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Is WikiLeaks the Beginning of a New Form of Media?

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As WikiLeaks continues to release classified diplomatic cables, and fights to remain online and solvent, it’s becoming increasingly clear what’s happening has less to do with WikiLeaks itself, and more to do with what seems to be a new form of media emerging: not a news or journalism entity specifically, but a kind of media middleman that exposes secret or undiscovered information, which can then become a source of news. Could WikiLeaks — and similar efforts it appears to be spawning — become a crucial new part of the digital media ecosystem?

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen WikiLeaks attacked by the U.S. government — now apparently considering espionage charges against leader Julian Assange for publishing the cables — and shut down by companies such as PayPal (s ebay) and Amazon (s amzn) (which seems to see no irony in selling a book including excerpts from WikiLeaks cables). Both of those companies have in turn come under attack by Anonymous, a rogue group of hackers who targeted their websites as part of what the group called Operation Payback, although the group appears to be moving away from denial-of-service attacks to less destructive attention-getting strategies.

Meanwhile, WikiLeaks has been making itself so distributed — by setting up over a thousand mirror sites through which it can publish documents automatically, as well as moving servers to several different hosts — that it seems almost unassailable, even if Assange is found guilty of something. The WikiLeaks founder has said that in addition to the mirror sites, BitTorrent archives of the cables have been provided to 10,000 sources who could continue to publish them even if WikiLeaks was somehow taken offline.

WikiLeaks' leader Julian Assange

It’s not just WikiLeaks any more: A new spin-off group called OpenLeaks, formed in part by a splinter faction from within WikiLeaks, says it’s launching a new service with much the same mandate as its predecessor — to make documents public whether governments and companies want them to be or not — although it plans to be just a distribution point rather than a publisher itself. Another group calling itself BrusselsLeaks is apparently also looking to create the kind of document clearinghouse that WikiLeaks has set up, but it will be focused on information about the European Union.

As political analyst Evgeny Morozov notes in a piece written for the New York Times (s nyt), and in a summary of that piece on his blog at Foreign Policy magazine, WikiLeaks has come to serve as a kind of middleman for media outlets such as the NYT and The Guardian. Although these entities have investigative teams, they can’t possibly find everything, and there is so much more information out there to comb through. What agencies such as WikiLeaks and OpenLeaks could provide is a single source for such documents, as well as a way of publicizing that these secrets have been revealed, something that WikiLeaks has done very well.

Do newspapers and other media need WikiLeaks? Some would argue that the sources who went to Assange could just as easily have gone to the NYT or The Guardian directly. So why didn’t they? Possibly because they wanted the information to be spread more widely than just one media outlet, or were worried that one newspaper might not report on the cables properly if they were the only ones with that information. In a sense, as my former colleague Doug Saunders — the European bureau chief for Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail — has noted, WikiLeaks is not that different from the brown envelope that the leaker behind the Watergate scandal delivered documents in.

In this era of real-time publishing and the ubiquitous web, however, the power of that brown envelope has been amplified a thousandfold, and its reach is far broader than was ever possible before — and that changes the game entirely.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Gideon Burton and New Media Days

16 Responses to “Is WikiLeaks the Beginning of a New Form of Media?”

  1. Very interesting article but Wikileaks itself will never become a new form of media because by definition a medium is a channel through which information is disseminated. As Wikileaks primarily uses the Internet as its channel, it is therefore using that as its medium. Wikileaks is simply a new source of information. As your article suggests it is a media middleman not a medium.

    Again as Lucian says print media is dying and something will take it place. Print media may be dying but investigative journalism is not and what is taking print media’s place is the Internet media and that’s been happening for years.

    As a journalist and former ‘medium'(newspaper) owner print and internet are just the forms of communication we use – the rest is all the same thing – information.

    What Wikileaks is doing is creating a new more unrestrained form of information – this is what everyone is finding so interesting or dangerous depending on which side of the wall you sit.

  2. There is so much overwhelming support for WikiLeaks that I’m sure it will soon have its followers and the governments will be left with only a few options – one of which is to find better ways to protect their secret information.

  3. Michael Guy

    What high official(s) in the US State Department and/or White House have an antipathy towards the US military and seem quite willing to jeopardize the lives and limbs of our soldiers and allies? Who would be the modern-day, neo-Tory, Benedict Arnold in our government and give away state and military secrets to antagonistic foreign governments and terrorist ? Who has such a hatred of our military and an antipathy towards our nationalistic, capitalistic republic? Who would rather have us ruled by some elite foreign House of lords rather than exist as an independant republic? I can think of two prime candidates;
    For example, I think of a person who graduated from Yale with a “power to the people” revolutionary fist on their graduation gown. This person married an American who marched for the World Peace institute against our military in Vietnam ( but then, so did Senator Kerry). In the book, Kruschev remembers, Nikita Kruschev claimed that this World Peace Institute was a ruse and front for KGB propaganda, founded by Joseph Stalin. From there, their entire careers were renown for their dislike of our military and our national sovereignty. The UN always superceded America in their allegiance.
    And who has the easy task of making President Obama as commander-in-chief and major treaty negotiator look inept, incompetent or even subversive? First our military plans and tactics were revealed, perhaps with the aid of someone in the Senate Armed Services Committee? Now, not only our soldiers, but anyone who cooperated with America will be on a hit list, either figuratively as in politics or in reality. The friends of America will now be assassinated , thanks to Wikileaks and their friend(s) and source(s) in the White House or in the State Department. Who would benefit from the enfeeblement of our President as both a world leader and a national one?
    But could the source be a major, Trojan Horse, politician sent ti high offiice for the exact purpose of betraying America and its nationalistic, capitalistic, Constitutional republic ? Could this person’s sole agenda be to make America a mere fief and vasal state to an empire of elite, foreign aristocrats and plutocrats?
    In any case, it is apparent Wikileaks has the collusion and cooperation of some high official(s) who are probably both liberal and Democrat.
    Michael Guy

  4. I also see a news website coming soon, where you can publish news articles Anonymously.The news outlet won’t be responsible for any content as its someone else writing it. people can write without any fear of repercussions.

  5. I think the main bodies that need to question themselves are the news organizations. For years and years, they haven’t been able to do an equal impact to that of Wikileaks. It is a shame of how Wikileaks is teaching all the news media of investigative journalism, if you will. Who wants to read WSJ or FT from now on…

  6. One news report said that cutting off credit card contributions to Assange was costing him seven figures. The brown paper envelopes weren’t sold for such a high price.

    Wikileaks is espionage for profit, so in that sense it is a new form of journalism which differs from the old form mainly in terms of its bottom line. I wonder if Assange is up-to-date on his taxes.

  7. As print media is dying, *something* will have to take its place in uncovering dirty stuff about politicians and corporate execs. It seems to me that Wikileaks is only the first step in the birth of a new, much more effective way to uncover/investigate stuff. Instead of reporters going after the truth, we’ll have the truth coming to reporters.

    This is why we must make sure that Wikileaks, or more importantly, the idea of Wikileaks survives.