Robert Redford, the Newsmedia and the WikiLeaks’ Cablegate

2009 portrait of the actorI fell in love with Robert Redford in The Sting when he was young and I was younger. Redford is one of the cinema’s greatest undervalued comedians; his timing is flawless as showcased in early work like “Barefoot In The Park” or later “Legal Eagles”. He even brought humour to his portrayal of “the Sundance Kid,” for whom his film festival is named.

But Redford has put in some brilliant performances in political films over the years.

He turned in a brilliant performance in a cautionary tale called “The Candidate,” which demonstrates clearly how degraded democracies can become.

But there are two movies I was reminded of when I read about today’s WikiLeaks story.

At the end of the movie “Three Days of the Condor,” the inadvertent hero Redford plays achieves freedom the only possible way:

by releasing the classified information to the media.

Because we know that even though he is a whistle blower, once the world knows he will be safe.
And we know the news media will ensure that the story gets out.

We know that.

WikiLeaks "hourglass leaking earth" logo
Robert Redford also played Bob Woodward in “All The President’s Men,” the film version of the true story of the “Watergate” scandal that brought down the Nixon administration.

There are countless stories of the bravery of reporters who risked, and in many cases lost– their lives in pursuit of a story that was important to them and the public. And it still happens.

But that doesn’t alter the fact that the world has changed a lot in the last few decades. In many cases, the News Media is not doing the job we believe it is. Citizens around the globe have NOT been told about the dangers of ACTA or the importance of Net Neutrality to free speech and democracy.

Part of it is, I am sure, that technological advances, in particular the Internet, has caused great upheavals in the Media business. As ownership has been increasingly centralized, downsizing, “dumbing down” and decimation of staff has left many newsrooms in very reduced and weakened states. The agendas of the corporate masters more often determines what is reported and how.

So we are very fortunate to have WikiLeaks.

WikiLeaks was gifted with a heap of really important information. In order to ensure dissemination, they passed them around to five major news outlets located in 5 different countries. Each were aware the others had the story, so they ALL had no CHOICE but to publish, with or without corporate or government approval.

In this way, WikiLeaks guaranteed that the story broke and spread.

UK: The Guardian US embassy cables leak sparks global diplomacy crisis

SPAIN: El Pais The greater infiltration of history reveals the secrets of American foreign policy (Google translation to English)

USA: New York Times: Cables Obtained by WikiLeaks Shine Light Into Secret Diplomatic Channels

FRANCE: LeMonde WikiLeaks: Behind the Scenes of American diplomacy (Google translation to English)

der Spiegel: Greatest Data Leak in US Military History

Now that it is out, there is no stopping it.

Al Jazeera: Secret US embassy cables revealed

Perth Now: Australia on WikiLeaks ‘cablegate’

boingboing: Wikileaks secret US Embassy cable site live

Mobile Tribune: 1128-“When the Head is Rotten, It Affects the Whole Body” WikiLeaks Cable Quote from Saudi King Abdullah

ANTIWAR.com: State Dept: FDP Makes Germany a ‘Difficult Partner’ in Terror War -Cable Says FDP Too Interested in Personal Privacy to Be Responsible Partner

This will go on for months. Maybe years.

@glynmoody

US ambassador to the UK complains about the loss of *privacy* of those writing the cables – http://bit.ly/eHlQWC #wikileaks

Guardian: US diplomats spied on UN leadership

There is a huge amount of information, and it will take time to digest, but at least it has gotten out. That’s a good thing.

Der Spiegel also has an interactive map.

@DougSaunders

Have you noticed that you can hit the “play” button on the Spiegel map and it shows the cable-bubbles appearing year after year?

— Doug Saunders, European Bureau Chief, The Globe and Mail

The map shows Canadian cables for:

  • Vancouver 44
  • Calgary 14
  • Ottawa 1948
  • Montreal 82
  • Quebec 52
  • Halifax 136

Of course, no Canadian news outlet was selected as a recipient of any of these WikiLeaks cables.

@kady

I mean, at least if there was a Canadian media partner, there would be someone to bully/entreat over upcoming Cdn coverage. #wl

–Kady O’Malley, CBC reporter

Canadian Coverage

red maple leaf graphic

CBC: WikiLeaks reveals undiplomatic U.S. critiques

Canada’s government funded public broadcaster, the CBC, uses an American “Licensing” scheme which doesn’t allow even purely non-profit fair dealing reuse of their publications by Canadian citizens. So why would WikiLeaks even CONSIDER releasing this story to CBC?

