What the heck is going on at WikiLeaks?
In the last two weeks, the font of digital secrets has doxed millions of Turkish women, leaked Democratic National Committee emails that made Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign look bad but also suggested the site was colluding with the Russian government, and fired off some seriously anti-Semitic tweets.
WikiLeaks is always going to be releasing information some people don’t like. That is the point of them. But lately the timing of and tone surrounding their leaks have felt a little off, and in cases like the DNC leak, more than a little biased. At times, they haven’t looked so much like a group speaking truth to power as an alt-right subreddit, right down to their defense of Milo Yiannopoulos, a (let’s be honest, kind of trollish) writer at Breitbart. But the way WikiLeaks behaves on the Internet means a lot more than some basement-dwelling MRA activist. “WikiLeaks’ initial self-presentation was as merely a conduit, simply neutral, like any technology,” says Mark Fenster, a lawyer at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law. “As a conduit, it made a lot of sense, and had a lot of influence, immediately. The problem is, WikiLeaks is not just a technology. It’s humans too.”
WikiLeaks has endangered individuals before, but their release of the so-called Erdogan Emails was particularly egregious. The organization said that the infodump would expose the machinations of Turkish president TKName Erdogan immediately after the attempted coup against him, but instead turned out to be mostly correspondence and personal information from everyday Turkish citizens. Worse, it included the home addresses, phone numbers, party affiliations, and political activity levels of millions of female Turkish voters. That’s irresponsible any time, and disastrous in the week of a coup.
The incident exposed gross negligence, though it’s true that lots of publications (including WIRED) made things worse by failing to vet the leak’s content and linking to the documents in their coverage. Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (herself of Turkish descent), wrote an essay criticizing WikiLeaks and Western media outlets for endangering Turkish citizens, and WikiLeaks and their supporters turned on her, hard. “Within five minutes they called me an Erdogan apologist, which speaks volumes to their lack of research,” Tufekci says. “And then they blocked me. So much for hearing something they don’t like.”
The provenance and truth of the DNC emails looks more solid—but those sketchy ties to Russia make the whole thing seem like a foreign government trying to influence the US presidential election. It’s a little weird (tinfoil hat alert) that Julian Assange, WikiLeaks’ founder, has a show on RT, a Russian government-funded (read: propaganda) television network. And a little off that the DNC leak whodunnit seems to point to a pair of Russian hackers thought to be affiliated with the Russian intelligence agencies FSB and GRU, respectively.
And then, inexplicably, the WikiLeaks official Twitter account also dove straight for naked anti-Semitism.
This is terrifying. If you aren’t up on your antisemitic references, means Jews pic.twitter.com/FEeQehPKHw
— Galloping Cats (@gallopingcats) July 25, 2016
First they denied the tweet was anti-Semitic at all. Then they deleted it, and defended the deletion like this:
@AnshelPfeffer No. We deleted it because it was been intentionally miscomprehended by pro-Clinton hacks and by Neo-Nazis.
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) July 24, 2016
Which as rebuttals go, is about as convincing as “I know you are, but what am I?”
But that’s not what’s really important here. WikiLeaks and Assange say they have no responsibility for the content they leak, and that no one has evidence that the sources of the DNC leak are Russian. But these leaks and tweets damage WikiLeaks’ credibility. If they’re not scrutinizing their own leaks on the base level of their content, it’s not hard to imagine that WikiLeaks could unwittingly become part of someone else’s agenda (like, say, a Russian one). “If you are a legitimate leaker, why go with WikiLeaks? You go with The Intercept or the New York Times, like they did with the Panama Papers” says Nicholas Weaver, a computer scientist at UC Berkeley who studies the organization. “Wikileaks is a pastebin for spooks, and they’re happy to be used that way.”
WikiLeaks isn’t necessarily the big bad here—if the FSB wants to leak some DNC emails as part of an effort to install Trump as a “Siberian Candidate,” (don’t look at us; that’s the New York Times‘ joke) they’re going to do it. But WikiLeaks’ actions could have effects that run counter to their own ideals. “This has done more damage to the fight for free and open internet than anything Erdogan could do,” says Tufekci. “If you expose people’s private information, and then the Western media publicizes it, they are going to withdraw from the internet.”
Fundamentally, WikiLeaks was supposed to be better. Assange openly said he hoped the DNC leak damaged the Clinton campaign. “There was the hope that in the wake of WikiLeaks’ emergence, a thousand WikiLeaks would bloom, in the same way that the Arab Spring was a really romantic ideal of the effect that digital communication can have on geopolitics,” says Fenster. “But the ideal of WikiLeaks as an information conduit that is stateless and can serve as a neutral technology isn’t working. States fight back.” WikiLeaks’ moral high ground depends on its ability to act as an honest conduit. Right now it’s acting like a damaged filter.
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