Wikileaks analysis part 2: Power in a networked society

*This is the second post about Wikileaks and the implications it has on the current political, media and technological landscape. The first one can be found here.*

Michael Trice from Leeds University's Centre for Digital Citizenship wrote an interesting post recently evaluating Wikileaks' impact on the distribution of power in our contemporary, networked society.

Michael suggested that, in the terminology of academic Manual Castells, Wikileaks has used the media as a 'switcher' network – that is, it re-directs or reorients the goals of other networks to ensure it achieves a greater audience for itself and information.

I responded to Michael's blog post with a comment that opposed this perspective and suggested an alternative reading which I've re-posted below.

But before I re-post my [slightly updated and edited] comment here's a quick recap of what Castell's means by 'switching' and 'programming' power within networks:

Castells argues that power within a networked society fundamentally concerns actors' (both individuals and groups) ability to establish and control particular networks.

This control can be achieved in one of two ways:

  1. the ability to constitute network(s), and to program/reprogram the network(s) in terms of goals assigned to the network (largely by setting and controlling the way we perceive issues and information)
  2. the ability to connect and ensure cooperation of different networks by sharing common goals and combining resources (i.e. identifying like-minded networks with which you can work to challenge the dominant program)

Castells calls actors in the first mechanism ‘programmers’ and those in the second mechanism, ‘switchers’.
  
Contrasting Michael's argument that Wikileaks uses the global media to 'switch' power within networks, I suggest that if global media traditionally set the goals of our communication networks, it’s fair to argue that these goals tend to create coverage that a) minimises criticism of government activities b) is increasingly reliant of ‘soft’, entertainment stories and c) increasingly linked to official sources of information through proactive and reactive news management/PR (see point a))

So, if Wikileaks can provide source material for the media to cover issues that are traditionally the preserve of niche and, arguably, radical media then surely Wikileaks is the network switcher, working strategically to ensure the “cooperation of different networks” of traditional media and using it to publicise Wikileaks and its material and achieve its goals (presenting confidential material to a wider audience).

But perhaps more interesting is not the effect Wikileaks is having on media networks, but rather its role as a case study proving Castells’ theory of ‘Networking power’.

Castells believes this abstraction of power in a network society is about the power of those actors that are included in a network over those that are not.

For example, all the benefits of being connected to the Internet are available to those with Internet access. Those without access, lose out.

With this in mind, it would certainly seem that the US government (and no doubt other governments) along with corporate actors are doing their best to exclude Wikileaks [and also Assange] from dominant networks that most of us rely on for participation in our networked society.

If we continue to use the Internet as an example, cutting off Wikileaks from its servers (e.g. Amazon) is about excluding the organisation. From a financial perspective Mastercard, Visa and Paypal are examples of pulling the plug and excluding the organisation from financial networks. From a media perspective counter-briefing & pressuring media to report critically, etc, etc.

A further test of Castell’s hypotheses on power in networks will be the outcome of all this wrangllng between Wikileaks and established power networks.

On the subject of ultimate power, Castell’s is either vague or evasive. He believes that such a question is either easy or impossible to answer.

Easy, because we can say – for example – the US government can pull enough strings with actors within networks to shut down Wikileaks and silence Assange for good.

But also impossible to answer if we accept that even though Wikileaks might be shut down and Assange silenced, the leaked material will still have residual presence on other nodes within numerous networks – plus the Wikileaks model is replicable and will no doubt be imitated by other network actors.

So, while Wikileaks adds to discussion and analysis of Castells' notion of ‘Switching’ and 'Programming' power it also has a lot to offer for empirical validation of Castell’s wider theories of power in a networked society.

Wikileaks analysis Part 1: Some notes on transparency

There's been a lot of discussion of Wikileaks and it's high-profile founder, Julian Assange, recently. Some of it tittle-tattle led mainstream news stuff, and some more reasoned critical analysis.

I've come acoss a few good blog posts that have spurred me to spend time thinking about Wikileaks and the deeper implcations the site-cum-organisation might have for contemporary media and politics. 

As often happens, my intention to post short, pithy comments in response fails and I end up postng longercomments than planned.

So I thought I'd round them up into a couple of blog posts about Wikileaks and a couple of central themes.

In this first post, I responded to a couple of big questions Jed Hallam asked about Wikileaks and its effect on transparency, particularly from the perspective of the individual.

Jed asked whether the fall-out from Wikileaks will mean that people (and I'd presume this term can apply at both a individual and collective, organisational level) start "behaving themselves [...] thus destrying any risk of being found out".

