By Hadas Aron and Emily Holland
In an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News, Julian Assange dropped the bomb that he would release “thousands” of documents that will have a “significant” impact in the upcoming presidential elections. Earlier this election season Assange’s WikiLeaks published emails from DNC officials leading to the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz amongst others. Now he has announced that he will put out some “teasers” and then release documents about Hillary Clinton, the DNC and the upcoming presidential election.
As liberal academics whose normative inclination is to open information democracy we were surprised that our reaction to Assange was negative. Perhaps we are the type of liberals who only stand by our liberal values when it is convenient. But maybe there is more to this aversion of Assange and his tactics.
Assange continuously presents himself as a champion of transparency and freedom of information. But in fact, WikiLeaks chooses which information to present, how to publicize it and the most effective timing for achieving its goals. WikiLeaks has had these emails for months and could have easily published all of them together, letting readers decide for themselves what is important. Publicizing “teasers” of the emails and timing their release before the height of the presidential race goes far beyond the admirable goal of freedom of information. Assange and WikiLeaks have a political goal and framing it under the guise of freedom of information is misleading.
Some, in particular those in the Democratic Party, accuse Assange of having ties to Russia. We do not have the information to weigh in on this accusation, especially because there is a war of narratives between the U.S. government and Assange, both of whom are powerful media actors (of course the US has the advantage here). But it should be noted that freedom of information in the world since the inception of WikiLeaks is not on the rise. Many regimes, including Russia, have become less transparent in the past decade despite the rise of open information online. Another prominent example is China: despite the enormous rise in internet availability the state still controls the flow of information and government processes are still very opaque. The online revolution of information seems to affect only liberal democratic regimes.
Assange presents himself as the prophet of free information unveiling the dark secrets of powerful actors. But in fact free information is not a new phenomenon. Although the technology has changed, whistleblowers have always been influential in politics and other arenas. Throughout history insiders have uncovered plots and secrets and mobilized popular support accordingly. There were numerous plots revealed during French Revolution that influenced the course of events, the Dreyfus affair hinged on notes found in a trashcan, and of course Watergate and the Pentagon Papers were scandals around the release of secret information. Assange did not invent whistleblowing and in fact WikiLeaks has had probably less effect than these pre-internet examples. Today there is a massive amount of information being leaked: they key to its usefulness is selection and interpretation. Traditionally this is the role of the media. Assange argues that in the age of Internet there is no need for elite gatekeepers to filter information to the masses, but in fact he is himself assuming the role of an elite gatekeeper without honestly acknowledging it.
We support freedom of information and believe in transparency. But it is important to remember that all information comes with an agenda, whether it is the agenda of the US government or the agenda of Julian Assange. These actors are so powerful it makes it difficult to identify the agenda, especially when they are not being honest about it. We believe that the role of the media as an interpreter and communicator of information, with its own agenda, ideally to support liberal democracy, is as important as ever.