OT: The Rhetoric of Wikileaks

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Matt Barton's picture

Last week, Konstantinos Dimopoulos of Gnome's Lair asked me to post my thoughts on Wikileaks. I've been keeping tabs on the story as it unfolds, though naturally the sheer bulk and speed of all the coverage (in all media) quickly overwhelmed me. However, when I saw that someone had already created a persuasive game about Wikileaks called Leaky World, I knew I had to try to collect my thoughts on the matter.

My initial interest in Wikileaks began over the name. I've been studying and writing about wikis for some time now (indeed, in my own academic niche, I'm better known as a "wiki man" than for my work on games). However, after studying Wikileaks, I noticed that it isn't running on a wiki engine. Apparently, it started off that way, but they apparently wanted to assume more editorial control. That's a pretty interesting decision.

Most of the mass media's coverage of Wikileaks hasn't anything to do with its technology, of course. Rather, they are obsessed with Julian Assange, building him up as some kind of renegade. I had chills run down my spine when I saw that they were trying to frame him for a sex crime. Perhaps there's some truth to the accusations, but it seems like a rather obvious smear campaign to defame (and perhaps defang) his character. In any case, I think focusing too much on Assange is missing the bigger picture here.

Dan Carlin has talked about Wikileaks on his great Common Sense podcast, and I think he's zeroed in on the real issues. Basically, they amount to whether a representational democracy like ours can resist what seems like inevitable changes brought on by the internet. So much of our government and infrastructure depends, whether by design or not, on keeping people out of the loop. In this age, are we content to limit our control over the government by voting once every two years--and then merely to vote in or out one of the two major parties? I've often compared that choice to whether to eat at McDonalds or Burger King. The point is that neither choice is a healthy one, and there are plenty of other choices if you're willing to consider them.

What incensed me so much about the response to Wikileaks was that certain figures of the government were so quick to condemn and censor it. We've seen a range of efforts, which Roberto Arguedas summarized quite well in an editorial called The Reaction of Governments to Wikileaks Should Scare the Hell Out of You. I couldn't agree more with Arguedas on this, but my fear comes down to this: If they were acting honorably, they wouldn't care about leaks.

I side with Carlin--it's important to distinguish here between leaking military secrets that could endanger troops and leaking secrets that politicians find uncomfortable or damaging to their reputations. I'm sure Larry Craig would have done anything to keep his little episode top secret, for instance. What if that entire fiasco had been handled internally by the government; he might have got a slap on the wrist, let's say, and everything would have been kept confidential. I'm sure Craig could have make a convincing case that releasing the information would threaten national security. Isn't anything that threatens to unseat a senator or representative a threat to national security? After all, it made us less secure that our elected officials are good people. Meanwhile, he could have gone on condemning innocent gay people while he indulged himself in airport restrooms.

I'm not a politician and don't plan to become one. However, I believe that anyone who wants to represent me should not harbor secrets. If I'm going to vote for someone, I need to know as much of the truth about that person as possible. If I'm shielded from what's really going on, and given only a sanitized, carefully screened (and biased) report, how can I make an informed decision?

Keeping criminal behavior confidential and strictly internal hasn't worked out too well for the Catholic Church. Why should it work out better for the U.S. government? How many politicians are as hypocritical and two-faced as Larry Craig? How many are doing things that are just more convenient to ignore and keep confidential?

As far as leaks threatening our troops goes, I find that ludicrous at best. If our armed forces really so vulnerable that years-old data compromises them in a serious way, then we have a bigger problem than Wikileaks. I won't go into the politics that have us over there anyway; I'm certainly not alone in opposing the war. But rather than see wartime as a time when I should be content to let the government indulge in added security (i.e., more and more decisions made behind closed doors), I should want the government to be particularly open and revealing about those decisions. It angers me that so many people consider wartime a time when we shouldn't question the government. It's precisely that time when we should question it the most.

