WikiLeaks, Influence, and The Age of Honesty

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We wear a mask that grins and lies
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes
This debt we pay to human guile
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile

Paul Lawrence Dunbar

It begins when we are children. As Steve Hein of points out, “Children start out emotionally honest. They express their true feelings freely and spontaneously. But the training to be emotionally dishonest begins at an early age. The child is told to smile when actually she is sad. She is told to apologize when she feels no regret. She may be told to kiss people good night when she would never do so voluntarily.” In short, she will slowly be influenced to conform to a social structure that attempts to control what feels true.

But what does emotional honesty have to do with WikiLeaks and Digital Influence, you ask?

It’s simple really. We are still struggling – as individuals and as countries – to break down the walls of ‘protection’ that we have been brought up to believe we must build. We have not yet replaced those walls with the bridges necessary to fully transform society.

We’re secretive. We’re protective. We’re afraid.

The good news is this: with the growing activity and discussion around network and citizen journalism, as Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, says, Those who have been denied their primordial right to speak their word” are finally finding their voice. For the first time since the Pentagon Papers, a site like WikiLeaks, and the influence it wields when it comes to shaping public opinion and awakening the collective (un)conscious, forces us to come to terms with how much we – personally and collectively – are willing to face truth and introduce transparency into all aspects of our lives. Only then can we truly straighten out the backbone of our troubled world. Furthermore, as the developments around WikiLeaks elicit a conversation among populations, we are compelled to recognize that this is not just about the military’s secrets, but about our own. In search of the elusive idea of safety, the emotional honesty we have been forced to abandon – and forced our children to abandon – has only shown us the high price we pay when we spend our adult lives living in fear and unhappiness or practicing deceit.

By invoking the need for secrecy and protection, from PayPal and Amazon to Senator Leiberman and Sarah Palin, never before has a community come down so hard on the messenger or tried so hard to silence the conversation around an Influencer. Of course, there is little doubt that some of the cables supplied to WikiLeaks compromise the lives of US agents. Nor should we discount the legal implications of receiving stolen property and then leaking it to the world. Some might argue that this is really no different than allowing the press to publish naked pictures of someone stolen from their home safe. We all know that’s wrong and illegal and the courts have systematically stopped the publication of such pictures, not just because it ”invades one’s privacy”, but also because the pictures are stolen private property.

However, it can also be argued that naked pictures and government dealings are two very different animals. At the end of the day, we must truly decide what is best revealed in the name of positive social transformation. In addition, what reporters and politicians rarely examine is why we believe we must deceive, hide, and spy to protect ourselves? Rarely is this paradigm ever challenged; rarely do we attempt to alter the structure of a modern existence that continues to frame the world into Friend or Foe, Axis and Ally, Us vs. Them. We are often told (in order to avoid making lasting change) that this is simply the way it is.

In short, the purpose of communication – communion – is being tangled in the roots of a dominant cultural regime still resistant to the evolutionary thought it claims to seek.

However, the resistance is growing. Emily Bell, the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School pointed out that, “WikiLeaks represents a new kind of advocacy, one that brings to mind the activism of the ’60s, one in which people want to get their own hands on information and do their own digging,” she said. “What you are seeing is just a crack in the door right now. No one can tell where this is really going.”1

So, although the future may be difficult to predict, citizen journalists, bloggers, and hacktivists are continually growing in numbers providing people with the information – and the voice – they have passionately sought for years. No longer are Influencers just sitting in the boardroom, but they are in their bedrooms on their laptops, walking the streets with their mobiles, and posting reviews on Yelp. These Influencers – you and I – demand change and the opportunity to speak the emotional honesty we were forced to repress as children.

With this, networked journalism holds the key to empowerment. As citizen journalists increasingly share their voices, strangers may now gain the opportunity to represent their reality and the reality they would like to see, defining – more accurately – what constitutes our world.

German sociologist and philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, may have been correct in claiming that contemporary media was another refeudalization of the public sphere, however, he, too, revealed the ability of electronic media to contribute to democracy through “a dispersed public interconnected.” Though Slavko Spichal notes, “It is questionable if web communities significantly enhance democracy because, similarly to traditional public factions, they hardly transcend group particularisms based on racial, gender, age, or ideological, religious, professional, and other identities and interests,” Spichal also acknowledges the success of citizen journalism with Twitter and mobile phone video to get the story of the repressive Iranian regime out of the country when major news outlets were blocked. Similarly, the success of the digitally dialed in brought stories to light with mobile phones capturing the 2007 demonstrations in Burma, as well as the user-generated images of Abu Ghraib prison.

Thus, networked journalism may “contribute to the reformation of the global public sphere by connecting with the world beyond the newsroom… by transforming the power relationship between media and the public and reformulating the means of journalistic production.” With traditional newsrooms ‘subject to limits of time and resources’, the advent of user-generated content on the Internet and sites like BBC’s new UGC Hub, Reuter’s partnership with blogging network, Global Voices, and sites like Pajamas Media, new voices bring an alternative to the dominant regimes of power and give the people a chance to speak their truth.2

These online tools allow citizens to feel a part of a community in a more active and participatory role than before providing the potential for more balanced, transparent reporting. Of course, trust is the most vital component of newsgathering and it does bring up the question of whether networked journalism and sites like WikiLeaks would eventually eliminate the role of the practiced, mainstream journalist. Therefore, a system of certification might be considered to maintain ethical standards of practice. Self-regulation, Net neutrality, and accuracy all need to be formalized, but the almost embedded nature of citizen reporters and whistleblowers increases the odds that the most relevant stories get told. In addition, these influencers act as another check and balance to the mainstream press, whether that story uncovers the doctored Reuters photo of a 2006 Israeli shelling in Lebanon ( or the clerical child abuse scandal in Ireland (Guardian, 2010).

As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “A mind once stretched by a new idea never regains its original dimensions.” The ultimate question is:  how will global media conglomerates and political elites handle this shift? Will they simply attempt to usurp the power as we’re seeing with the threats on Julien Assange? It remains to be seen, but one thing is certain. Through systematic online migrations and grassroots digital influencers, change is coming fast and the promise for truth and transparency – personally and professionally – is more a reality than ever before.

1 Carr, David. WikiLeaks Taps Power of the Press. New York Times, December 12, 2010:

2From Charlie Beckett’s Supermedia-Saving Journalism So It Can Save the World (Blackwell Publishing, Ltd.: Malden, MA, p. 41-86)