The recent Wikileaks story is, in part, a tale of fear. The Wikileaks project has been rapidly demonized, as has its most visible representative. And now still more waves of horror have rippled out. The unfolding events are, among other things, another example of the fearsome digital media meme.
I: Origin of a supervillain
To begin with, once Cablegate broke, many found it useful and/or appropriate to cast the Wikileaks project in a fearsome light, especially in America. For example, the new House chair for Homeland Security wants Wikileaks declared a terrorist organization.
One classic scary internet tactic is to make sure the virtual target is seen as having bad effects offline. In the Wikileaks case this means connecting documents to human lives. So: "Republican Congressman Peter King asserted that the publication of classified diplomatic cables is 'worse even than a physical attack on Americans'". Sarah Palin: "‘He is an anti-American operative with blood on his hands."
Another established fearsome internet form is linking the digital object with deviant sexuality, "deviant" being locally determined (i.e., child porn for some, extramarital sex for others, etc). Assange's arrest for Swedish rape and molestation charges fits neatly into this narrative.
A more sophisticated attack aims itself as Wikileaks' mission of transparency. Call it ju-jitsu, or something more sinister:
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs suggested in somewhat Orwellian fashion that "such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the United States for assistance in promoting democracy and open government."
The monster is extra-horrible because it actually reverses the good it claims to do; its heroism is actually villainy.
A different attack sees Wikileaks not as monstrous, but as infectious. Its evil could spread to other sources, like America's leading newspaper. Says former vice presidential candidate and pressurer of companies Joe Lieberman:
"I'm not here to make a final judgment on that, but to me the New York Times has committed at least an act of bad citizenship," he said. "Whether they've committed a crime, I think that bears a very intensive inquiry by the Justice Department."
At the same time as Wikileaks becomes an evil organization, Julian Assange, Wikileaks' star representative, becomes a supervillain. He's a "high-tech terrorist", according to none less than US House minority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell: "He’s done an enormous damage to our country, and I think he needs to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
Assange is a villain so terrifying that he even motivates Canadians to call for his assassination.
In short, Assange is not just Time's likely #1 person of the year, but also public enemy #1.
Why is this a fearsome technology issue? One writer thinks the tech is central:
The true importance of Wikileaks -- and the key to understanding the motivations and behavior of its founder -- lies not in the contents of the latest document dump but in the technology that made it possible, which has already shown itself to be a potent weapon to undermine official lies and defend human rights.
I don't see the tech itself as being that central - the will to use it, the operations of making it accessible to would-be leakers are essential, and complement the archive itself. But the importance of this internet tech to the case anchors it firmly in the tradition of scary digital tech.
All of these horror stories are very different from the weak Cablegate interpretation school. That model (example here) holds that this Wikileaks batch is not especially effective, since the documents aren't very newsworthy. It's weak tea, especially compared with Boomer history:
In a recent article in The New Yorker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Steve Coll sniffed that "the archives that WikiLeaks has published are much less significant than the Pentagon Papers were in their day"
Perhaps the lteaks tell us mere gossip, or, worse yet, gossip we already know (pace Eco). This is a very different approach from demonization, and needs to be placed alongside it. The two can be combined, of course, in the complementary demonization approach: the enemy is pathetic, yet dangerous.
As soon as the Wikileaks backlash exploded, covering the participants with fear (or trying to), a countervailing movement occurred. For some, those attacking Assange et al are now terrifying. 4Chan's Anonymous launched Operation Payback (#payback). The V-looking hackers found the Wikileaks-Assange-demonization campaign odious, and therefore retaliated. Visa and Mastercard were the first to be hit, for withdrawing their financial connection to Wikileaks. Sarah Palin's site has been targeted, too, presumably in retaliation for her homicidal comments.
Other critics describe the anti-Wikileaks movement as tyrannical. For John Naughton, "the intolerance of the old order is emerging from the rosy mist in which it has hitherto been obscured. The response has been vicious..." This view sees businesses as tools of the tyrants: "It has been deeply worrying to watch terrified internet companies – with the exception of Twitter, so far – bending to their will." Glenn Greenwald: "The face of authoritarianism and tyranny reveals itself with how it responds to those who meaningfully dissent from and effectively challenge its authority..."
This charge of tyranny can be extended back before the Wikileaks onslaught, extended into a critique of sustained US policy. Greenwald again:
All the oppressive, lawless policies of the last decade -- lawless detention, Guantanamo, disappearing people to CIA black sites, rendition, the torture regime, denial of habeas corpus, drones, assassinations, private mercenary forces, etc. -- were designed, first and foremost, to instill exactly this fear, to deter any challenge.
Others offer another suspenseful narrative, but pointed into the future: perhaps Wikileaks is being hit hard not because of this release, but its next one. Go after a bank and you trigger the real vengeance of power.
secret world that threatens to swallow up informed public discourse in this country about America's wars. ...
The result of this classification mania is the division of the public into two distinct groups: those who are privy to the actual conduct of American policy, but are forbidden to write or talk about it, and the uninformed public, which becomes easy prey for the official lies exposed in the Wikileaks documents...
In sum, the critics paint Wikileaks and Assange as monsters and villains. Their defenders see the attackers as tyrants. Together, we're watching competing stories of fear being erected and supported.
Infocult will return to this story as it shambles along.