Free-for-alls, Wikileaks and why my opinion matters

As observed quite well HERE, the internet’s number one appeal these days is that it makes people feel important. Like talkback radio on steroids, the web lets any idiot with a keyboard and an opinion get airtime that they could never have even dreamed of before. Morons can connect with each other from across the globe and pat each other on the back for making stupid pictures of penguins with subtitles. Want an example? The “Bed Intruder Song” was the most highly viewed youtube video of last year and the number one comment is:

“THIS VIDEO HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH JUSTIN BIEBER, JUSTIN BIEBER IS GAY SO QUIT TALKING ABOUT HIM THIS IS NOT HIS VIDEO, THUMBS UP FOR ANTOINE DODSON CAUSE HES THE BEST”

That turd has been read by millions of people – something like that would never have happened even 5 years ago. Hell, the whole blogosphere was built by people who think they have something to say (besides me, my opinion really does matter, obviously). As that Paul Ford post said:

To read a book people will turn to their phones. But the web is where they will go to complain.

In The Man Who Spilled the Secrets, Vanity Fair’s Sarah Ellison details the relationship between Wikileaks’ Julian Assange and the mainstream media, particularly the Guardian. This really illuminates the difference between the internet’s “free-for-all, everything counts” philosophy and the more traditional media’s quality-controlled approach.

The Guardian, like other media outlets, would come to see Assange as someone to be handled with kid gloves, or perhaps latex ones—too alluring to ignore, too tainted to unequivocally embrace. Assange would come to see the mainstream media as a tool to be used and discarded, and at all times treated with suspicion…

The biggest gulf between WikiLeaks and the traditional news outlets lay in their approaches to editing. Put simply, WikiLeaks didn’t have one, or believe in one. “Neither us nor Der Spiegel nor The New York Times was ever going to print names of people who were going to get reprisals, anymore than we would do on any other occasion,” says David Leigh. “We were starting from: ‘Here’s a document. How much of it shall we print?’ Whereas Julian’s ideology was: ‘I shall dump everything out and then you have to try and persuade me to cross a few things out.’ We were coming at it from opposite poles.”

As the article says, the Guardian is probably considered more of a rogue (i.e. lower reporting standards) than most large newspapers, and yet there was still a huge gulf between their mentality and Assange’s. Assange’s has also been changing over time – he is becoming more and more aware that it actually is important to filter what is published and that there are repercussions to putting certain things out there.

This is exactly the problem with the internet being the way it is – with no quality control anywhere, very dangerous opinions can be spread fairly easily. For example, a whole series of terror attacks have been linked to American/Yemeni clerid Anwar al-Awlaki – most recently, the attempted stabbing of a British MP by Roshana Choudry. The terrorists’ whole ideology came from online material, as did their contact with Awlaki, who eventually convinced them to attack.

Not that I’m comparing Awlaki to Assange at all, but doing something as significant Wikileaks does requires some level of responsibility. Either way, it seems to be catching up with him – as the article notes:

Through December, WikiLeaks still wasn’t collecting new documents from potential whistle-blowers. The site is crowded with pleas for donations. “He is short of money and short of secrets,” someone who has worked extensively with Assange told me. “The whole thing has collapsed.”

The final take-home point is the Guardian‘s motto, which I have never read before but now love. Opinions are always going to be up for debate, but it’s the facts in the end that will win the day. That is why these stupid conspiracy theories about Israel are so crazy and why Wikileaks in the end probably wasn’t the worst thing to ever happen. Through all the stuff that probably shouldn’t have gotten out, we did find out that, despite a little dirty laundry, in general the US, Australia, the UK, Israel and other such nations pretty much make their views and agendas public, whereas other countries completely do not (Saudi Arabia, I’m looking at you). I’d love to see what the Iranian diplomatic cables would look like…

Scott outlined the paper’s principles in a centenary editorial on May 5, 1921, in which he put forth what has become the paper’s motto: “Comment is free, but the facts are sacred.”

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