The attempt by the United States to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria has recently manifested itself as an alliance between Google, the State Department, and the Qatar-based news agency known as Al Jazeera. Adding to the ongoing scandal surrounding the Hillary Clinton emails, the deliberate use of media to alter the citizenship of people in other countries for political reasons has come into the limelight (Bolton, 2016). This email was originally published on Jan. 7, 2016 by WikiLeaks, an online community of citizen activists who counter corporate and political establishments worldwide.
Jared Cohen, a former State Department official and a founding head of Google Ideas, sent a message in 2012 to the Deputy Secretary Burns. Cohen wrote about creating an app to track the defections in Syria in an effort to encourage more to defect. Partnering with Al Jazeera to give them primary ownership of the app, Cohen requested that the State Department keep it quiet. In the chain of messages, then Secretary of State Clinton replies to her Deputy Chief of Staff Sullivan with, “FYI – this is a pretty cool idea” (WikiLeaks, 2016).
Believing that this would have a powerful psychological impact as stated in the original letter, the plan went forward. Google created the app and gave it to Al Jazeera and they placed the interactive map on their website. Al Jazeera won the Best Technical Innovation Award at the Online Media Awards in London and even boasted about the award with four commendations on its website, the very tool that Google created (Chichakyan, 2016).
This underscores mainstream media willingness to cooperate with governments in the advancement of political agendas, thus blurring the lines between the organizations, while posing as independents in a plan to affect citizenship abroad against their governments. It was citizens who used internet to illustrate this collaboration and demonstrate that the power of the new media in the struggles for 21st century hegemony can work in both directions (Pieterse, 2012).
To Qatari citizens, Al Jazeera, which is chiefly on television and focuses primarily on international news, is a source of national pride. This has not stopped the trend that is shifting toward the internet as a primary source of news, especially in the ex-patriot resident population (Meeds, 2015).
Accompanying the growth of the internet as a news source is a substantial rise of internet activism such as blogging, trolling, and even a style of hacking called hacktivism as in the case for WikiLeaks (Cammaerts, 2013). Sometimes WikiLeaks are at odds with major news agencies and sometimes they work along-side (Roberts, 2011). In the past, WikiLeaks and Al Jazeera performed in a role together in de-legitimizing the Egyptian government in 2011 during what is dubbed Arab Spring. It is also important not to forget the significant role of social media by bringing together many anti-Mubarak forces who opposed the Egyptian president, coalescing them around several issues in their anti-regime platforms through Facebook and Twitter (Mabon, 2013). Also noteworthy in the struggle for dominance of the message on the web is the response of young people to the question of whether they approved of politicians also using social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Most were surprisingly in favor of it (Loader, 2016).
Hacktivists are usually united for a political cause that revolves around the free flow of information. According to the Hacktivismo Declaration, published on July 4, 2001 “State-sponsored censorship of the Internet is a serious form of organized and systematic violence against citizens.” (McCormick, 2013). The phenomenon of WikiLeaks is characterized by a variety of coordinated and talented group of people with weak and strong ties. They have a unique set of opportunities and constraints, with strategies of contention carried out by their members and sympathizers (Cammaerts, 2013).
WikiLeaks history against the US State Department, the leaks by Edward Snowden from the National Security Agency (NSA), the conviction of Bradley Manning, and the greater number of prosecutions by the Obama administration have caused a reconsideration of the significance of the case of the Pentagon Papers (Altschuler, 2015).
In considering the long term impact of citizen activism, the action is in the reaction. Large organizations and governing bodies usually do not respond to embarrassment with more openness. According to John McCarthy of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, “WikiLeaks’ long-term importance will not lie in the details it has revealed. These will prove ephemeral. It lies rather in the reactions to WikiLeaks in western democracies and what this shows about the difference between community thinking and official practice.” Citizen activism through releasing massive amounts of data in trying to bring bureaucratic systems in line with modern public attitudes faces a difficult challenge: Meaningful change without an overall shift of attitude within the organizations will be unrealistic (McCarthy, 2011).
Another case made against the effectiveness of WikiLeaks as a force for significant change or a threat to government secrecy is mathematical in nature. Massive leaks of news are not significant proportionate to the exponential growth in data used by governments in the information age. For example: Only six percent of the 250,000 US State Department leaks were considered classified Secret, and the State Department claims that it has moved 2.5 million documents, ten times that amount, by other means than the network that was hacked (Roberts, 2011).
