Julian Assange - The Man That Wants To Watch All of Journalism Burn
There was a time when Julian Assange and his organization, Wikileaks, were defended as leaders of radical transparency. Founded in 2006 with the purpose of exposing the secrets of the powerful, Wikileaks has unearthed a variety of scandals from documents about Guantanamo Bay to the infamous Collateral Murder video.
People's perspective of the organization significantly shifted, however, with its involvement in the 2016 election, specifically with the hacks of the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta’s emails. Now with this latest leak of CIA data released suspiciously close to a Trump-generated scandal on wiretapping, all of us should be asking ourselves: what the hell is this man’s objective?
A Native Australian, Julian Assange holds beliefs antithetical to the existence of the United States. He believes us to be a malign empire, one that has interfered with the affairs of nations across the globe. He has used Wikileaks to target predominantly Western organizations and businesses. Journalist Joshua Keating wrote in 2012: “It has been pretty hard to make the case that WikiLeaks is a neutral transmission system. Nearly all its major operations have targeted the US government or American corporations.”
His logic for all these data dumps basically falls under the conservative adage: “you shouldn’t be afraid, if you have nothing to hide.” Julian Assange wrote in an article titled “Conspiracy as Governance:” “[that] the more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership.” Organizations can either reduce their levels of dishonesty and abuse or continue to pay a hefty “secrecy tax” through inefficient communication.
The problem is that reality doesn’t actually work this way. When you just dump information indiscriminately it often has unintended consequences. The 2016 election is perhaps one of the biggest examples, but Wikileaks “radical transparency” has had some other ill-begotten effects as well. From exposing the financial and personal information of everyday Americans during the DNC leaks to WikiLeaks-acquired information assisting Belarus’s pro-Russian dictator in cracking down on dissenters, the slip ups have been severe. Lives have been lost.
And for all this talk of “radical transparency,” Assange’s organization is quite secretive. Little is known about Wikileaks’ organizational structure. It’s an entity of unknown size and authority whose only true mandate seems to be dismantling Western influence at any cost. We have no indication of where these leaks are coming from, which is especially disconcerting given the spectre of Russian involvement. It’s worth noting that Russia gave Assange his own show in 2012 on the Russian propaganda site Russia Today. We haven’t even addressed the fact, yet, that Assange is currently holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in order to hide from a sexual assault investigation and potential extradition to the US. So yah, pot, kettle.
Assange has talked a lot about the corruptibility of traditional news outlets, and how his model provides a way forward. At a conference in Sydney, Australia he stated: "When you read a newspaper article, you are reading weaponized text that is designed to affect a person just like you...I think that is the real beauty of WikiLeaks...it is that sea of information." But are Assange’s scandal-ridden data dumps any less weaponized? If there is a distinction, I don’t see it, especially given the narrow scope of his intended targets.
He may not think of himself as a journalist, but Assange definitely is a distributor of information. He just doesn’t follow the same rules. He has abandoned the typical journalist norms and instead embraced scandal, refusing to contextualize neither the information nor the source being reported on, a practice that is having a wide-reaching and regressive effect on his readers.
“Did you read the Podesta emails?” I am sure many of you have stumbled across this quote or one like it, while discussing Wikileaks various data dumps these past few years. This one is from a video I did about Pizzagate - a conspiracy theory that originated from everyday people trying to “make sense” of the trove of information from the Podesta leak. Dots were connected where they shouldn’t have been, and before you know it, a 28 year old was shooting up a Pizzeria in DC because he thought that Hilary Clinton was managing a child sex ring there. These are the type of actions Julian Assange’s reporting is inspiring among his readership.
Leaking information is not inherently bad. From Edward Snowden to the Panama Papers, there have been many examples of how to do it right, but it requires proper planning, and a serious effort to minimize risk and explain why the information is important. Julian Assange’s interest in this is sporadic at best. Instead, he seems hellbent on creating a sense of fear among organizations, particularly American ones, in his crusade against US imperialism.
Assange assumed that this would create a sort survival-of-the-fittest effect for honesty, but this assumption has largely not panned out. Instead, the information Wikileaks releases is being used by authoritarian actors to overwhelm our senses and create an atmosphere of urgency and scandal where none might actually exist. It is effectively propagating fake news, and Assange does not care. If anything he is more than happy to watch all of contemporary journalism burn from his London flat, saying at that same conference in Sydney: "When the narrative of fake news came out...I could see exactly where that was going. I was rather happy about it."
Julian Assange allegedly believes that an objective truth can be discerned from the mere transmission of information. This is, at best, naïve. Everyone frames or “weaponizes” the information they receive: it’s called thinking. That doesn’t make all journalists evil or malicious. It makes them human. If you refuse to analyze the information around you, then someone else will do it for you, and as we are quickly learning, they will not always do so with the best of intentions. And so, think long and hard over why these leaks are happening before you share them. The fate of Journalism might very well be at your fingertips. No pressure.