Thursday, April 28, 2011


Web 2.0 has witnessed the rise of citizen journalism and a brand of publishing that reminds me of the wild, wild West, compared to the staid publications of the East Coast with their European sensibilities and, as Norman Mailer put it, their "bloodless, gutless restraint. "

Cyberspace tends to be combative and ideological. And Julian Assange, publisher of WikiLeaks, is one of the most combative and ideological publishers on the web. Assange and the leaked documents and videos he has published are now at the red hot center of the battle to control the flow of information over the world wide web. Although Assange is not the first publisher to make government documents available to the public, his publication of gun camera videos and U.S. Department of State cables is massive, both in terms of its sheer volume and in terms of its buzz. And it is the only leak around right now. In my view, there is nothing on WikiLeaks as sensational as the Abu Ghraib photos, and, in fact, nothing as shocking as some of the videos that have been up on YouTube since the start of the Iraq occupation, but Assange has made the leaks personal and part of a private war with the U.S. government. He has given the publication of leaks a human face. He has become the center of attention. That's too bad. Because it may be too hot at the center for Assange.

When I first saw the gun camera video Assange published, I was struck by the fact that the gunship was adhering to General Petraeus' regrettable rules of engagement for Baghdad. The rules should have been stricter, but at least they prevented the gunships from finishing off the wounded the way this gunship did.

This kind of video, depicting the actual murder of a wounded insurgent, has been available on YouTube for years, along with countless home videos put up there -- self-published, if you will -- by American soldiers and Marines, and also by insurgents. Most of the insurgent videos seem to have been removed quietly over the years on the grounds that they violate YouTube's terms of service. I say "quietly" because YouTube, a publisher whose significance dwarfs the personal soap opera of Assange and WikiLeaks, has never identified itself as a publisher with an ax to grind. In fact, YouTube doesn't pretend to be a publisher at all. Putatively, they are simply providing a forum for the free exchange of information. Therein, it seems to me, lies YouTube's safety, if not legally -- and I don't pretend to understand the legal issues around the free flow of information -- at least morally. For YouTube does not notice us -- unless we draw attention to one another. They have adopted at least the appearance of ignorance and neutrality. Assange has not.

Assange has, in fact, made quite a big deal out of knowing exactly what he's publishing. He has probably been led down that path by the establishment press who are very high on "responsibility" and insist on things like verifying sources, redacting classified information, and making a determination about whether the public's right to know outweighs the danger of exposing operators and operations. Having consented to work with the establishment in making those judgments, Assange has exposed himself to the moral, if not the legal, responsibility to get it right.

I suspect that is something Julian Assange is poorly equipped to do.

(Update. 3/24/2019. YouTube removed the video of an American gunship murdering a wounded insurgent.)


quinn esq said...

Agreed. The personalization of the issue around Assange is a mistake. There are few big Web successes built around an individual like this. Even Facebook got huge 1st, the film came later.

Making it into more of a platform or drop-box is interesting. I'd absolutely LOVE it if there became a whole new method whereby people could push truths out there. I've worked in and around FOI laws my whole life, and while they may have good intentions, there's no way they get at 1% of what's happening within government.

And within corporations? HA.

Let's face it, the large institutions of the age have outrun our capability to use the old methods of publicity and regulation. And a purchased set of politicians helps.

Bloggers do some of this now. But it's half-assed, duck & cover-style stuff. It needs something much bigger, and Assange is in the way. I really don't need nonsense about his condom-wearing behaviour to help me make up my mind on foreign policy. The State and the Media WANT top personalize it, but his ego let him play into that - even if he is a creative motive force for the group.

Also interesting to me that Economic THEORY says we should all know the facts - perfect information and all. Same with democratic theory. But when push comes to shove, the big organizations always use the same shitty arguments pushed on the public to shut things down. Sex and Security.

Billy Glad said...

I actually thought WikiLeaks was going to be a place where people put things up as opposed to Assange and company "publishing" them, but it turns out Assange needed to be at the center of attention. He got there, and now his mama is worried he'll end up in the general population where some 300 lb. psycho whose little brother got killed in Afghanistan can get at him.

Billy Glad said...

I know. These nihilists have no respect for private property. It appears that some of WikiLeaks' co-founders think Assange has been too engaged with the content, too. They are promising a site that just forwards leaked info to a publication of your choice. I'm torn between sending the Hives secrets to the National Enquirer or to NPR. By the way, I have discovered a good little news blog run by a couple of old guys at the NPR site, Frank James and Mark Memmott, called The two-way. I have figured out what they do -- if anything -- except cut and paste, but their selection of news items is interesting. Yesterday, they had a short clipping up about Pfc Bradley Manning, the kid who is actually going to have to deal with those 300 lb gorillas in the general population some day. Glenn Greenwald has latched on to his cause. His best hope is Greenwald will file an amicus brief and it will take the court 100 years to read it. Christ. You'd think Greenwald was being paid by the word. Our little eddie went to goldfish heaven.

Billy Glad said...

So in reviewing this old post this morning I note that YouTube finally got around to deleting the most violent video from the occupation, the government did get Assange, Manning made it through, the two-way has evolved into something else, and Greenwald has moved to Brazil. Life does go on all around us.