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How Wikileaks Works, and How Journalism Fails



Zeynep Tufekci explains the basic pattern of WikiLeaks hype on behalf of the far right:

Which brings us to WikiLeaks’ misinformation campaign. An accurate tweet accompanying the cache would have said something like, “If the C.I.A. goes after your specific phone and hacks it, the agency can look at its content.” But that, of course, wouldn’t have caused alarm and defeatism about the prospects of secure conversations.

We’ve seen WikiLeaks do this before. Last July, right after the attempted coup in Turkey, WikiLeaks promised, with much fanfare, to release emails belonging to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party. What WikiLeaks ultimately released, however, was nothing but mundane mailing lists of tens of thousands of ordinary people who discussed politics online. Back then, too, the ruse worked: Many Western journalists had hyped these non-leaks.

WikiLeaks seems to have a playbook for its disinformation campaigns. The first step is to dump many documents at once — rather than allowing journalists to scrutinize them and absorb their significance before publication. The second step is to sensationalize the material with misleading news releases and tweets. The third step is to sit back and watch as the news media unwittingly promotes the WikiLeaks agenda under the auspices of independent reporting.

This is exactly why Keith Gessen’s argument that the DNC and Podesta hacks couldn’t have been important because they didn’t actually reveal anything of significance is so staggeringly wrong-headed. The purpose of the leaks and how Wikileaks framed them was precisely to sucker journalists into covering anodyne behavior as if it was scandalous. There are numerous factors, but one — which we also saw with respect to the Clinton Foundation — is that once editors and journalists have invested enough time in a story they’re very reluctant to conclude that Al Capone’s vault is in fact empty. It’s very hard to imagine even Clinton haters as obsessive as Fang and Greenwald writing a story about Hillary Clinton engaging in completely unexceptionable media engagement strategies any minimally competent campaign engages in if the story had been obtained from conventional sources, let alone hyping their “findings” as if they had he 21st century Pentagon Papers on their hands. (AFICT, neither particularly cared about the other Hillary Clinton EMAILS! scandal the Beltway media was rubbing its thighs bloody over.) What made Assange’s ratfucking work is that the reveal of SECRET EMAILS created an air of conspiracy around even the most inane trivia, and also played into a narrative that the DNC RIGGED the primary by [causal explanation absent.]

But this doesn’t let journalists off the hook. Particularly since leaving aside possible Russian connections Assange was making no secret of an agenda (i.e. getting Donald Trump elected) that would have been blindingly obvious by inference anyway journalists should have treated these one sided-leaks with considerable skepticism. When it mattered, all too many did the opposite, and it’s one reason we are where we are. And apparently too many reporters haven’t learned their lesson yet.

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