Wikileaks: a Cultural Phenomenon

WikiLeaks came into existence in 2006, yet it sprung into prominence in April, 2010. Ever since then, WikiLeaks has taken the world by storm. It is being discussed everywhere, from Sudan to the White House. In this essay we try and explore the idea of WikiLeaks and how it affects our perception of the society. Through this essay, the idea is to explore the phenomenon as it unfolded, and ask a few key questions about the world that we live in. The paper will only deal with the concept of WikiLeaks, and not the content.

The paper will objectively analyze WikiLeaks through a communications perspective, and not make any value judgments about the ethicality of the issue. This will entail an understanding of how the traditional frameworks of communication and the functioning of the internet, especially web 2. 0. The idea is to interpret the reactions of the various factions of the society to the phenomenon. This includes the general public, governments of the world, media, militaries of the world etc.

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A few questions raised in the essay are, how does it affect the common man, or how does it affect the current structures of information dissemination, and what role does it have to play in the way democracy functions. In conclusion, the paper tries to explore the potential of WikiLeaks as an agent in a better functioning of the democracy. WikiLeaks: A Cultural Phenomenon “quis custodiet ipsos custodies? ” – Juvenal (Satire: 6. 346-348) The most often question often asked of democracy is, ‘who will watch the watchmen? ’ And indeed, quite often forces rise to subvert the powers that be. In democracy, information is power.

Even more so in today’s age, that has been dubbed as the information age, for reasons more than one. Manipulation of information is as old as the concept of power itself. A lot of resources and time is spent on managing people’s perceptions and opinions. In a democracy, consent is of prime importance for anything to function. And when it doesn’t come naturally, it has to be whipped up. This is done through various instruments of propaganda. These instruments range from official public relation campaigns to as covert as manipulating popular culture (Case in point: The Walt Disney Corporation).

This is what Chomsky calls manufacturing consent, or engineering opinion. (Chomsky & Herman, Manufaturing Consent, 2008) Throughout history, all sorts of public relation campaigns have been followed by movements of subversion. The dissident culture is as old as propaganda itself. (Chomsky & Herman, Manufaturing Consent, 2008) From a similar belief and ethic, stems the idea of WikiLeaks. To understand the phenomenon of WikiLeaks completely we need to understand the traditional structure of information flow.

The Traditional Information Structure. For this paper, we attempt to understand audience through the theory of active audiences. It always has been the case that the audience, based on the context as well as conditioning, extracts meaning out of a discourse. The extracted meaning may or may not be in alignment with the intended meaning. (Barker, 2008) And therefore, information dissemination is not a passive process. For instance, if we show the same television show to people from different ethnicities, their interpretation of the show will be completely different.

Although this theory is not singular and unidirectional like the two step flow theory by Katz and Lazersfeld, still, the model maintains that the process of communication is largely biased by the way message is constructed by the source. Chomsky in his book gives a very potent example of the same process. In 1986, when the memoirs of a Cuban prisoner were released, the American media went berserk over covering it. One incident was blown out of proportion and only selected aspects of the memoirs were highlighted. They ran the same story over and over again, and dubbed Castro as a ‘dictatorial goon’.

Effectively the picture that was presented was extremely skewed. And the American brutal exploits in El Salvador were completely ignored by the media. Even though there was a sizeable population of the country which was protesting against it, there was an equally large population that believed in what the American media had to say. Chomsky calls this selective perception. (Chomsky, Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda, 2003) But a new force was taking shape that threatened to change the way information was stored, disseminated and interpreted.

It was the internet. Advent of the Internet Internet went global sometime in the 1990s. Internet was nothing but an intensive network that could connect you to any corner of the world. But its powers were still no fully explored. It was a domain of intricate technology. Internet was limited to a very few people, those who could operate its complex machinations. The relationship of people with the internet was that of coding, cracking, hacking, controlling the world in binaries, in bits and in bytes. (Shah) The use of the internet was to use numbers to make jobs easier.