Furthermore, the economic factors have come into play. PayPal, Amazon.com, Master Card, and Visa, have with withdrawn their support for WikiLeaks. No political pressure, which did exist, was required. They have cited violations of their online user agreements as reasons for the disassociation and cessation of services; however, the legal and financial risks outweighed the benefits to them as WikiLeaks was never a source of revenue for them. The benefits of cooperation were not sufficient for the risks (Roberts, 2011).
Another challenge to hacktivists comes from the moral question in the use of Distributed denial of service (DDOS), which shuts down an opponent’s web site, is a popular revenge tool in the arsenal of hackers on all sides of conflicts (Hampson, 2012). DDOS is a controversial contradiction within the hacktivism community because of the moral dilemma of preventing others from posting information is a violation of the very principles of the free flow of information they claim to stand for (Roberts, 2011).
Citizens who play an essential role in the new media as both consumers and online producers of information motivated to bring global changes through release of massive levels of guarded information may be marginally efficacious at best in affecting public policy, yet there is hope. Even Slavoj Zizek, a Marxist philosopher and professor at the European Graduate School in Slovenia has stated, “We can no longer pretend we don’t know what everyone knows we know” (Pieterse, 2012). In this way, hacktivists have already forced a change in corporate, mainstream traditional media, and government official narratives which are then subsequently re-consumed in the news cycle.
The dance between citizens and media as cooperative and opposing forces continues to be a spectacle of epic proportions; like two supermassive black holes spiraling toward each other at increasing speeds, with their colossal gravitational influences counter-balancing the other while spinning wildly toward a collision course, they release tremendous shock waves of super-heated gas and energy that ripples through the host galaxy. What happens when an unstoppable force comes into contact with an immovable object? What will be the long term effects of these ripples on society at large?
Altschuler, B. E. (2015). Is the Pentagon Papers Case Relevant in the Age of WikiLeaks?. Political Science Quarterly (Wiley-Blackwell), 130(3), 401-423
Bolton, D. (2016, March 22). The Independent | News | UK and Worldwide News | Newspaper. Google planned to help Syrian rebels bring down Assad regime, leaked Hillary Clinton emails claim | News | Lifestyle | The Independent. Retrieved April 10, 2016, from http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/google-syria-rebels-defection-hillary-clinton-emails-wikileaks-a6946121.html
Cammaerts, B. (2013). Networked Resistance: The Case of WikiLeaks. Journal Of Computer-Mediated Communication, 18(4), 420-436. doi:10.1111/jcc4.12024
Chichakyan, G. (2016, March 26). WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks – Hillary Clinton Email Archive. Retrieved March 27, 2016, from http://wikileaks.org/clinton-emails/emailid/12166#efmAMoAbj
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Loader, B. D ; Vromen, A. ; Xenos, M. A. (2016). Performing for the young networked citizen? Celebrity politics, social networking and the political engagement of young people. 38(3), pp.400-419
Mabon, S. (2013). Aiding Revolution? Wikileaks, communication and the ‘Arab Spring’ in Egypt. Third World Quarterly, 34(10), 1843-1857.
McCarthy, J. (2011). WikiLeaks [SEC=UNCLASSIFIED]. Ethos, 19(2), 13-17.
McCormick, T. (2013). ANTHROPOLOGY OF AN IDEA HACKTIVISM. Foreign Policy, (200), 24-25. Retrieved from http://db08.linccweb.org/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1365771233?accountid=45782
Meeds, R. (2015). Changing roles of traditional and online media as trusted news sources in Qatar and their relationships with perceived important issues and interest in politics. Journal of Middle East Media Vol 11, Fall 2015
Pieterse, J. N. (2012). Leaking Superpower: WikiLeaks and the contradictions of democracy. Third World Quarterly, 33(10), 1909-1924.
Roberts, A. (2011). The WikiLeaks Illusion. Wilson Quarterly, 35(3), 16-21.
(2013, June 13). Al Jazeera: Live News | Bold Perspectives | Exclusive Films. Al Jazeera website wins award – Al Jazeera English. Retrieved April 10, 2016, from http://www.aljazeera.com/pressoffice/2013/06/clone.of.201332105347373148.html
(2016, January 7). WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks – Hillary Clinton Email Archive. Retrieved March 27, 2016, from http://wikileaks.org/clinton-emails/emailid/12166#efmAMoAbj