Clearly, just like in “Three Days of the Condor,” WikiLeaks wants to spread the story as far and wide and as fast as possible. So that it can’t be stopped.

Globe & Mail: Released WikiLeaks documents shed light on diplomatic dispatches

The Globe likes to call itself “Canada’s National Newspaper,” but like that other television broadcaster, the Globe is owned by Bell Canada Enterprises. I assume that this corporate connection would be the reason why the Globe has been first so quiet and about the  fact  Canadian Internet rates are shortly to go through the roof due to Usage Based Billing.  It is only recently that it’s been possible to find UBB on their website at all.  Now  that they are, the bias is thick enough to cut with a knife.

As a blogger I prefer not to link to Globe articles because in the past they’ve broken links by placing articled behind a paywall.

So I can’t imagine the Globe standing up to government pressure to suppress the WikiLeaks story.

Having a Canadian Government in the process of pushing through Bill C-32 in the face of Universal opposition to appease the American Government, it’s easy to imagine our government buckling at the first sign of American disapproval.

So WikiLeaks released the Cables to 5 dispersed news outlets as a strategy to ensure that the story will break.  Because that is the reason for the very existance of WikiLeaks: to get the story out.  Even if it means the end of WikiLeaks.

Which is, of course, why WikiLeaks is so incredibly dangerous to governments who want to act without oversight or scrutiny.  And why Wikileaks is the destination of choice for whistleblowers with politically sensitive leaks go.  Because WikiLeaks is in it to get the story out.  Period.

Last Hurrah?

Even so, WikiLeaks has been down every time I’ve attempted to visit their site today.

I saw an unsubstantiated report that they were suffering a DDoS attack. And it isn’t hard to imagine where such an attack may have originated.

Of course, their servers may simply have gone down under the onslaught of un-official media outlets (like me).

Of course there have been tales of military personnel wishing for the demise of WikiLeaks. If they didn’t like WikiLeaks before this…

This story is out. It can’t be put back in the bottle. And that’s good.

If WikiLeaks is targeted, or taken down, what I worry about is the next story.

we are ALL in this together

Fortunately, I’m not alone in my concerns.

When Iceland’s Modern Media Initiative gets referendum approval, they are aiming to be good to go by 2012.

ICELAND TO BECOME INTERNATIONAL TRANSPARENCY HAVEN

“I am proud to advise the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative’s proposal to create a global safe haven for investigative journalism. I believe this proposal is a strong way of encouraging integrity and responsive government around the world, including in Iceland. In my work investigating corruption I have seen how important it is to have have robust mechanisms to get information out to the public. Iceland, with its fresh perspectives and courageous, independent people seems to be the perfect place to initiate such an effort towards global transparency and justice.”
—Eva Joly MEP – Icelandic Modern Media Initiative

That will be good for us all. Lets keep our fingers crossed that WikiLeaks can last that long.

Just In: WikiLeaks is Live!

Now you can peruse the Secret US Embassy Cables yourself.

Get ’em while they’re hot.

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Image Credits:
Robert Redford photo by Public Citizen published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.

Thanks @nomalab, @satipera and Glyn Moody and Jérémie Zimmermann

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Tie Theory

Gladwell at a table, Los Angeles, January 2009

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a New Yorker article called Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted, ostensibly about the superiority of “strong ties” versus “weak ties” in social activism. His premise is that “social media” — that is to say, Twitter and Facebook — are not able to effect real social change.

Telling us that social activism requires closely connected people, Gladwell devotes much of the article explaining how the students who began the Greensboro sit-in in 1960 were friends and roommates. They had strong ties. Then he introduces the “second crucial distinction between traditional activism and its online variant”, a centrally controlled hierarchical organizational system.

Twitter and Facebook aren’t hierarchies but loose networks of acquaintances and strangers, which result in weak ties, according to Gladwell. He contends these networks are “effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires” which implies devaluation of this participation.

