The legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow made two statements about his craft that, when taken together, form an eerily precient warning about news and the media in the 21st century. He said:
“To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; credible we must be truthful.”
“The speed of communications is wondrous to behold. It is also true that speed can multiply the distribution of information that we know to be untrue.”
As the democratization of content creation has flourished due to social media platforms, the ubiquity of smartphones with high quality cameras, and the growth of the “opinion culture”, so has the plethora of unreliable information masquerading as news. The infection has spread beyond the easily identifiable outlets such as Breitbart, The Drudge Report, and RawStory. Now it is common to hear “news” whose source is not professional, difficult or impossible to fact-check, and clearly motivated by an agenda. The most notable and suspect of them all is WikiLeaks.
Let’s examine what WikiLeak is. On the About page of the website, the publisher claims, “WikiLeaks specializes in the analysis and publication of large datasets of censored or otherwise restricted official materials involving war, spying and corruption. It has so far published more than 10 million documents and associated analyses.” This sounds great, except for one monumentally important detail: virtually all of the documents published by WikiLeaks are obtained through illegal means. Whether the documents are leaked by people in government organizations, or obtained through hacking, in most cases the sourcing is illegal and the publication is in violation of the source country’s laws.
This scofflaw attitude is not surprising when one considers the stated purpose of WikiLeaks as observed by the MIT Technology Review back in 2010:
In 2006, Assange wrote a series of essays that have recently been tapped as an explanation of his political philosophy. A close reading of these essays shows that Assange’s personal philosophy is in opposition to what he calls secrecy-based, authoritarian conspiracy governments, in which category he includes the US government and many others not conventionally thought of as authoritarian. Thus, as opposed to espousing a philosophy of radical transparency, Assange is not “about letting sunlight into the room so much as about throwing grit in the machine.”
You see, Mr. Assange and his organization are not concerned about the truth, per se. But rather, they are in the business of embarrassing governments they deem as secretive and authoritarian by “throwing grit in the machine.” Let’s call this what it is…it’s anarchy.
As one would expect, Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks promised to deliver stunning revelations about the candidates that would rock the 2016 Presidential Election in the United States. To date, WikiLeaks has made good on that promise but they have focused the majority of their attention on Former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Throughout the campaign, WikiLeaks has timed the release of tens of thousands of stolen emails from Clinton, her State Department staff, and advisors and consultants close to the Secretary. While none of the revelations have ended Secretary Clinton’s campaign, some have provided convenient validation of popular lines of attack regarding her alleged influence peddling and dichotomous paid speeches to Wall Street firms. As one would expect, the traditional news media has gobbled up these revelations via WikiLeaks and routinely present them as facts. This is where is gets messy.
The Obama administration has categorically stated that WikiLeaks documents pertaining to Clinton were obtained through illegal hacking perpetrated by the Russian government. Let that sink in for a moment. Russia hacked the former Secretary of State and her colleagues, then handed the documents over to WikiLeaks knowing that they would release them under their altruistics banner of openness and transparency. The level of coordination and cooperation between Assange and the Russians is not yet known, but in any case, WikiLeaks has knowingly become an accomplice to a crime of cyber-warfare.
The willingness of WikiLeaks to publish the illegal documents provides the Russians and other adversaries of the United States with an information laundering service more than happy to promote lies, propaganda, and classified information. But if these documents are authentic, then isn’t it good that we have transparency so we can hold our government accountable? Yes, if the authenticity of the documents could be verified, but it cannot.
You see, an email is nothing more than a text document, very similar to a Microsoft Word file. It has special headers and footers embedded in the text document with instructions for the email server that send and receive the files, but the body of the message is typically plain text. This means that anyone with a simple text editor can change the information contained in an email. It is even easier when you have thousands of examples of emails showing how subject lines are constructed, what specialized vocabulary and abbreviations are used, and the names, roles, and lines of influence of thousands of people. It is a small matter for an intelligence service like the Russian FSB to plant false information among the thousands of legitimate emails to promote a narrative of strategic importance to their interests. And it would be very difficult, if not impossible, for a news agency to distinguish authentic information from false information manufactured by the Russians.