But the advent of web 2. 0 changed all perceptions. Applications on Web 2. 0 were extremely simple, the number of people being able to access and navigate the internet increased exponentially. Due to this, a whole new social angle came into picture. The internet became a mini replica of the society itself. It had two things on its side in the game of power; connectivity and capacity. Web 2. 0 was more about information dissemination than it was about technology. Internet enabled a freer distribution of information. (Wu, 2008) Pramod Nayar calls this the Infotopia.

He explains that internet is the collective construction of knowledge. The knowledge now is multidirectional and non-hierarchical. Since it is not controlled by any single power, the internet is hailed as intrinsically open and democratic. Another big thing that the internet does is that it challenges the ideas of borders and consequently citizenship. The people on the internet become citizens of the net, and all the exchanges on the net stop belonging to any particular country. Information and relationships transcends borders. This disrupts our conventional understanding of power.

Now power is not a privilege. This is amply demonstrated in the examples of the revolutions that have taken place, solely because of the internet. (Nayar, Academia ) For instance the Pink Chaddi Campaign that took place in India against the cultural fundamentalists, or the revolution in Egypt that took its shape solely because of Twitter and other sources. Without internet, it wouldn’t have been possible for the Egyptian people in Tahrir square to garner such wide transnational support. And one wonders if it was the global pressure that forced Mubarak to step down.

The idea that internet could give voices to so many muted groups and become the reason for upturning of propaganda, gave rise to a subculture in the online world. This was the culture of hactivism. Hactivism Hactivism literally is a portmanteau of hacker and activism. This movement was concentrated primarily towards keeping the information free from state sponsored censorship and corporate hegemony and to give voice and access to all. The ethics of this group stem from the basic premise of freedom of opinion and speech, and the pursuit for them is relentless.

Nayar explains this dissident culture with the help of two cultural constructs, whistle blowing and truth telling. (Nayar, WikiLeaks, the New Information Cultures and Digital Parrhesia, 2010) China, whose governance model runs entirely on information asymmetry, spends a large amount of its time and resources to keep the hactivists at bay. Julian Assange gives the same justification for WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks WikiLeaks proclaims itself as an electronic drop box of information. Their website says, “… a not-for-profit media organization. It’s) goal is to bring important news and information to the public. (They) provide an innovative, secure and anonymous way for sources to leak information to our journalists. ” (Wikileaks) WikiLeaks is an online database, where a lot of information, which was hitherto unavailable for various reasons, is shared. The classified information on WikiLeaks is credited to anonymous sources, loosely labeled as a group of dissidents, hackers and journalists. The face of WikiLeaks is a single man named Julian Assange. Assange is an Australian publisher, journalist, software developer and Internet activist.

He is the founder, spokesperson, and editor in chief of WikiLeaks. Assange founded the WikiLeaks website and serves on its advisory board. It sprung into prominence in 2010 when documents/videos from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were shared. (Wikipedia) It soon became a phenomenon of global proportions. Everyone started discussing WikiLeaks. For weeks WikiLeaks and Assange, were the trending topics on Twitter, (the new measure of popularity for a global phenomenon). The reactions to WikiLeaks and Assange ranged between two absolute extremes. The Response

On the one hand, WikiLeaks was ferociously criticized to extent of calling it a terrorist organization and on the other; it was hailed as the triumph of the muted group, and the dawn of a revolution. Same was the case for Assange, at the same time he was hailed as a Messiah as well as the Devil himself. The US government and its many factions launched a brutally ferocious assault against Assange. Threats of assassination and extradition were followed by a dramatic arrest recently under a number of charges including rape, terrorism and espionage. Even Paypal. om, the host that enabled donations from people across the world to the site, stopped its cooperation with WikiLeaks, thereby stopping its funds. (Mashable) Could this be an indicator of an underground nexus between the governments and the so called free market organizations? What is of interest here to us is the ease with which online and the virtual worlds fuse together. An online liability is reacted to in the real world with vengeance. It should also be noted that Assange is not solely responsible for this, but his persecution brings to light the tendency of the people to pin the blame on one single person.

