The Dramatic Face of Wikileaks

Wikileaks: It has caused a firestorm of debate among very different sectors of the population and about different topics: from the state of journalism (is it broken is it not?); to how much secrecy is acceptable for diplomatic negotiations, the role of the leak in changing diplomacy and a question as to whether it will be good for scholarship (I think it will be but for different reasons parlayed there).
It has induced rage, growing support among Internet enthusiasts, including anonymous who have/has kicked off Operation Avenge Assange  and among liberals it has caused “soul-searching” crisis and confusion as they can’t fully support, nor fully decry Wikileaks. Thankfully some of commentary comes in the form of video humor and of course, one of the staples of the Internet, sad kittens.
Although this is the third large leak (and there were countless others pretty much ignored by the media), this one has stuck, painfully pinched a lot of nerves, and mesmerized like no other leak: whether it is on twitter, on blogs, or over dinner and lunch, the talk of the town is Wikileaks, it is cablegate, it is Julian Assange.
A lot of ink has been spilled to assess the ethics of Wikileaks and its impacts, and except to point at a few of the pieces, I won’t rehash them here, nor try to emplot myself on this moral axis (although I think this Economist editorial is spot on (and so brief).  . What I will highlight is the Drama (with a capital D) that is currently ongoing, one in which we the  spectators are avidly watching, perhaps even participating as we tweet, blog, and wait to see what happens next.


Today, Julian Assange published an Op-Ed entitled Dont’ Shoot the Messenger where he frames Wikileaks not simply in terms of objectivity but in terms of science, a frame he has consistently used in the past:
“The idea, conceived in Australia, was to use internet technologies in new ways to report the truth. WikiLeaks coined a new type of journalism: scientific journalism. We work with other media outlets to bring people the news, but also to prove it is true. Scientific journalism allows you to read a news story, then to click online to see the original document it is based on. That way you can judge for yourself: Is the story true? Did the journalist report it accurately?”
In certain respects this is accurate: Wikileaks gets the data, they work with others to reveal and assess the veracity, impact, and role of that information. And yet, the set of events precipitating out of these leaks are anything but scientific. It is full on, unadulterated drama in every sense of the word. These leaks are a window into the drama of diplomacy; the drama of US imperialism in the world, and then there is the drama of the most prominent figure behind WKL, Julian Assange who was just arrested today over sex allegations and was already denied bail.
The drama is spiraling in every which direction, aptly described by my friend on IRC in the following way:
<abh> gaah
<abh> I’ve gone totally soap opera on the whole Assange Sex story. It is kind of amazing how much detail some of these stories go in to.
<abh> How the fuck is it relevant to anyone that he said he’d call but didn’t?
For better or for worse, these leaks have enraptured due to its dramatic form–a genre whose ability to coax reaction and attention was theorized long long ago by the Greeks who were quite adept in churning out dramatic plays. But things are different today. Drama is part and parcel of of our everyday life in the form of reality TV, gossips mags and blogs and for a swath of the population (who stay away from reality TV), the news, which often comes off as entertainment and gossip.
In this regard, it is unsurprising that Wikileaks has so many of us hooked; whether we like it or not, we have been fed so much News Drama over the last decade that our subterranean unconscious has come to expect just this sort of thing and we are eating this up, even if some decry it. The gossip, the drama, the entertainment is part of the reason we are having a collective media moment, a collective experience that seems to happen less and less due to the otherwise fragmented state of the news (so this feels doubly strong).
Now that we know of the arrest, there are still many unknowns that will keep folks coming back, talking, taking a look, pontificating, decrying, and loving at least for a little while. How will Wikileaks fare with Julian in jail?  What will happen in his trial, especially given some of the seedy allegations? What other companies will pull support? Oh, and how about the tell all book by one Wikileak defector to be published in a  month and how about the rumors of poison pill  and the kill switch? Stay tuned.

Biella Coleman