Or perhaps things will go the opposite way with people becoming "ultra-concerned about their privacy" online as possibly evidence by phenomena such as whitewalling (amply demonstrated by Drew)

FInally, Jed asked whether "the world will totally change and people will become totally relaxed about who they are and what they do – every tweet and Facebook update will become accountable for and Eric Schmidt will die a happy man."

I argued that we'll end up with a mixture of two and three. There's a possiblility Julian Assange will see the effects of his "secrecy tax" come to fruition but I'm not too sure in my comment:

Yes, people can leak documents on the web. But they have to get them first. Geert Lovink’s 10 Theses on Wikileaks is relevant here as he makes the claim that Wikileaks only offers a quantitative difference to existing whistle-blowing, not a qualitative one.

Plus, Wikileaks is the antithesis of transparency. We don’t know if the leaks are accurate or planted. Nor do we know how WLs operates, how it chooses or edits material, for example.

Secondly, how likely in realist terms will it be for the government or state or even corporations to become ‘squeaky clean’ in case they’re exposed?

Cory Doctorow wrote a great Comment is Free piece after the G20 protests in London where crowd-sourced citizen journalism content exposed police involvement in the death of Ian Tomlinson, despite their initial flat denials.

Doctorow argued that transparency is nothing unless justice is done. What happened next? The policeman in question was acquitted and faced no further charges.

Transparency in this context only *reinforces* the feeling of disempowerment, helplessness and frustration with existing power.

WIll the US will clean up its military and diplomatic procedures as a result of Wikileaks?

Sadly, I think not. Although I do agree the web will demand some changes at the edges of organisational behaviour, it will outdone by a reliance on information management – both internally and externally – rather than drive significant – and certainly ethical – changes to corporate and organisational behaviour.

For example, the media were circulated D-Notices ahead of the #Cablegate release so it’s very possible what gets reported in the press is still only half the story – and what I’ve read so far isn’t really “news” (e.g. middle eastern leaders wanted to invade Iran (Shock!) and the US urged diplomats to spy on UN members?

Hardly ground-breaking when it was reported years ago that MI6 is/was actively spying on UN delegates.)

I do however, agree, that the web may well change the ability of governments/states and corporations to censor information (Trafigura was a good case in point from a corporate perspective) but of course, all governments and states need to do is move up the food-chain and start blocking/censoring the source of information.

See this very recent story of the UK police applying direct to Nominet to gain take down powers for websites engaged in “criminal activity” as a perfect example.

Of course, criminal activity is subjective but I would imagine that as long as websites are engaged in publishing harmless entertainment they'll be fine.

Which leads me to your third proposition. I agree…. people are ncreasingly opening up and putting more and more personal information online.

And at a day-to-day level I like this idea. I do believe it will force the public and private sector to adopt similar approaches and further push transparency as a tool/outcome to a certain degree.

But equally, I don’t think this will ultimately make for a more equal or even balance of power. The use and abuse of this by corporations, governments and states will no doubt over-ride any greater benefit for the greater good. The Cybernetic Hypothesis has more to say about this.

And this, I think, might bring us full circle.

Wikileaks: 10 Theses by Lovink & Riemens

Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens have posted a really interesting analysis of Wikileaks – which is well timed given the current traditional mass media attention.

Their 10 theses begins with some basic reading for those new to wikileaks or crowd-sourced, collaborative investigative journalism that paces it firmly in a time-worn tradition:

These 1:

"[…] Disclosures and leaks have been of all times, but never before has non state- or non- corporate affiliated group done ever before has a non state- or non- corporate affiliated group done this at the scale Wikileaks managed to with the 'Afghan War Logs'.”

Given the current media hype around Wikileaks and the War in Iraq, Lovink and Riemens inject some critical reflection into the debate:

“Nonetheless,” they argue:

“we believe that this is more something of a quantitative leap than of a qualitative one. […] In the ongoing saga termed "The Decline of the US Empire", Wikileaks enters the stage as the slayer of a soft target. It would be difficult to imagine it doing quite the same to the Russian or Chinese  
government, or even to that of Singapore – not to speak of their … 
err… 'corporate' affiliates. Here distinct, and huge, cultural and  
linguistic barriers are at work, not to speak of purely power-related ones, that would need to be surmounted."

Lovink and Riemen's Theses are broad and searching and help any social media evangelists place the current Wikileaks phenomenon into perspective. A must read.