Techno-Politics at WikiLeaks

“This is the first real info war, and you are the soldiers.” John Perry Barlow

Beyond the Conduit/Content Debate

A central difficulty in defining WikiLeaks is whether the organisation operates as a content provider or as a simple conduit for leaked data—a question that is unclear even to the WikiLeaks people themselves (the impression is that they sees it as either/or, depending on context and circumstances). This, by the way, has been a common problem ever since media moved online en masse and publishing and communications became services rather than products. Assange cringes every time he is portrayed as an editor-in-chief, yet WikiLeaks says it edits material before publication and checks documents for authenticity with the help of hundreds of volunteer analysts. Content versus carrier debates of this kind have been on-going for decades among media activists, with no clear outcome. Instead of trying to resolve the inconsistency, it might be better to look for fresh approaches and develop new critical concepts for a hybrid publishing practice involving actors far beyond professional news media. This might be why Assange and his collaborators refuse to be labelled in terms of old categories (journalists and hackers, for instance) and claim to represent a new Gestalt on the world information stage.

The steady decline of investigative journalism caused by diminished funding is an undeniable fact. Journalism these days amounts to little more than outsourced PR remixing. The continuous acceleration and over-crowding of the so-called attention economy ensures that there is no longer enough room for complicated stories. The corporate owners of mass-circulated media are increasingly disinclined to see the workings and politics of the global neoliberal economy discussed at length. Many journalists themselves embrace the shift from information to infotainment which makes it difficult to publish complex stories. WikiLeaks enters this state of affairs as an outsider enveloped by the steamy ambiance of “citizen journalism”, DIY news reporting in the blogosphere, and ever-faster social media like Twitter.

What WikiLeaks anticipates, yet has so far been unable to organise, is the crowd sourcing of the interpretation of its leaked documents. Since mid-2010 that work is done by journalists of a few “quality” news media who further investigate selected cables, working under a deadline. Later, academics might pick up the scraps and tell the stories behind the closed gates of publishing stables. But where is the networked critical commentariat? Certainly, we are all busy with our minor critiques, but the fact remains that WikiLeaks generates its capacity to irritate the big end of town precisely because of the transversal and symbiotic relationship it has with established media institutions. There’s a lesson here for the multitudes—get out of the ghetto and connect with the Oedipal other. Therein lies the conflicting terrain of the political.

Traditional investigative journalism once consisted of three phases: unearthing facts, crosschecking them, and backgrounding them into an understandable discourse. WikiLeaks does the first, claims to do the second, but omits the third entirely. This is symptomatic of a particular brand of the open access ideology in which content production itself is externalized to unknown entities “out there”. Were the crowds perhaps wise enough this time to bail after their first experiences with the “complex” personality of the leader? Wikipedia shows that it is possible to work with thousands (if not millions) of volunteers, but that it also takes time, including necessary conflicts, to develop a “culture of collaboration” based on trust and mutual understanding. This process includes decision-making structures specific to working online, with clear divisions of labour between those who make simple edits, expert editors related to specific sites and entries, and officials that are often only affiliated with national chapters.

From detailed news stories we know that the collaboration between Wikileaks and The Guardian (but also The New York Times) didn’t quite work out smoothly either. Apart from a clash of the main players’ personalities, incompatible value systems emerged between the hacker ethics of Assange and the journalistic common sense of mainstream news organisations (see Davies 2010/ Ellison 2011)star (* 1 ). The crisis in investigative journalism is neither understood nor recognised. How productive entities are to sustain themselves materially is left in the dark: it is simply presumed that analysis and interpretation will be taken up by the traditional news media. However, crowd sourced analysis does not happen automatically. The saga of the Afghan War Logs and Cablegate demonstrates that WikiLeaks must approach and negotiate with well-established traditional media to secure sufficient credibility. At the same time, these media outlets proved themselves unable to fully process the material, and inevitably, they filtered the documents according to their own editorial policies.


Davies, Nick (2010): 10 days in Sweden: the full allegations against Julian Assange. In: The Guardian, Friday 17 December 2010, 21.30 GMT. Online unter: (12.03.2013).


Domscheit-Berg, Daniel (2011): Inside Wikileaks, Meine Zeit bei der gefährlichsten Webseite der Welt, Berlin: Econ Verlag.


Ellison, Sarah (2011): The Man Who Spilled the Secrets. In: Vanityfair. Online unter: (12.03.2013).


Leigh, David /Harding, Luke (2011): Wikileaks, Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy, New York: PublicAffairs.


Winer, Dave (2010): Apple is green. In: Scripting News, September 03, 2010. Online unter (12.03.2013).


Wikipedia (a): Electronic discovery. Online unter (12.03.2013).


Wikipedia (b): Operations security. Online unter (12.03.2013).

This is a rewritten and extended version of Ten Theses on Wikileaks, written with Patrice Riemens and originally published on the nettime mailing list and the INC blog on August 30, 2010, see: The theses were updated in early December 2010 in the midst of Cablegate. The “twelve theses” got wide coverage and were translated in Dutch, German, French, Italian and Spanish.

See for a historical overview of the cost of harddrive storage space (reference thanks to Henry Warwick).

In the US 4GB USB sticks can be purchased from around 4.50 to 11 USD. 16 GB sticks cost around 20 USD, whereas 32 gigabytes USB sticks are priced between 40-50 USD (early 2011).

Remark made in the context of the group Anonymous, their actions against the Church of Scientology and the material that Wikileaks published from this sect. See: Domscheit-Berg 2011: 49.

Quoted from the opening video at the homepage of OpenLeaks, January 2010, www.

In Leigh/ Harding (2011: 61) we find a not-necessarily-correct description of how Assange (in early 2010) must have changed his mind about the collaborative “wiki” aspect of the project. “Assange had by now discovered, to his chagrin, that simply posting long lists of raw and random documents on to a website failed to change the world. He brooded about the collapse of his original ‘crowd-sourcing‘ notion: “Our initial idea was, ‘Look at all these people editing Wikipedia. Look at all the junk that they’re working on… […] surely those people will step forward, given fresh source material, and do something?‘ No, it’s bullshit. In fact, people write about things because they want to display their values to their peers. Actually, they don’t give a fuck about the material.”.

Geert Lovink ( 2013): Techno-Politics at WikiLeaks. “This is the first real info war, and you are the soldiers.” John Perry Barlow. In: p/art/icipate – Kultur aktiv gestalten # 02 ,