It's like saying that as long as you've got plenty of money, you and your family should discuss and think hard about how you spend it. But when things get really tight, you shouldn't worry about it at all; just trust the credit card companies to take care of you.

Many of the leaks coming out, such as this one about an older BP disaster, paint a pretty sorry picture of our government and the corporations that support it.

But coming back to the bigger picture, it seems that Wikileaks is just the first salvo in what will likely become a driving force in our culture. It's not so much the individual leaks I'm talking about, but the wider implications of the technology. That's partly why I found the hacker reaction so interesting. 2600 Magazine was upset that "hackers" were being blamed for the DDoS attacks (first against Wikileaks, and then against its censors). It's funny how often Wikileaks is associated in the news with such attacks. The usual implication is that we need tighter restrictions on the internet--we need to "crack down" on these "hackers." In the same way that Assange was smeared with the sex allegations, here we have the technology itself being smeared with criminal associations that no one could support. What--you support Wikileaks? I guess you also support people who make computer viruses and steal your identity for credit card fraud?

I associate Wikileaks in my mind with hackers, too, but the kind of hackers that are fighting the good fight--making sure that no government or corporate interest can dictate how we use software or what we can read on the internet. "Hacker" in my mind brings up the many folks working to let Chinese bypass government blocks and post and read what they want.

What I see happening in the future is that it will be increasingly difficult to keep people shut out. If you have a dirty little secret, it will probably get outed on the internet for all to see. The government can try to crack down all it wants, but its methods are too slow and too ineffectual to ever re-seal the bottle.

There are bigger questions we could ask, such as if we really need a representative government in an age when technology allows us more direct control. How hard would it be to set up a website that let all American citizens vote on each decision brought before the House and Senate, for instance? Of course, you could argue that it's impossible for any "normal person" to properly familiarize him or herself with the issues and facts to make a smart decision. However, I've yet to see any evidence that the people in charge right now do that either, content instead to vote along the party line. I don't need them for that and neither do you.

We live in interesting times.

Comments

ECM (not verified)
Wonderful: I can't even read

Wonderful: I can't even read gaming blogs anymore w/o being subjected to someone's malformed political opinions. (That next-to-last paragraph is insane on so many levels I don't even know where to start, but it does betray a staggering ignorance of both sociology and history.)

Adios, AA, it's been fun.

Matt Barton
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By "malformed" I assume you

By "malformed" I assume you mean they disagree with yours? Oh, but wait, you won't see this, because you've skedaddled.

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Bill Loguidice
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Darn, we lost a person who

Darn, we lost a person who lurked and never commented because he read something that didn't jibe with his personal opinions. Whatever will we do?

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Matt Barton
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I'm too busy crying about it

I'm too busy crying about it to know what to do. I guess we should try to guess what his beliefs are and immediately switch to them in pure blind faith.

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clok1966
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Im on the fence. Our

Im on the fence.
Our goverment is so messed up right now the public knowing this stuff "should" be good, but I dont think the public can handle it. Its the old catch -22, we want the goverment ot protect us, but we dont want them to do anything "bad". We want to be safe but we dont want them to invade our privacy. We want guns, but dont want criminals to have guns..etc.. We have grown up being able to get whatever we want for a price. Goverment now works the same way, but we dont like that?

Its a powderkeg country we live in. Knowning how to set it off... not sure its a good thing.

I know in a ideal world this would all be great, I would love to know how the goverment is acting up, what they are doing worng. Problem is we dont live in that world. And Wiki Leaks is like a single drop of rain in monsoon. WE ARE CORRUPT, when did people forget it? We have glossed stuff over so long Im not sure we can go back.

Pretty bleak talk, and maybe Im wrong, I hope so when I think about it alot.

but to end on a nice note Puppy dogs, sunshine and flowers :)

Matt Barton
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Corruption
clok1966 wrote:

I know in a ideal world this would all be great, I would love to know how the goverment is acting up, what they are doing worng. Problem is we dont live in that world. And Wiki Leaks is like a single drop of rain in monsoon. WE ARE CORRUPT, when did people forget it? We have glossed stuff over so long Im not sure we can go back.