And because of the attachment of a single person, the phenomenon which was previously transnational gets a citizenship and it becomes an ‘American’ website. This phenomenon proves a point. It demonstrates that we are still struggling with the idea of flexible citizenships or nationless/borderless phenomenon. We’re still largely conscious about our notional constructs of nationality. One should also note that in all the worldwide reactions, very few dealt with the content of WikiLeaks per se. The entire issue was with the concept itself. There is no analysis of the content of individual cable.

Not a single cable leak or document on the website was enough to build up a case against any Government or organization; or more depressingly, nobody really bothered. All the opinions in circulation were blanket opinions. There was no discourse analysis of the cables, to establish what was in public interest or what wasn’t. If one were to look at the cables individually, one would realize that they offer contradictory narratives on the ‘War of Terror’. WikiLeaks effectively becomes of construct of the postmodern generation. It’s a severe case of the hyper-visible or the hyper-real.

There’s too much information, but the reaction to it is largely superficial. It is a classic case of the Baudrillard’s value system. Having an opinion is an indicator or a ‘sign’ of being informed. And that sign is more important than anything else for social acceptance. Knowledge and depth has no place. (Baudrillard, 1972) Most of it is actually manufactured by the Hegemonical discourse of the US Government-Media alliance. WikiLeaks did not reveal anything of great shock value. None of it was something that the world didn’t know already.

The backlash was just characteristic of an embarrassed and cornered entity. WikiLeaks shook the illusion of power and infallibility the Government had created around itself. Even the relentless persecution of Assange seemed like a ploy to take the attention away from the content of the cables. Unfortunately the move succeeded. WikiLeaks and Democracy All things said and done, we have to respect the sheer potential of WikiLeaks. It has the potential to become the digital Agora for a democracy. Agora is a Greek concept crucial to the core of democracy.

It is a platform where the truth is brought out in the open. This is a platform where opposing narratives are played out together, and analyzed against each other. In effect, WikiLeaks can be a platform to generate rational debate enriching the very foundations of democracy. But the problem with this theoretically perfect concept is the fact that there is a tendency to mistake the relationship of truth and the audience as the relationship between the truth-teller and his audience. Instead of the truth, the individual telling the truth falls under scrutiny. Foucault, 1972) This process, unfortunately, has been the undoing of all the good that something like WikiLeaks is capable of. But one has to admit that if there’s any chance of the formation of a global Agora, to protect the ideals of democracy, including equality and equanimity, it will have to come from something like the WikiLeaks.


Barker, C. (2008). Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. Sage. Baudrillard, J. (1972). For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. Chomsky, N. (2003). Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda.Seven Stories Press. Chomsky, N. , & Herman, E. S. (2008). Manufaturing Consent. London: The Bodley Head. Foucault, M. (1972). “Discourse and Truth: The Problematisation of Parrhesia”. Retrieved February 12, 2011, from (http://foucault. info/documents/parrhesia) Mashable. (n. d. ). Retrieved February 12, 2011, from http://mashable. com/2010/12/08/hackers-wikileaks-paypal-postfinance/ Nayar, P. (n. d. ). Academia . Retrieved February 11, 2011, from http://uohyd. academia. edu/pramodKNayar/Talks/28432/Infotopia Nayar, P. (2010, December 25).

WikiLeaks, the New Information Cultures and Digital Parrhesia. Economic & Political Weekly , pp. 27-30. Shah, N. (n. d. ). Retrieved February 11, 2011, from The Indian Express: http://www. indianexpress. com/news/the-geek-shall-inherit-the-earth/687985/ Wikileaks. (n. d. ). Retrieved February 11, 2011, from http://www. wikileaks. ch/About. html Wikipedia. (n. d. ). Retrieved February 12, 2011, from http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/WikiLeaks Wu, J. G. (2008). Who Controls the Internet: Illusions of a Borderless World. New York: Oxford University Press, London.

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