Media

The Future of WikiLeaks

| Thu Jan. 6, 2011 12:38 PM EST

Sarah Ellison has a fascinating piece in Vanity Fair this month about the collaboration between WikiLeaks and the Guardian that resulted in the publication of all those diplomatic cables. After reading it, Henry Farrell draws two conclusions:

First — that Wikileaks-type organizations need strong connections with more traditional media if they are to succeed....Wikileaks is like the blogosphere before it became partially integrated with traditional media. There was a lot of interesting — and newsworthy — material that used to float about on blogs, but unless it was picked up by traditional media, it had little or no political impact.

....Second — that Wikileaks type operations need some kind of organizational infrastructure to work properly. The article discusses at several points Wikileaks’ perpetual need for money, and difficulty in doing what it wanted to do with its material because of lack of money and organizational resources. Taken together, these suggest that Wikileaks-type phenomena are nowhere near as invulnerable to concerted state action as some of the more glib commentators have suggested.

I don't know if this is already common knowledge and I just haven't been following the story closely enough, but it turns out that Julian Assange kept very tight control over what could be released and what couldn't. But shortly before publication started, the Guardian got hold of a second copy of the database of diplomatic cables ("package three") from, ironically, a leaker within WikiLeaks:

In October, while The Guardian was preparing to publish the Iraq War Logs and working on package three, Heather Brooke, a British freelance journalist who had written a book on freedom of information, had a copy of the package-three database leaked to her by a former WikiLeaks volunteer. [Guardian investigations editor David] Leigh shrewdly invited Brooke to join the Guardian team. He did not want her taking the story to another paper. Furthermore, by securing the same database from a source other than Assange, The Guardian might then be free of its promise to wait for Assange’s green light to publish. Leigh got the documents from Brooke, and the paper distributed them to Der Spiegel and The New York Times. The three news organizations were poised to publish the material on November 8.

Assange didn't take this well and threatened to sue. Eventually, an agreement was reached to begin releasing the material on November 29.

In any case, the entire piece is worth a read, as are Henry's observations. My own guess is that he's overestimating the difficulty of running a WikiLeaks-style organization: after the success of the current document release, I suspect that other organizations with access to big databases of leaked material will have little trouble finding media partners to help them publicize it. In time, it might even become a pretty standard way of doing business. And while funding will remain an issue, I imagine that organizations dedicated to leaking will, over time, develop both an infrastructure and a way of doing business that works pretty well. WikiLeaks may be in trouble right now, but others will learn from their mistakes.