Say You Want a Revolution: Wikileaks and the Illusion of Transparency

Professor Alasdair Roberts has offered some interesting thoughts on Wikileaks and the impact of the leaking of diplomatic cables earlier this year.

Despite predictions of a ‘global diplomatic crisis’, ‘deep disruption’ or ‘a change to global politics’, the impact to date has been less than feared or hoped. The US ambassadors to Equador and Mexico have resigned and much embarrassment has been caused.  Yet, despite the US government line that it had caused real damage, senior officials, ironically, leaked that this wasn’t the case.

The paper argues that the leak was based on several false assumptions. The first of these was that the international political system is  ‘brittle’ and a revelation could help profoundly alter power structures. But, he argues, ‘it is not clear that the social order is either deceptive or brittle. We might even say that WikiLeaks proved the reverse: that what was in fact going on behind the curtain was more or less what most people had suspected and were prepared to tolerate’.

The second was that releasing raw data would have a decisive impact, based on the belief that people would be interested or, to put it bluntly, would care. Yet there is no such thing as a ‘complete revelation of the truth’. The reliance on raw data was also misplaced ‘raw data must be distilled; the attention of a distracted audience must be captured; and that audience must accept the message that is put before it’.

Roberts points out that context is key. So for example, the revelation on the front of the Independent may have had a very different impact in February 2003. The leaking of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, with which Wikileaks is always compared, gave an extra push to rising discontent with the war in Vietnam and public unhappiness as ‘a host of forces operated in the same direction at the same time’.  The papers were  released to a world of Richard Nixon, public protest and burning campuses.

The US of 2011 is not the same place. Contemporary concern over declining US power or terrorism ‘is not an environment in which the revelation of abuses of power abroad are likely to provoke public outrage’.

It will take time to see what the actual impact is, as Roberts points out.  Interesting things are happening with new projects such as Open Leaks, which is discussed here and here (you can also see a different perspective from Yochai Benckler).  Nor is this to say that such sites will always prove underwhelming. If context can run against you, it can also run with you.  But for the time being Wikileaks  has been more whimper than bang.

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