A Hall of Mirrors
Perhaps one of the more persuasive interpretations is provided by war blogger AJ Martinez – the former Iraqi soldier appears to be conflicted as to where his own interpretation should lie.
While Martinez originally supported Wikileak’s “endeavours to bring about transparency in government” – and he “does not see a threat that warranted an engagement on any part” – he nonetheless takes exception to Wikileak’s tendency to “editorialise information and then present it as hard fact” ( AJ Martinez, “Collateral Murder”, 5 April, 2010). His objection goes to the heart of the issue staring everyone in the face: we’ll invariably see our own image mirrored in the video because we’ll bring own our context (situations, beliefs, values, etc) to reflect upon it.
While people might be free to interpret the images however they see fit, we’ve also seen that the conflicting interpretations have occurred by way of emphasis and exclusion (or editing in the form of selective thinking). Instead of providing ‘evidence of truth’, the images therefore highlight the role of confirmation bias in interpretations. Specifically, the Wikileak’s video reflects the “tendency for people to favour information that confirms” previously held views. So however the evidence has been seen, the problem is that such filtering tends to exclude – or minimize – other possible facts (and potentially true interpretations).
By trying to control the flow of information, interpreters adopt a divide and conquer strategy designed to make the world reflect their own image. Consequently, if we can’t really trust our own eyes – or have difficulty seeing the same images through different people’s eyes – the question now becomes: to what extent is the allegedly transparent obscured by our own filters?
The internet’s general response to the rape allegations provides an answer. Unlike the murder allegations made by Wikileaks in Collateral Murder, it’s not so easy to justify viewpoints. None of us were in the bedroom with with Assange and his two female accusers on the nights in question, and there is no video footage to corroborate competing versions of events. We only have conflicting eyewitness testimonies to go on, and these first hand accounts have been leaked to the media in a piecemeal, contradictory, and second hand fashion.
Suppose there was a leaked sex tape documenting the contested versions of events. If the responses to Collateral Murder is any indication, its safe to assume that the conflict would be displaced onto these images too. The issues of consent, intent and/or integrity would not be as transparent as they might literally appear to be (in our hypothetical video footage).
There are only two things that can be clearly seen here: that the rape allegations have all too readily turned into another conflict – a war between the sexes (or a version of he said/she said) and have spoken to a familiar internet narrative (its a conspiracy to bring down the leader of the people’s press). The lack of available – or independently verifiable – evidence hasn’t exactly prevented anyone from exercising their right to freedom of expression.
Indeed, the rape allegations have taken the problem of confirmation bias to a whole new level. Generally speaking, they’ve divided the internet’s liberation movement (or liberals who might otherwise defend women’s rights and Wikileaks) into two. Consequently, our question has turned into: which biases have the rape allegations generally confirmed? Unfortunately, the answer has been all too self evident. Instead of leading us to a brighter future, many avowed liberals have simply confirmed the historical bias against women.
The bias towards women alleging rape against famous people has become particularly transparent. While many liberals and conservatives might disagree over the value of Wikileaks, traditional enemies (such as Michael Moore and Glen Beck) have found common ground and joined forces “in questioning the weight and validity of the rape allegations” (Ryan Witt, “Rape Accusations Split Both Conservatives and Liberals”, 7 December, 2010).
This is not to imply, then, that men and women would be equally (or similarly) divided along partisan lines. Nor does it suggest that liberals and conservatives are evenly split down the middle either. While some conservatives might view the allegations as further evidence of Assange’s moral degeneracy, others appear to be more threatened by the prospect of “freewheeling and sexually liberated” women in the “new sexual order” (Stephen Baskerville, “Julian Assange’s Political Honeytrap and Ours”, 25 February, 2011).
