men” Consequently, Assange simply ran “afoul of Sweden’s unusual rape laws, which are considered pro-feminist because of the consideration given issues of consent when it comes to sexual activity – including even the issue of whether a condom was used” (Dana Kennedy, “Sex By Surprise At Heart Of Assange Criminal Probe”, 2 December, 2010).


As one feminist blogger countered, however, the ‘radical feminist’ appears to have been the victim of the internet’s capacity to make questionable links and assumptions about women. “If you look at that ‘treatise’ against men, it’s actually just a blog post that links and translates an English e-how article that has nothing to do with dudes. So yeah, she didn’t write anything – just re-posted a rando article. For that, she’s a conniving feminist bitch” (Jessica Valenti, “AOL News At The Centre of Sex by Surprise Lie In Rape Case”, 10 December, 2010).


While the article ‘Get Legal Revenge’ appears to have been taken off-line by eHow (presumably they didn’t want to be directly linked to a CIA conspiracy), a version of it can can still be seen here. The subsequent belief that Swedish law might be susceptible to the machinations of a conniving feminist also appears to be misinformed – instead of people joking that men “need written permission to have sex”, the recent Amnesty report Case Closed , “shows that women who report rape to the police in the Nordic countries have only a small chance of having their cases tried by a court of law. The result is that many perpetrators are never held to account for their crimes. Amnesty International examines the gaps in laws, procedures and practices and calls on the governments of Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden to take steps to ensure justice for all victims and survivors of sexual crimes” (Case Closed: Rape and Human Rights In The Nordic Countries, 8 March, 2010).


The fact that Sweden appears to be acting out of character in the Assange case raises serious questions about its (political) motives. The question of political motivation, however, needs to be distinguished from the question of Sweden’s alleged “pro feminism” and susceptibility to radical feminists with ulterior motives.


A questionable Counter Punch article is the pièce de résistance and appears to be the source of a popular meme: that one of Assange’s “castrating feminists” is linked to the CIA. Comparing Assange to Neo from the Matrix, it goes on to argue that freedom lovers have been forced to swallow the bitterest of pills: watching our saviour get caught in a CIA “honey trap” and falling victim to a “soap opera” plot. Given the article’s facetious tone, few should have wanted to take the alleged ‘argument’ seriously. The cited evidence includes Wikipedia quotes, Google searches and a single source we’re supposed to take at face value.


The ‘guilt by association’ logic – and the links to untranslated journal articles supposedly implicating our female “Judas” in subversive activities – simultaneously lends itself to the opposite conclusion . Specifically, that Assange’s accuser is a social activist and Wikileak’s sympathiser conspiring to bring the “governments behind the Matrix” down too: not only is there is evidence that she organised the seminar where Neo spread the Wikileak’s “gospel”, she even let our latter day “Jesus” stay in her flat when she was away (Israel Shamir and Paul Bennet, “Making a Mockery of the Real Crime of Rape: Assange Besieged, 14 September, 2010).


Unfortunately, one of the authors of the Counterpunch article failed to declare a conflict of interest in the name of transparency. According to Wikipedia (hey, we can play that game too) Israel Shamir is associated with Wikileaks in the capacity of journalist while his son is the spokesperson for WikiLeaks in Sweden. If we wanted to, we could therefore apply Shamir’s questionable ‘logic’ to Wikileaks here – the accused anti Semite and Holocaust denier ‘proves’ (sic) that Assange should also be viewed similarly guilty through his association to Shamir.


Perhaps more troubling is that the source of the popular CIA meme is reportedly a “paid… representative” of Wikleaks. Whatever Shamir’s views on freedom might be, apparently his circulated information doesn’t always come for free. Cited documents allege that money has changed hands between Assange and Shamir on at least one occasion (“Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy”, 1 February, 2011).

We had to wait for the Guardian’s unauthorised leak of the allegations to get a more considered appraisal of the situation. Instead of making a mockery of the real crime of rape, it was subsequently confirmed that Assange forced himself on one of his female accusers (by holding her down) and started having unprotected sex with another while she lay asleep. The allegations, then, were never about a broken condom during consensual sex or failing to call them after a one night stand – they allege rape, sexual molestation and coercion over a ten day period. (Nick Davies, “10 Days In Sweden: The Full Allegations Against Julian Assange, 17 December 2010 ).