Gladwell dismisses an example of a digital “weak-tie” campaign that got people to sign up for a bone marrow registry.   Not because it wasn’t successful.   It was.   But because it somehow doesn’t meet with Gladwell’s criteria for social activism.   It lowered the barrier and made it too easy for people to participate.   I’m not quite sure what is wrong with lowering the barriers to participation.   Isn’t citizen engagement is a good thing?

Gladwell maintains that networks are not as effective or efficient as hierarchies because,

“How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?”

Centralization can be more efficient because there is single decision maker.   It works the same in government, with an omnipotent ruler as the head of state decisions are easy.   It’s always easier to forcibly impose “discipline” than it is to build consensus.

friendship = “strong ties”

As Gladwell points out, real world friendship can make for some very strong ties.   The two examples cited show clearly what can result from the strong ties of friendship.   On one hand, you can have something as important as the Civil Rights Movement; on the other, strong ties of friendship can result in a frivolous campaign to punish the person who stole your friend’s cell phone and wouldn’t give it back.

Both examples demonstrate successful campaigns.   One used the strong tie hierarchy of the Civil Rights Movement, the other the weak tie network of social media.

So, what has been proven, exactly?

Probably the low point of the article was Gladwell’s repetition of the oft used Facebook meme:

The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend…”

Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker: Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted

Clearly, Gladwell doesn’t use Facebook.   Yesterday on the New Yorker live chat he admitted he’s not a Twitter user either, but that “I think someone created a twitter account in my name, and tweeted things a while back.”

Urban legends aside, the real point seems to be that Malcolm Gladwell doesn’t like Facebook or Twitter.   He doesn’t see the point.

Malcolm Gladwell:
I have nothing against Twitter. And I’d use it if I had more time. . . Here’s the deeper issue for someone like me or, for that matter, anyone contemplating using tools like Twitter. What is it you want to accomplish? Do you want a broad audience? Or a deep audience? In other words, would you rather do the best possible job engaging with a small but focused audience. Or would you rather spend your marginal hour reaching a large audience on a superficial level? There are lot of situations where the latter is a reasonable choice–like if I’m selling something, or announcing an event, or sharing a small but crucial bit of information. But I’m interested in exploring ideas in depth with the (small) group of people willing to geek-out with me. That makes strategy A a better choice.

—Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker Ask the Author Live: Malcolm Gladwell on Twitter

What caused the escalation from not wanting or needing a set of tools to attacking the validity of the tools?

Malcolm Gladwell makes it clear he is opposed to Facebook and Twitter.   There are all kinds of things wrong with these two “social media” platforms.

Yet to my great disappointment, Gladwell doesn’t seem to know what they are.

apples and oranges

For the argument to have had legitimacy, it should have compared tools with tools, or systems with systems. It would have been reasonable to compare social media with mass media, say.   Instead, Civil Rights Movement Activists are compared with Twitter and Facebook.   Gladwell isn’t proving a theory, he’s telling us what he believes an activist should be and we’re supposed to take it on faith.

All it takes to counter “tie theory” is a different incident from the Civil Rights Movement.

No central hiearchy told Rosa Parks to refuse to give up her seat on the bus.   Even though there were others on the bus who shared her plight, lived in the same geographic location, rode the same bus, suffered the same oppression— all presumably the stuff of “strong ties”— those people chose not to stand with her that day.   She made her decision to resist as an individual.   Strong ties or not, the others moved to the back of the bus.

Activism doesn’t have to the result of some grand design strategized by a central committee.   Quite often it just happens when people have reached their tipping point.

From the Live Chat:

[Comment From William Carleton: ]
Mr. Gladwell, the COO of Facebook and a Twitter exec both spoke at a marketing conference this week. In a way, they seem to be making your case for you, without much sense of irony. The description of the session led by the FB exec talks of “activisim” as a brand promotion tool. Do you think part of why social media reinforces the status quo may be because the stewards of the most succesful platforms seem to be selling them short?

Malcolm Gladwell:
That’s hilarious. If the civil rights movment were taking place today, do you think that some corporate entity would see it as a brand opportunity as well? Would Dr. King have done Nike ads? But yes, I’m not sure Facebook does much for real activism when they treat it as just another app.”

graphic reproduction of page one of Freedom's Journal
The printing press was a tool for social activism

activism IS just another app to a corporation

Neither Facebook or Twitter are activists; they are corporations. They are not forces for good or evil.
They exist to make a profit.   These are businesses that provide a platform and offer apps.   Corporations
don’t care about the environment, but they will
go “green” if it means an increase in profitability.

