To put the first occasion in rather blunt language, a foreign government selected the Democratic National Convention as political target, digitally infiltrated that target, and then exposed its inner turmoil (ostensibly to sow discord or coverup a larger hacking program) by relying on WikiLeaks to make it public. Although the DNC was pwnd by having the material published, WikiLeaks was made pawn in the greater geopolitical games afoot.
There is now consensus among securityfirms, intelligence agencies, and marginally independent press that Russia’s security services (the FSB and GRU specifically) infiltrated the Democratic National Committee’s servers. Even Greenwald’s cabal at The Intercept suggest the potential for a false flag operation here is small. WikiLeaks published what was given to them by the source (FSB/GRU), while awaiting more material.
To be clear, we’re talking about the Russian State using WikiLeaks to forward Russian goals and afford plausible deniability. From this perspective it matters less what DNC internal emails said (we know the DNC didn’t like Bernie Sanders), and matters more who thought that information should become public and why. Or, the reality could be worse: what if the Russians judiciously changed a sentence or two in the emails for reasons that aren’t yet clear?
When confronted with the DNC story, we tend to understand it as radical transparency: new forms of involuntary networked data dissemination, spread without the consent or knowledge of whoever held the data. However, that definition does not consider questions of compulsion or autonomy of the action or motives of the disclosure. While these might not matter if ‘the truth’ is uncovered in the end, the reality of ‘truth’ in use is not that simple.
Even in the age of radical leaks on the internet, Alasdair Roberts points out, instantaneous and complete revelation of the truth remains impossible. Thinking otherwise assumes these radical disclosures reveal truths rather than just reconfigure what is visible.
More data will always reconfigure what is visible. Re-mediating data in new ways can re-reconfigure what is visible and add new effects. Think of linking up disparate data sets of health records and voting patterns for purposes of re-identification of supposedly anonymous data.
Leaking can’t find truth, it can only reconfigure what is visible. Thinking through that reconfiguration is key to the democratic and ethical decisions that surround radical disclosure and enable its effects. The AKP disclosure can further explain this.
In the AKP story, WikiLeaks’ disclosed data from the ruling AKP in Turkey, but the reality was not the story of censorship, and freedom of the press widely lauded online. Corporate media and even independent voices (including Edward Snowden) got this AKP-WikiLeaks story wrong, focussing on Turkey’s reaction rather than the content and how it was mediated into public view. The story is actually a story of a hacker using WikiLeaks to inadvertently ‘dox’ thousands of Turkish citizens.
The doxing story broke when well-known academic of Turkish origin Zeynep Tufekci wrote a piece for the Huffington post, that provided visibility to the doxing story, as well as the offending data. She summarised her thoughts in the tweet “Instead of “AKP emails”, Wikileaks dumped private info of ALMOST EVERY WOMAN in Turkey Yes.”
There was some truth to this. The hacker WikiLeaks’ relied on had compiled all the data he gathered from the AKP including lists of private information on thousands of people in Turkey, such as their political affiliation, gender, home addresses, etc. WikiLeaks linked to a database of that information on its social media feed as it began to publish the “Erdoğan emails”.
The seemingly authoritative account of what went (wr)on(g), and a notable and solitary public mea culpa is found through Michael Best. Tufekci has since updated her Huffington Post story to reflect a less accusatory angle.
Meanwhile, Turks point out that rather than exposing inner circles of power, almost all the emails hosted at WikiLeaks are to the AKP from normal citizens (asking about fixing potholes etc.).The visibility WikiLeaks brought to the coup in Turkey did not expose truth in the inner workings of the Erdogan camp. Instead, it offered radical visibility to politically divisive mass-data on Turkish citizens.
This visibility brought on Turkish citizens was mediated through the Huffington Post, Tufekci, WikiLeaks’ Twitter feed, the ‘hackers’ Michael Best and Phineas Fisher, and of course, the AKP. That chain leads to the same data yes, but the visibility each actor brought to the data reconfigured how and what was visible (to whom) in its own way, and to what political affect.
Both the DNC and AKP stories were dependent on a hacker soliciting information to WikiLeaks in a manner far from traditional whistleblowing. There are consequences to using hacking to elicit data from disclosure. Part of those consequences is a realisation about the political nature of disclosure, the political reality of managing visibility, and the democratic myth of transparency.