WikiLeaks: Losing Its Religion

April 23, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

Whether you like them or hate them, WikiLeaks stood for something important – after publishing the stolen Sony emails they have shown that this is no longer the case.

WikiLeaks operate from a fairly simple business model: rather than primarily pursuing their own material, WikiLeaks has presented itself as a central hub for global information – a permanent location for the airing of otherwise private material. The creation of such a platform would ideally inspire waves of ‘citizen journalism’, and become a magnet for grass-roots activism.

And to a large extent they succeeded. The imperviousness of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assuage to all efforts at influence or intimidation, gave the organisation an immediate legitimacy, and before long they had broken the paradigm of traditional news media. Ordinary people from all over the world, were inspired to often break the law and/or risk their own safety, in order to supply WikiLeaks with new material.

The unique selling point WikiLeaks held was a commitment to freedom of information, yet the cause they were pursuing was nothing new: social justice.

And it is here that WikiLeaks deserve credit. While it is reasonable to doubt their project, to criticise their methods, to question their leadership, or to consider them naïve, what is certain is that they believe that they are creating a better world.

Or at least this was the case until now.

Last November Sony Pictures were the victims of a cyber-attack by the North Korean state, in retaliation against the then imminent release of a movie, The Interview, openly mocking of Kim Jong-Un. The attack served its purpose, and the movie was withdrawn from cinemas – and later disseminated only in limited release at boutique venues and online. The information seized in the attack (30,000 documents and 170,000 emails) was later passed onto WikiLeaks – these documents have just been published in their entirety.

WikiLeaks has always flirted with its own existence. It is empirically very similar to the worst examples of tabloid journalism. Tabloids, just as with WikiLeaks, feel entitled to publish any and all information that they acquire, regardless of how it comes into their possession. The only discernible difference is in the intentions of the organisations and their publishing guidelines: whereas tabloids are driven by a commercial interest, WikiLeaks has always claimed to be driven by a commitment to social justice.

This is why the publication of the Sony data represents an abandonment of their previous business model. At the time of the original hack, the most damaging information was immediately made public by the North Koreans: a select few employee’s had privately shared racists jokes, just as other employees expressed derogatory feelings towards some of their celebrity clientele. That was the best of it! The rest was passed onto WikiLeaks.

So it is that the WikiLeaks homepage now displays links to covert CIA operations, Chinese censorship, extra-judicial killings, sexual abuse scandals, a NATO report on Afghanistan, and incongruously the internal communications of an innocuous corporation titled, ‘The Sony Archives’.

To justify this, WikiLeaks has claimed the information cache offered: “a rare insight into the inner workings of a large, secretive multinational corporation. The work publicly known from Sony is to produce entertainment; however, The Sony Archives show that behind the scenes this is an influential corporation, with ties to the White House (there are almost 100 US government email addresses in the archive), with an ability to impact laws and policies, and with connections to the US military-industrial complex.”

The claimed “connections” to the “military-industrial complex” is a dramatization of already publicly available information. That is, Sony’s Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton also holds a position on the board of the research and development company, RAND Corporation. Multiple positions in the corporate world are far from controversial, nor are they necessarily indicative of a surreptitious connection. And the WikiLeaks information offers nothing that to the contrary: merely emails where RAND is asking seeking permission to contact certain celebrities, and information concerning a possible data archiving partnership with IMAX.

Beyond this, the claimed “ties to the White House” is nothing more than a hyperbolic way to describe a selection of emails where the Government Relations department of Sony is doing its job and lobbying government.

However, the hardest part of the statement to swallow is the justifying claim to offer a “rare insight into the inner workings of a large, secretive multinational corporation”. Well yes, they are secretive, but only insofar as all corporations are in some sense secretive, or for that matter, insofar as all individuals are secretive. By this standard, all our personal emails, regardless of their content, now meet the new publishing standards for WikiLeaks.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the problem here might be less about the anodyne nature of the Sony Archives – after all, WikiLeaks is welcome to bore their readership if they wish – and more about the criminal acquisition of the files. However this is not really a challenge to the WikiLeaks business model. The organisation, and its global suppliers, have routinely ignored legal barriers in the past, and have been seemingly willing to accept the often heavy cost involved – Chelsea Manning is currently serving a 35 year prison sentence for leaking U.S. military documents to WikiLeaks.

Rather, the break which WikiLeaks has made is foundational to its existence: more than merely losing sight its own standard for operation – social justice – it has openly operated against any conceivable notion of it.

It is much less important that the Sony data is the windfall of a cyber-crime than what the data itself amounts to. The original theft from Sony was an attempt by the North Korean state to censor the free expression of a foreign company, and to try an intimidate into silence anyone who might consider a similar project in the future – now, by publishing the data without being able to point to any content that might justify it, WikiLeaks has just contributed to the global suppression of opinion, criticism and information.

So why would WikiLeaks sell out its own principles in this manner?

It has seemed for a while now that WikiLeaks has been dying a slow death. WikiLeaks has itself previously cooperated with mainstream media outlets, predominantly The Guardian, in order to make use of their much larger resources and global reach. And over time, it has effectively lost the monopoly it once held over its business model.

When NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, stole thousands of classified documents from his employers with the intent of bringing what he saw as departmental overreach to the public attention, rather than turning to WikiLeaks he disseminated the files to a selection of mainstream journalists. This is the reality that WikiLeaks now finds itself facing, its once innovative model is now in public ownership; with no shortage of creditable media outlets now willing to publish illicit information in the name of justice – WikiLeaks is being squeezed out of the market.

In light of this, and due to the inherent public interest value of information connected to a once top-billing international news story, it seems that the Sony content was just too hard for WikiLeaks to turn down.

And this is where WikiLeaks now finds itself: driven by a desire to remain relevant, seeking to increase readership at all costs, publishing according to commercial interest, and substantively indistinguishable from tabloid media.