A long time ago, a man named Gutenberg invented a tool called a printing press.   Over the years, this invention has been used to print bibles, history books, political manifestos, novels, newspapers, wedding invitations and even magazines like the New Yorker.   A tool is only as good as the use to which it’s put.

So why is Malcolm Gladwell attacking “social media”?   Although asked to define “social media” it in yesterday’s chat, he declined.   In the article he says,

It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo. If you are of the opinion that all the world needs is a little buffing around the edges, this should not trouble you. But if you think that there are still lunch counters out there that need integrating it ought to give you pause.

Malcolm Gladwell, Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted

According to Gladwell, social media tools are not only a waste of time which could be better spent making a real difference, but they bolster the status quo.   He doesn’t offer any support for this premise either, though.

During the article he raises the stakes so that we aren’t just talking about ‘activism, we’re talking about ‘high-risk activism.’   The implication being that social activism without a component of personal jeopardy is not important.   Which is kind of like saying journalism without jeopardy is valueless.

Like Gladwell, I too grew up with stories of the civil rights movement.   A lot was accomplished.   Great odds were overcome.   And of course it makes for high drama.   Which is great on a movie screen but for the people living it, not so much.   In fact, I’m guessing that most activists would prefer not to give up their lives or their freedom or their livelihoods to meet their goals.   Think how much more Mr. King might have accomplished had he lived.

White lowercase letter F on a blue field is the FaceBook logo

Many of the more than 200,000 Canadians who had felt increasingly disenfranchised by unresponsive government have been organizing under the Canadians Against Proroguing Parliament group on Facebook.

Because it IS “easier for the powerless to collaborate, coördinate, and give voice to their concerns.”   And that’s a good thing.

Ironically a high school student created a Facebook activist group that helped save a forest in Gladwell’s home town.

Without actually using digital media, it is easy to be ignorant of the fact that conversations are possible in 140 character bursts. Links to longer works or reference material can be transmitted if more depth is required.

Malcolm Gladwell should understand the importance of these communication media, as he says himself,

“Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency.

Malcolm Gladwell Small Change

Yet he brushes it off as being important to business, not activism.   It seems that Malcolm Gladwell thinks we have all the information we need.   I think he’s wrong.   The older I get, the more there is to learn.

Particularly as we are smack dab in the midst of a digital revolution. It was fascinating to watch history being made as the UK’s Digital Economy Bill was debated in the House of Lords while being filled in on the background by UK citizens on an IRC channel.   Twitter and Facebook aren’t the whole story, there are blogs, and podcasts, and even other microblogging services like the non-proprietary Identi.ca.   There are a great many activists to be found on Twitter, and some of the ones I know are:

The blue Twitter bird mascot

@doctorow     @ninapaley     @JesseBrown     @Openattitude     @schestowitz     @PaoloBrini     @p2pnet     @jkoblovsky     @techdirt     @ZeroPaid     @Org9     @zotzbro     @mgeist     @GloriousAndFree     @zittrain     @Crosbie     @lessig     @jerezim     @_the_mad_hatter     @russellmcormond     @copyrightgirl     @crime_minister     @s_nunn     @mgifford     @EFF     @publicknowledge     @creativecommons     @juditrius     @StopActaNow     @OpenRightsGroup     @CETAWatch

Canada is very fortunate to have online activists.   This is especially important at a time when the main stream news media has failed to adequately inform citizens on a number of important topics.   Bloggers and online activists who broadcast and share information online have been picking up the slack.   We are also fortunate to live at a time when the barriers to assembly and partipation have been lowered by advances in digital technology.

In the absence of digital advocacy, Canadians could have been suffering under a Canadian DMCA as far back as 2005.   Bill C-32, the current incarnation of harmful copyright law we are facing, carries serious ramifications for Canada’s digital economy, as well as issues of cultural freedom, responsive government and even sovereignty.

Malcolm Gladwell may not find these issues as important as the Civil Rights Movement was, but they are of vital importance to Canada in the here and now.
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Image Credit: Malcolm Gladwell photo by bunnicula (cc by-nd)

Also: special thanks to John S, for his blog post Whose Ties Are You Calling Weak” for focusing my attention on the issue.