WikiWashed by WikiLeaks

“Greenwashing” is explained by the Greenwashing Index as “a company or organization spend[ing] more time and money claiming to be ‘green’ through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact. It’s whitewashing, but with a green brush.” Hannah Klein Connolly offers a similar account of pinkwashing: “the activities of companies and groups that position themselves as leaders in the struggle to eradicate breast cancer while engaging in practices that may be contributing to rising rates of the disease.”

Taking greenwashing and pinkwashing as models, I define “Wikiwashing” as “representing a web site that is not a wiki as being a wiki.” What makes a web site a wiki is that anyone in the group of people primarily intended as the audience and user base of the wiki can edit the wiki web site. Ward Cunningham, a wiki pioneer, describes the wiki in the following manner:

A wiki is a body of ideas that a community is willing to know and  maintain. That community has every right to be cautiously selective  in what it will groom. This particular wiki [Cunningham’s] has been blessed with thoughtful, diligent, diverse and open-minded volunteers, who have  invested years learning what works here and what doesn’t. When volunteers tire and depart, others take their place. I remain amazed  that this works without mechanically enforced authority. Possibly it  works because there is no mechanically enforced authority. In any  event, I remain grateful to all volunteers, past, present and future.

Wikipedia, for instance, is clearly intended to work this way, and it does so with remarkable effectiveness. Its intended user base is anyone in the world; and anyone in the world can contribute. Wikipedia is only one of many ways a wiki may be used. Wikipedia aims to provide accurate information, represent a consensus, and, as just noted, serve everyone in the world. According to Cunningham, a wiki can be a collective brainstorming space for a small group of collaborators in which conflicting or untried ideas, unattributed quotes and comments, and even rejected ideas might be found. Actively editing each other’s work, the wiki becomes a product of the entire group. Serendipity reveals new points of view. Wikis about how to use computer software are exemplary, though not as chaotic as the wikis Cunningham allows for. These include the BibDesk users and LaTeX on OSX wikis.

In light of this, Wikileaks is not a wiki at all. It appears that the intended audience for the site is everyone in the entire world. The intended audience is, certainly, international. WikiLeaks is aimed at releasing documents created by state bureaucracies during the course of their operations. The release of these documents is not intended to inform people of one nation or another but those of all. Nonetheless, no one except those who are a part of the Wikileaks organization can make any changes whatever to the site. There is not even any place for users to comment. Wikileaks is not maintained by the community.

I think that the premise might be that WikiLeaks accepts anonymous leaks from anyone, and that this is the community’s input to the site. The site’s architecture and content might not change, but the WikiLeaks organization mediates between some members of the community—the anonymous sources—and other members of the community—the readers of the leaked documents, whether they obtain the documents directly from the site, or by way of their interpreters in news sources such as the New York Times.

If this is the sense in which “wiki” in “WikiLeaks” is intended, this is at the very least an analogy, because “wiki” applies to web sites, not to journalistic practices. The analogy is weak. The anonymous leaks are not provided directly to the community, but are first acquired by and evaluated by the WikiLeaks organization. No one knows what WikiLeaks does to the documents before they are released, or whether there are some withheld from publication. There is no way of knowing whether there are entire caches of leaked documents never published at all by WikiLeaks. Digital documents are more easily manipulated than print documents; if the provenance of a document is unclear, there is no way of knowing whether anyone between the anonymous source and the publication has been able to tamper with them. Another issue concerns the release date of new documents, and the manner in which a new release is announced.

The information in the previous three paragraphs is taken primarily from WikiLeaks’ “About” page, and can be further verified by browsing facts I take from that site are easy to spot; whatever is left over are my own interpretations of those facts.

Although the concerns just mentioned touch on issues about the credibility of WikiLeaks, the reason I am claiming that WikiLeaks is not a wiki is that members of a user community are excluded from the participating in the acquisition and publication of the leaked documents. WikiLeaks purports to serve the worldwide community by providing it with information essential to “keeping governments open,” but the constituents WikiLeaks claims to serve have no direct input over how that purpose is obtained or what it means to say that it has been accomplished. No matter how good WikiLeaks’ judgement is, no matter how well-connected its anonymous sources, no matter how penetrating WikiLeaks’ analysis is, WikiLeaks does not have the virtue of being maintained by its user base. Indeed, perhaps as witnessed by Wikipedia itself, turning over control of a site to its users might decrease the accuracy of the information available on the site. This notwithstanding, the users themselves, as editors, have the ability to improve their collective work. In contrast, WikiLeaks’ assertion that it serves the broader public or the disadvantaged does not rest on any authority other than its own, accountable to no one at all. WikiLeaks does not claim to be objective, which distances it even more from any claim it might make to representing a larger public. There is a question about what WikiLeaks’ goals and interests are beyond simply publishing anonymous leaks; and some of these goals and interests may be at odds with informing the public to the greatest extent possible, and with reflecting what the public values and believes most strongly.

I conclude that the name “WikiLeaks” is an instrument of wikiwashing: by means of its name, the organization represents itself as being by the community and for the community, when in reality, it acts independently of the community. In structure, aim, and process, WikiLeaks is the same as any other corporate news source or government news source. This is not to say these sources will publish the same ideas or call attention to the same phenomena. The point is that, like these other news sources, WikiLeaks is operated by a relatively small group of people, journalism professionals or subject-area specialists as well as managers and executives. WikiLeaks does have a digital “drop box” that anonymous sources can use to transmit leaked documents, so WikiLeaks differs from other news organizations in this sense; but other news sources also have means of protecting anonymous sources. Perhaps “wiki” is meant to call attention to this special digital element of its information-collecting apparatus, but this is something like calling an used car a fighter jet because both run on petroleum-based fuels.

In closing, consider a passage from the WikiLeaks site.

Our news stories are in the comfortable presentation style of Wikipedia, although the two organisations are not otherwise related. Unlike Wikipedia, random readers can not [sic] edit our source documents.

Wikipedia and other wiki sites are wikis not because of their “presentation style,” and the contributors to Wikipedia, in particular, are not “random readers.” They are the people who use the site, contributing to it in order to create a resource for everyone. The extent to which the needs of its users are met is up to those users themselves.

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