Julian Assange on Crowd Sourcing, Values and Journalism

This morning I was watching a panel discussion from the Logan Symposium at UC Berkley, (in six parts, find part 1 here). The panel is interesting in general, especially because it includes both Assange’s activist position, and more traditional journalistic opinions. But what stood out for me were Assange’s comments on why Cablegate was being pursued differently than the War Logs or Afghan Diaries. Specifically, whereas those leaks were published all at once, as a dump of source material on the internet, CableGate is being released slowly and with privileged access to specific press institutions. Here’s why:

Our initial idea, which never got… our initial idea was “look at all those people editing wikipedia”. Look at all the junk they are working on. Certainly if you give them a fresh classified document on the human rights atrocities in Fallujah, that the rest of the world has not seen before, you know it’s a secret document. Certainly all those people working on articles in art history, maths, and so on, and all those bloggers who are busy pontificating on the human rights disasters… who are complaining they can only respond to the NY times because they don’t have sources of their own. Surely those people will step forward, given fresh source material, and do something. No, it’s all bullshit. All bullshit. In fact, people write about things in general, if it’s not part of their career, because they want to display their values to their peers who are already in the same group. Actually they don’t give a fuck about the material, that’s the reality. So we understood from very early on that we would have to at least give summaries of the material we were releasing. At least summaries to get people to pick it up, to get them to dig deeper. And if we didn’t have a summery to put the thing in context, it would just fall into the gutter. And in cases where the material is more complex especially military material which has lots of acronyms. It’s not enough to do a summery. You have to do an article, or liaise with other journalists on an exclusive or semi exclusive basis, to get them to extract it into semi understandable human readable form.

But unlike other organizations we always release the full source material at the same time. Everything we do is like science, it is checkable, because the material that informed our conclusions is there. Just like scientific papers based on experimental data must make that data available to other scientists and to the public if they want their papers to be published. So our philosophy is raw source material must be made available so conclusions can be checkable.

We are an activist organization. The method is transparency, the goal is justice, part of the method is journalist. Our end goal is to achieve justice, and our sources goals, usually, is also to achieve justice. So when they give us material what we promise is not just that we’ll protect them, but that we’ll get maximum impact from the material.

This passage is interesting for a number of reasons. First because it diagnoses the need for print, or at least paid journalism in the age of the high internet – yes people will do things for free, but they won’t necessarily do the difficult work. And the work they will do tends to be because it is in conformity with existing values, thus subject to confirmation bias.

Secondly, it is interesting because it stresses the difference between raw and interpreted material – of couse all material is always interpreted, but if you don’t have the skills to read something (i.e. something which doesn’t make sense outside of context, or something which uses acronyms you don’t understand), then it won’t mean much to you, and you won’t be able to say anything meaningful about it- moreover, you won’t want to say anything meaningful about it; you’ll want to move onto the next thing. This means it is perfectly possible for evidence of crimes to be out there in the open, on the War Logs servers for instance, and yet no one will say anything about it because no one who would want to say anything about it has both the time to read through it, and the skill to know what they are reading.

Third, it’s interesting because it is plain about its bias, goals, allegiances and method. It’s actually elsewhere in the talk where Assange explains that the primary allegiance of wikileaks is not to its readers (or, as in the case of capitalist media, its investors), but its sources. But here those allegiances are brought into the larger context of the goals and methods of the organization: the goal is justice, the method is transparency. And, moreover, the value is effectivity; their aim is to use the material they have to maximize the amount of justice they can effect on the world. I think this is basically the right way to go about things – be transparent about your values and goals, rather than pretending not to have any. The journalistic ideal of neutrality, of “unbiased reporting” is a blatantly absurd – everyone has goals; if you were “unbiased”, technically speaking, you would be clinically depressed and unable to get out of bed in the morning because you wouldn’t feel any reason to live.

I’d be interested in hearing the opinions of others on the wikileaks journalistic project, and the implications of the claims made above on citizen, crowd-sourced journalism.

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2 thoughts on “Julian Assange on Crowd Sourcing, Values and Journalism

  1. Interesting points. Well said.

    I think that Assange has a solid point to make. But he can’t be right about crowdsourcing and value-mongering. Wikipedia, after all, has some very select and esoteric wikis that demand high levels of prior technical skill and social cooperation to write. Yes, this is all connected to the passions of the people who work on the articles, and in that sense Assange is correct. But it’s still crowdsourcing, and it involves hard work, and people do it successfully.

    The difference is that in order to be an effective analyst at Wikileaks, you can’t just spill the beans on your favorite pet subject (unlike Wikipedia). Instead, you have to actively learn new skills in order to make sense of the data you’re getting. Assange can’t just say to the crowd, “OK, now put the information in this briefing in context” and expect that to be a task that everyone knows how to do. It’s not that people are values-mongers all the way down; it’s also a fact of the matter that they’re not private investigators, and don’t have the skills that are required.

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