All of this is known by WikiLeaks and the media. Yet they continue to publish this hacked, stolen, and potentially false information and serve it up to the people as actual vetted and reliable news.
Many view Hillary Clinton as the Wicked Witch of the West. But regardless of your opinion of her, she is entitled to a reasonable level of journalistic integrity. And we should all be concerned when our news outlets knowingly collude with criminals and spies to promote an agenda of an adversary government.
October 17, 2016 at 10:50 am
Yiur common sense voice is appreciated and needed!
October 17, 2016 at 11:03 am
I don’t think “dearth” was the word you were looking for
October 17, 2016 at 11:09 am
Corrected. Wrote it before I had my coffee!
October 17, 2016 at 11:14 am
1. There have been many insinuations that we know Russia is behind the hacks, but no evidence provided. Much of the focus on Russia comes from folks like Michael Morell, former Director at the CIA and current advisor at Beacon Global, who is on the Clinton payroll. The Obama administration itself has said they “believe” these activities were authorized by Russian senior-officials. Again, light on evidence, heavy on insinuation.
2. Our government was pretty sure Saddam had WMDs — so I would hope that we all would have learned to take our intelligence community’s words with at least a grain of salt.
3. Wikileaks hasn’t “focused the majority of their attention on Hillary Clinton” — they don’t procure documents, they only publish them.
4. That someone seems to be focused on hacking Democratic institutions / organizations / affiliates is interesting, unsurprising, should demand we don’t resort to Russophobic fear-mongering. We do this same kind of thing in third-world nations all the time, except I think it’s more likely the CIA uses forged propaganda materials.
5. If there were fake documents this would be litigated. It hasn’t been. None of the targets of the hacks have presented any evidence of editing or forgery, though plenty of surrogates have insinuated that documents were faked.
6. Wikileaks is not an organization of journalists. The only integrity issue at play here is that journalists who cover the leak fully disclose the source of the documents and their inability to independently verify authenticity.
7. The rhetoric on Russia right now in this country is truly terrifying. I was young, but I still remember what 2001/02 felt like, the slow-build and paranoia. The headlines, heavy on insinuation and light on fact. The self-righteousness of a nation convinced we were innocent and under siege.
What Wikileaks has published might make things uncomfortable, even difficult for Team Clinton. But the way we respond to it — if things keep on in the same direction — could very well mean war. This is how it begins.
So we must reiterate — the facts, as they stand, are that somebody has hacked the e-mail accounts of individuals and organizations linked to the DNC. A private firm hired by the Clinton Foundation suggest the hacks originated in Russia and former intelligence community members with ties to a firm advising Clinton on foreign policy have echoed these claims. The Obama administration has said they believe the hacks to be an effort of Russian intelligence, authorized by senior officials, with the goal of influencing the American Presidential Election — no evidence has been publicly shared to back up this claim, and no journalists have verified this claim independently. The authenticity of the documents has not been independently verified, but no evidence has been provided by any target suggesting forgery.
October 17, 2016 at 11:48 am
Any evidence that we have that Russia is behind the hacks will be provided after we respond to this act of cyber-warfare. I have read and watched over the past two weeks dozens of current and former intelligence officials who are stating categorically that Russia is behind the hacks. We will (and should) make a proportional and powerful response to this aggression. You may wish to take a wistful view of WikiLeaks and the work they do. I do not view their childish antics and dangerous disregard for the law as heroic. It is anarchy and that is never good.
October 17, 2016 at 11:53 am
My views on Wikileaks are neither here nor there — we cannot prevent Wikileaks from existing (though it may, in the future, be run by different people under a different name), so focusing on them is a mistake.
I’m much more concerned about the possibility that we did not learn the right lessons over the past 15 years. I believe rhetoric like “We will (and should) make a proportional and powerful response to this aggression” was standard fare back then. The intelligence community, as I remember it, was pretty much in agreement too.