By this stage, the damage had already been done – the search for truth had already been compromised when leaked information was originally filtered through a distorted looking glass. The damaging articles remain online without correction or amendment, and people searching for the desired information will tend to find what they are looking for.


It’s worth noting that Assange’s own image has reportedly been in the process of becoming tarnished – the freedom fighter’s “autocratic” and “imperious” running of Wikileaks has become a matter of public record via leaked transcripts of internal conversations and outspoken Wikileak dissenters (John F. Burns and Ravi Somaiya, “Wikileak’s Founder On The Run, Trailed By Notoriety, 23 October, 2010).


A telling use of words has threatened to tarnish his public image even further: Assange curiously referred to the potential harm caused to innocent people by Wikileaks as “collateral damage” (Raffi Khatchadourian, “No Secrets”, 7 June 2010), publicly confirming that the increasingly controlling freedom fighter privately“adopted the language of the powermongers he claimed to be combating” (Jeffrey Rosen, “Review of Daniel’s Domscheit-Berg’s Inside Wikileaks”, 16 April, 2010).


None of this suggests that Assange is guilty of anything other than getting lost in the hall of mirrors. We’re simply drawing attention to the fact that we should follow Assange’s own lead by distinguishing between appearance and reality and hold everyone up to the standards of transparency and accountability.


Perhaps what is most surprising about the allegations, then, is the defense’s response to the leaked police report. Instead of advocating transparency to temper the spread of misinformation in the public domain, one of his lawyers wanted the leak investigated because it was “trying to make Julian look bad”. The possibility of Assange being “forced into a trial in the media” threatens to put “Julian and his defence in a bad position” (David Leppard, “Lawyer’s Cry Foul Over Leak of Julian Assange Sex Case Papers”, 20 December, 2010).


Clearly we were supposed to turn a blind eye to the defense’s attempt to force Assange’s female accusers into a trial by media. Another member of his legal team had previously reiterated the default position by casting them in the role of perpetrators of a crime. Attributing the allegations to “dark forces”, Assange’s lawyer claimed that “the honeytrap has been sprung ... After what we’ve seen so far you can reasonably conclude this is part of a greater plan.” (Nick Davies, “10 Days in Sweden: The Full Allegations Against Julian Assange, 17 December 2010 ).


Assange set the tone of the debate by politicising the allegations via twitter from the outset. It thereby confirmed what many Wikileak defender’s should already know: that Assange’s political opponents would invariably resort to “dirty tricks” (21 August, 2010). It’s worth noting that Assange has no classified evidence to corroborate the (presumably justified) claim that he is wanted for questioning in order to be taken down by the powers that be – or if he has, it’s yet to made available through Wikileaks. Few should want to question whether the investigation into the allegations might be politically motivated either – the question is whether the investigation (and possible trial and conviction) is the result of political opportunism or something more personal.


Unfortunately, the Wikileak’s tweet forgot to mention one of the pillars of the women’s liberation movement though – that the personal is political to begin with: relations between the sexes is also historically inequable (defined by power differentials and systematic oppression). It goes without saying that women have to fight to be heard or be taken seriously – especially women alleging rape against more powerful individuals.


While history will decide one way or another, we may never know who ultimately became ‘collateral damage’ in an infowar characterized by competing interests and widely spread misinformation. The increasingly transparent questions, then, are : who has really been playing dirty and/or become the victim of a conspiracy here?

Steven Aoun was the film and television critic for Australia's leading film journal Metro magazine. He has also written music criticism for Melbourne's daily newspaper Herald Sun and been an editorial assistant for CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture, the peer-reviewed quarterly of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. He is currently writing a PHD on the nature of critical theory and may even finish it within this lifetime. Steven regularly contributes to PopMatters as a feature writer and previously wrote the column Through the Looking Glass and the Flashpoints series. Steven can be contacted at bonnee01@gmail.com when he is not also writing the novel "On Caroline Jane's Happiness".


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