2012-07-30 WikiLeaks: Activist or Journalist? Pulling a Yes Men on Bill Keller

On Saturday evening, what appeared to be a New York Times op-ed piece by Bill Keller supporting WikiLeaks emerged on twitter. For WL supporters, this was too good to be true, as someone who had shown much animosity toward WikiLeaks appeared to be speaking in their defense. This turned out to be a well crafted hoax. The stunning prank was believed by almost everyone as the only difference was the URL. The article borrowed words from Keller's emails and mimicked New York Times' home page. It fooled journalists and embarrassingly even the Time's tech writer Nick Bilton. It was surreal, as Keller, someone who had come to represent a 'journalism' that bends over for the US government, now appeared to stand behind WikiLeaks. This lasted for hours before it was finally debunked. Later in the day, WikiLeaks released a sequence of tweets that admitted they were involved in the production of this fake Bill Keller op-ed.

Shortly after the revelation of the hoax by WikiLeaks, some people expressed dismay, saying that they may have damaged their own credibility by crafting this prank. Salon blogger and lawyer Green Gleenwald wrote a piece highlighting the strength of the Internet in correcting errors, using the original debunking of this article as an example. Later in an update, he expressed his ambivalent reaction to WikiLeaks's claim of responsibility for it:

"I don't know if this claim of responsibility is true or not. Either way, it doesn't strike me as a good idea for a group that relies on its credibility when it comes to the authenticity of what they publish - and which thus far has had a stellar record in that regard - to be making boastful claims that they published forged documents. I understand and appreciate the satire, but in this case, it directly conflicts with, and undermines, the primary value of WikiLeaks."

But let's look more closely at Gleenwald's reaction here. Does this hoax really discredit WikiLeaks's work and betray the organization's values?

WikiLeaks first emerged onto the global stage with its release of the Collateral Murder video in April 2010. At that time, the sensational title Collateral Murder triggered unfavorable reactions. The political slant created through the naming of the video was seen by some as an act of editorializing at best and blatant manipulation of perception. Critics referred to a supposed journalistic ethos of unbiased or balanced reporting and portrayed WikiLeaks as violating it.

WikiLeaks engages in scientific journalism. Their leaked documents have an impeccable record of authenticity. They also have never failed to protect the anonymity of their sources. They have claimed all along to be a journalistic entity. In looking back, we can see that not only are they journalists, but they have released more scoops than all established media institutions combined. Bill Keller himself in the past has openly admitted that WikiLeaks is practicing journalism, but a type that differs greatly from traditional forms like the New York Times.

In addition to WikiLeaks' purpose of publishing complete, authenticated documents, their other role should not be forgotten. "We are an activist organization. The method is transparency. The goal is justice" said Assange (April 18, 2010). This organization, with honest, upfront disclosure of their agenda employs the creed of transparency which allows them to connect with what has become taboo in conventional journalism, passion for justice and an openly stated ethos of responsibility.

For instance, in the context of their leaks, publishing all source material keeps journalism more honest and situates the events in a more open forum. When disclosure of motives that framed the conclusion is made immediately available to the public, people can participate effectively in the process of forming perception. "Because Assange publishes the full source material, he believes that WikiLeaks is free to offer its analysis, no matter how speculative" (as cited in Khatchadourian, 2010). Only when this scientific approach is taken along with full disclosure of one's intentions does a space open up for true editorial freedom. This freedom allows one to move into the subjective field with integrity. In the case of titling the gunship video, Assange was upfront about the motives behind it. He spoke how WikiLeaks wanted "to knock out this 'collateral damage' euphemism, so when anyone uses it they will think 'collateral murder'" (as cited in Khatchadourian, 2010).

With honest disclosure, political slant becomes a sort of creative license. Their creative titling of the video at that time was meant to combat the official military narrative and it's Orwellian euphemism. The recent Bill Keller hoax was implemented to highlight the hypocrisy of the New York Times and bring attention to their silence on the corporate banking blockade of WikiLeaks. It was also created as a direct message to the New York Times and Keller's silent complicity with the US government and private companies like PayPal attacking the First Amendment. With major influential media, silence itself can mean complicity. Within 24 hours of their action, WikiLeaks disclosed their responsibility for the fake op-ed and said why they did it. How long did it take for the New York Times to take responsibility for the WMD lie they disseminated that led to the deaths of millions in Iraq? - They never really did. It is always important to put things in context.

On Twittersphere, some recognized this current WL stunt as art of political activism. Back in 2008, the Yes Men, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, pulled a prank of writing a spoof edition of the New York Times. They wanted to show what real change could look like. They set it 6 months ahead to show what would happen if people's imaginations were freed. The headline of the spoof announced the end of the Iraq War. It was printed in a form that was so high quality it successfully fooled many New Yorkers.

A creative surrealistic act can for a moment open people's minds and effectively bring attention to issues that are obfuscated or ignored by the mainstream media. Like the Yes Men's creative stunt, WikiLeaks' fake op-ed falls in the category of creative activism. It is important to note that this is not in any way related to their release of documents. It is the art of satire with a touch of surrealism that temporarily twists reality to engage the public in thinking about the world in a different way. In a sense, it is no different than an op-ed. Yet, with this they used an unwitting New York Times as a vehicle to make a powerful statement.

Some see this kind of act as a creative deed, while others might disapprove. Perhaps WikiLeaks is ushering in a new form of journalism that is more decentralized and interactive. They show us that writers too can connect with their passion and invite the world to imagine a different reality. Their innovative style also is a way of staying true to the original role of the media, that of calling truth to power. Only now WikiLeaks also is performing as a watch dog to the established media. If journalists betray their true profession according to the First Amendment, it appears that now on the Internet they can be called out for it. Is WikiLeaks an activist or a journalistic organization? By their own admission, they are both.