The issue of motivated reasoning here is not so much about partisanship but how attitudes towards women might create the illusion of a united front – people on opposing sides of the political divide can also be seen to confirm their bias against women in different ways (or for different reasons). And as the feminist debate between Naomi Wolf and Jaclyn Friedman reveals, there is a divide over how to view the available evidence amongst women (“Naomi Wolf vs. Jaclyn Friedman: Feminists Debate the Sexual Allegations Against Julian Assange”, 20 December, 2010). While both women agree that the rape allegations are “politically motivated”, they talk at cross purposes over the way “consent” should be interpreted between “moral adults”. The two women are alternately “offended” and “disappointed” by how the other filters the evidence, and are divided as to who is really making a mockery of rape: governments allegedly falsifying (or exploiting) allegations for their own ends or outsiders not taking the rape allegations seriously because Assange’s female accusers chose to have sex with him in the first place.
Naomi Wolf’s op ed pieces in the The Huffington Post are notable for the way they editorialise in the guise of reporting. Wolf’s three pieces for the Huffington Post supposedly report what everyone should already know – that the rape allegations are a completely laughable and transparent attempt to bring down Wikileaks’ reign of freedom. Particularly striking is her ability to derive invalid arguments from valid premises, ensuring that selected facts can be either obscured or conflated.
In the first op ed, Wolf mocks the allegations by claiming that “the alleged victims are using feminist-inspired rhetoric and law to assuage what appears to be personal injured feelings”. Assange allegedly stands “accused of having consensual sex with two women, in one case using a condom that broke” and that the “world’s dating police” have been called to defend the women’s honour (Naomi Wolf, “Julian Assange Captured by World’s Dating Police”, 7 December, 2010).
In the second and third op eds, Wolf makes the same observations and arguments about a “pimping of feminism” and the insult to (real) rape victims” . Complaining that rape allegations are typically not taken so seriously by police around the world, she goes on to argue that the allegations against Assange should therefore be treated similarly.
While Wolf appears to be endorsing the very thing she’s complaining about, its clear why she’s making a self refuting (and self serving) argument: she’s already decided that the complaints against Assange are without basis and don’t merit further investigation (Naomi Wolf, “Sweden’s Serial Negligence in Prosecuting Rape Further Highlights the Politics Behind Julian Assange’s Arrest”, 15 December, 2010).
Unfortunately, the only thing Wolf’s op ed pieces confirm is her willingness to extrapolate from a single (and questionable) source and a tendency to generalise from instance to instance. As her tabloid source readily acknowledges, however, Assange’s female accusers’ statements to the police were ” heavily redacted, with details of the sex allegations blacked out” (Angela Johnson, “Supporters Dismissed Rape Allegations Against Wikileaks Founder”, Women Involved Tell A Different Story”, 29 August, 2010).
Michael Moore also wanted us to take the path of least resistance by deciding everything in advance. Despite conflicting (or unsubstantiated) reports and the lack of independently verifiable evidence, the famed left wing critic wanted to pick a side anyway.As Moore observes in an open letter to Sweden “many see right through” your “tactic of using a rape charge to go after minorities or troublemakers, guilty or innocent – while turning a blind eye to clear crimes of rape the rest of the time” (“Dear Government of Sweden,” 16 December, 2010). Moore subsequently helped post bail and went on air to call the rape allegations “hooey” and mocked the (alleged) fact that Assange was wanted for questioning because his “condom broke during consensual sex” (Countdown with Keith Olbermann, “14 December, 2010).
Moore’s and Wolf’s dismissive responses, however, are premature and misinformed: they appear to have picked their sources and evidence. Their willingness to interpret away the allegations highlights one of the problematic assumptions about Wikileaks: that information can never be truly be free – it always comes at a price and may be de/valued according to general currency. Information will never really be free when it invariably serves some valued end and/or finds itself entangled in the web of context. The spread of information may therefore be subject to the backfire effect, or the tendency to use contradictory evidence to strengthen existing beliefs and desires. The backfire effect “implies not only that most people will resist correcting their factual beliefs, but also that the very people who most need to correct them will be least likely to do so”. (Joe Keohane, “How Facts Backfire”, 11, July, 2010).
Particularly informative was the way the internet generally echoed the freedom fighter’s version of events. By allowing themselves to be judge, jury and executioner (or character assassins), many freedom of speech advocates have used the internet to try and silence (harass, invalidate) Assange female accusers.