During the 2016 presidential election, Wikileaks, an online platform for whistleblowers, released thousands of emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), as well as from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Many Western journalists are still debating whether the timing of the leak and deliberate targeting of the democratic presidential nominee ruined Clinton’s electoral chances. More recently, Wikileaks has promised a “showdown” that will “blow you away,” claiming it has thousands of dossiers on presidential candidates and prominent political figures all across Europe.
It is clear, over the past several years, that Wikileaks is engaged in a political game, rather than serving the public interest by providing whistleblowers with a global platform.
Wikileaks began as a non-partisan outlet for whistleblowers, which aimed to “open the governments.” It was a revolutionary project, helping to expose the crimes of those in power worldwide. Recently, however, Wikileaks has engaged in a very selective approach to publishing leaked materials, has been less than transparent, and has evidenced bias towards Western democratic elites (as opposed to other types of elites).
In a piece published in August 2016 titled “What Julian Assange’s War on Hillary Clinton Says About Wikileaks,” journalist Robert Mackey of The Intercept noted that Wikileaks’ DNC cache looked like a “stream of opposition research.” In his analysis of Wikileaks’ Twitter account, which Mackey described as “the only obvious way for outsiders to provide feedback on the annotation or analysis of the documents,” he highlighted the organization’s hostility to feedback, especially when readers call out mistakes in its reporting.
Mackey also cited cybersecurity consultant Matt Tait who pointed out in July 2016 that there was a high possibility of tampering with the leaked emails, but no way of identifying that interference.
“What if the documents were mostly real, but had been surgically doctored? How effective would a carefully planted paragraph in an otherwise valid document be at derailing a campaign? How easily could Russia remove or sidestep an inconvenient DNC official with a single doctored paragraph showing “proof” of dishonest, unethical or illegal practices? And how little credibility would the sheepish official have in asserting that “all of the rest of the emails are true, but just not the one paragraph or email that makes me look bad?” Tait wrote in a blog post from July.
Tait’s questions are well-taken. In an interview for BBC’s podcast, The Inquiry, a former Wikileaks member, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, recalled the difficulties involved in verifying massive amounts of leaked documents. “There is no real way to verify if on page 220 something has been altered,” Domscheit-Berg said. “Sometimes there was no fact checking at all apart from the plausibility check,” he added, “a very shallow check, for sure.”
Another former Wikileaks journalist, James Ball, said on the same podcast that “Assange was the only person ever to make the decisions [about what documents get published].” This fact, along with Wikileaks’ hostility toward criticism, suggests it has actively avoided any sort of transparent crowd-sourcing and vetting of documents. Instead, one person, Assange, is in full control of what Wikileaks releases, when it releases it, and perhaps even why it releases it.
On top of this, on more than several occasions, Wikileaks has cast serious doubts on its own impartiality and commitment to exposing the wrongdoings of those in power. When the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) published the Panama Papers, revealing a network of secret offshore deals and vast loans worth $2bn directly connected, in part, to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, Wikileaks launched a campaign dismissing the ground breaking investigative project as a “Putin attack.” Wikileaks questioned the project’s integrity, accused the OCCRP of bias, and suggested that the investigation was “produced” with the intention of specifically targeting Putin. These statements played into the narrative of Russia Today, Russia’s state-sponsored media arm infamous for presenting unpleasant information about the Russian ruling elite as conspiracies. They also revealed Wikileaks’s hypocrisy toward the public interest in exposing the machinations of governments and elites – the very principle that had made Wikileaks so popular in the beginning.
Despite the importance of the information contained in the DNC emails, it would be wrong to dismiss the timing of the leaks and the manner in which the organization handled them as irrelevant. As we come closer to elections in France, Italy, Germany, among other European states, this year, we must remain vigilant about distinguishing between leaked information, which is in the public interest, and attempts to manipulate public opinion for political reasons.