I think we are corrupt, but it's not as bad as it is in many other countries where you literally can't do business because no one is around to enforce contracts and every official must be bribed to get anything done. Our corruption is at a much higher level, where the giant corporations leverage campaign contributions to get legislation passed that benefits them at our expense. There's also the huge disparity between the richest and everyone else; once you hit a certain wealth threshold, you're able to influence the government to pass legislation to help you keep it (and to hell with everybody else).

It's not surprising to me that most wealthy people are Republicans. What's more surprising is that so many poor working class people support them, mostly because their religious views coincide with the "family values" espoused by that party. "Sure, we want to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, but hey--we hate gays just as much as you do! So vote for us!" And so it goes.

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Dan Roganti (not verified)
Stick to the Gaming News

Stick to the Gaming News, or is this turning into Arcade Elucidation ?
I like coming to this website to read about the Gaming News - period
If you want to infuse it with your "rhetoric" I would suggest starting your own blog.
Because you only risk your readership if you continue to make assumptions that everyone agrees with you.

Bill Loguidice
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Listen, Dan, this is our site

Listen, Dan, this is our site and we'll post what we want. Read the FAQ if you're confused. We post about what interests us individually and the topics don't have to always stick to videogames, computers or technology. They often don't. That's always been our way. If you or anyone else doesn't like it, you don't have to read it. It's pretty simple really. It's all opinion and if opinions make you uncomfortable, you're free to go to someplace more agreeable. We'd of course love for all our readers to be open minded about things they may not agree with and stick around, but it's certainly understandable that some people are not capable of doing that.

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Rob Daviau
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No I don't think so.
Dan Roganti wrote:

Stick to the Gaming News, or is this turning into Arcade Elucidation ?
I like coming to this website to read about the Gaming News - period
If you want to infuse it with your "rhetoric" I would suggest starting your own blog.
Because you only risk your readership if you continue to make assumptions that everyone agrees with you.

Ugh again with a comment from some lurker who cannot even be bothered to register? Nobody here assumes that everybody agrees with us. Who are you to dictate what the content of this site should be? As a non registered viewer who only posts a comment to make demands and tell us how things should be done I assure you that your greatly over estimating your value here. The team members here are free to blog or post about whatever we feel like, who is forcing you to read anything? Are you seriously incapable of choosing what you read on this site and what you simply ignore? You are welcome to disagree with what is posted but you are not entitled to decide on the content, if our only concern was posting only what we thought would be universally accepted or agreed upon then nothing would ever be posted for fear of offending someone. If your only input to this site is to bitch and complain about the content I promise you you will not be missed. Our readership agenda here has always been about quality over quantity so if you have nothing except complaining to contribute, if you are looking only for people to be who do not have their own opinions, if you are not capable of either ignoring a post or reasonably discuss WHY you have issue with what is posted then I am afraid you are wasting our time just as much as you feel we are wasting yours.

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Matt Barton
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It's simple, and a strategy

It's simple, and a strategy I've seen countless times. I'm on a list-serv for professors, and anytime somebody posts something "liberal," there's always a bunch of objections raised about how the list-serv is supposed to be purely for academic announcements, etc. It's really just some conservatives who can't or don't want to engage with the discussion. It *bothers* them. However, instead of just doing the sensible thing and ignore the posts they don't like, they want to try to get it removed so they don't have to deal with it.

I've seen the behavior from all kinds of fanatics. Maybe you're a fundamentalist Christian and hearing about evolutionary theory bothers you. Do you take the time to learn about the theory, keep an open mind that perhaps what you've been taught is wrong? Of course not. You simply argue that the textbooks should be changed so your kids won't learn about it. Out of sight, out of mind.

At any rate, I don't see how even an arch-conservative could have serious objections about wiki leaks. No matter what political views you support, I've never heard anyone who thought hypocrisy and corruption were good things. Surely, we can at least agree on that.

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