We all know where that took us.
October 17, 2016 at 12:00 pm
Joel…like it or not, states when threatened must protect themselves. I think Obama has proven himself to be far more cautious, judicious, and measured in his application of military force (clandestine and overt) than his predecessor. If the intelligence community is telling him that Russia is the culprit, then he has a Constitutional duty to act. That action could be more diplomacy, it could be more economic sanctions, or it could include a proportional cyber attack that damages the Russian oligarchs. I think Putin has clearly demonstrated that he wants to test the limits of the US administration’s patience. We should oblige him with a response that makes it clear we will not stand for aggression against our homeland.
October 17, 2016 at 12:17 pm
Unfortunately I disagree with your thoughts on our current president’s application of military force. Without any acts of terror with any reasonable comparison to the attacks in 2001, we still have expanded our military presence to new nations across the Muslim world and supported numerous groups, such as governments (like Saudi Arabia) and factions (some of which have since aligned with Al-Qaeda) that have committed war crimes and expanded violence in the Middle East.
These allegations against the Russian government are minor. If we could implicate the Russian government in altering voter rolls or altering ballots, that would be different. But to this point the Russians — assuming our intelligence community is correct and it is Russian intelligence doing the hacking — have only hacked the private accounts of individuals and private organizations. They have not targeted the State. This is minor when when compared to our own efforts to influence foreign elections. If this is a Russian plot to influence the election, it is almost admirable (emphasis on almost) that their method seems to be forcing transparency on our candidates.
Considering all of this, I think it is essential that we carefully consider the most appropriate way to respond–in many ways this will set the precedent for similar acts in the future. It is possible that some kind of retaliation is necessary, but I feel like we’re skipping a few key steps of moderation and reaching a fever pitch of paranoia and fear-mongering in the middle of a tense and hyperbolic election cycle.
October 17, 2016 at 12:37 pm
Russia’s latest cyber-attack does not exist in a vacuum for our leadership. It is one more event in a series of increasingly provocative actions by the Russians. When taken together, their actions in Crimea, Ukraine, Syria, and along the borders of our NATO allies paint a picture that requires a careful but forceful response from the US. Don’t forget, Joel…we’ve seen this movie before and we have a proven playbook for dealing with Russian aggression. We just have more tools at our disposal than we did during the Cold War. All will be well.
March 11, 2017 at 10:50 pm
Lamonte what are you smoking?? Obama tried to start a war with russia, let Israel out in the cold, and dropped a bomb every 20 minutes for 8 years on average.. So calling him cautious is laughable!
No hard proof of Russian hacks but solid celebrating from radical Islamic terrorist that also threaten Russia. Wikileaks was praised when it outed the bush administration by the same that criticize it now. Leave the partisan out of it, vault 7 is telling us what bush started and obama finished..
March 11, 2017 at 11:21 pm
Where did I call Obama cautious?
March 15, 2017 at 8:56 am
You said that Obama was more cautious than his predecessor. As more leaks continue to be published, we find that this caution you apparently praise was PR only and that, in fact, things like the bloodthirsty execution of bin Laden, free-for-all of drone spring and killings, and destruction of these state of Libya typify his style far more. After all, her presided over the activities revealed by Snowden and the CIA machinations documented in Vault7. In addition, this level of chicanery now sets the bar for a far less restrained figure to go over. In other words, from Bush to Obama to the Ugly American Trump is a continuity far more than a variation of rapacious, war-preparatory international and domestic policy. As you put it elsewhere, an oligarchy at work through their political window-dressing. Imagined affronts by Russia are imagined except where Russia plays the other hand in the same game. And complaining about an independent (non-state) like Wikileaks just makes you sound illiterate.
March 15, 2017 at 10:13 am
Still not seeing anywhere in my essay where I referred to Obama as “cautious”. But…with regard to your assertions…I’m having difficulty discerning your point.