This is big news for journalism. It’s also big news for people interested in the relationship between information technology and politics. Martha Finnemore and I drafted a paper a couple of years ago about how Wikileaks-type organizations were changing the relationship between knowledge, politics and hypocrisy. Our ideas about hypocrisy led to an article on the true consequences of the Snowden leaks, which is coming out in the next issue of Foreign Affairs. Our ideas about knowledge and politics maybe tell us something about the consequences of the new venture (but bear with me — our argument is a little complicated).
Fundamentally, we think that much of the commentary about Wikileaks and Snowden’s revelations are wrong. Most people think that Wikileaks, Snowden etc. are politically important because they reveal secret information that was hitherto unknown. Many of Wikileaks’ defenders, including, initially, Julian Assange himself, thought that the organization would change politics and bring down corrupt regimes by revealing information that the government wanted to hide. The critics of Snowden and Wikileaks actually agree — they argue that they have hurt America (and perhaps the world) by revealing information that should have stayed secret.
Neither are right. Neither Wikileaks or Snowden has revealed any truly surprising and damaging information. European and South American governments already knew that the U.S. was spying on them. China was certainly aware that U.S. agencies were trying to hack into its systems. On the other hand, Assange’s initial hope that he could change the world through publishing damaging information turned out to be completely unfounded. Wikileaks had a very frustrating time trying to get anyone except bloggers to pay attention to their early revelations. No one seemed to care.
The reason why is important. There’s too much information out there for most people to pay attention to, let alone figure out whether they believe it or not. Hence, most people rely on other institutions such as media organizations to tell them which information is worth caring about. Not only do people not pay much attention to information until it gets the stamp of approval from some authoritative institution, but this information is transformed, because everybody knows that everybody else is paying attention to it. It stops being mere information, and becomes knowledge — generally accepted facts that people use to build their understanding of what everybody knows about politics.
Established newspapers like the New York Times, The Washington Post and the Financial Times play a crucial sociological role in deciding which information is important and trustworthy, and which is not. When one of these newspapers publishes information, it is legitimated as knowledge — which people are not only more likely to take seriously themselves, but may have to take seriously, because they know that other people are taking it seriously. European Union governments knew perfectly well that the U.S. had been tapping communications in their building (and if you read specialist sources, you knew about this, too). However, these governments found it more politically convenient to ignore U.S. spying than to make a big fuss. When this information became knowledge — when it was published and treated as authoritative by major newspapers — it became impossible to ignore any longer.
Assange and Wikileaks figured out some version of this early on. This is why they started working together with major newspapers such as the Guardian and New York Times — because this was the only way that they could get people to systematically pay attention to the information they had uncovered, and to turn that information into knowledge that everyone accepted. Unsurprisingly, however, this relationship turned out to be very difficult. Newspapers — even the most pioneering ones — have political relationships with governments, which make them nervous about publishing (and hence validating) certain kinds of information. This also helps explain the awkwardness that many journalists express toward Greenwald. While they recognize that he has uncovered many valuable scoops, they don’t see him as bounded by the same rules as they are.
On the one hand, people like Assange, Greenwald and Snowden need newspapers or similar media outlets. Without some such outlet, they are voices in the wilderness. On the other hand, exactly because newspapers play a crucial political role in validating knowledge, they have complicated relationships with governments and politicians. This leads them to actions which people like Assange and Greenwald are likely to see as compromises with power.
And this is why the new venture is so interesting. It will likely shape up as a serious journalistic enterprise. Capital of USD $250 million can hire some very good people. The venture has the potential to become the kind of news source that can turn information into knowledge. Yet it doesn’t sound as if it’ll be bound by the kinds of political relationships that most newspapers are embedded in. The Columbia Journalism Review gets this best when it describes the venture as I.F. Stone’s Weekly, if it had been lavishly funded by a friendly billionaire.
If this works, it is likely to change the relationship between information, knowledge and politics in some very interesting ways. Most obviously, it will make it even harder for the U.S. government to control the politics of leaks by pressuring newspapers not to publish stories that it thinks hurt the national interest. Former New York Times editor Bill Keller describes how:
The tension between our obligation to inform and the government’s obligation to protect plays out in a set of rituals. As one of my predecessors, Max Frankel, wrote…: “For the vast majority of ‘secrets,’ there has developed between the government and the press (and Congress) a rather simple rule of thumb: The government hides what it can, pleading necessity as long as it can, and the press pries out what it can, pleading a need and a right to know. Each side in this ‘game’ regularly ‘wins’ and ‘loses’ a round or two. Each fights with the weapons at its command. When the government loses a secret or two, it simply adjusts to a new reality.
It’s difficult to imagine Greenwald (or Poitras) having any interest in engaging in these rituals. If governments start to lose control over public knowledge in the information age, it won’t be because information “wants to be free.” It’ll be because of the creation of new ventures like this, that create public knowledge without adhering to the old rules about how government has a voice in deciding what gets published and what doesn’t.