Are Progressives Being Played By WikiLeaks And Julian Assange?

By Katherine Cross


“YOUR CAREER WILL SOON BE OVER, YOU TREASONOUS LITTLE FUCKING SKANK!” thundered a young man into the Facebook messages of feminist journalist Jessica Valenti. This occurred a day after Salon political reporter Ben Norton posted the following tweet:

It’s worth charting the game of telephone played with this article: Greenwald and Fang publish emails that, they themselves admit, show how basically all political campaigns do business, trying to pitch stories to journalists, taking them to glitzy “off the record” parties where they can meet the candidate, and so on. Nothing nefarious is stated or implied about individual writers like Valenti. Ben Norton then plucks Jessica Valenti’s name from one of the emails because he thinks he’s got a live one — a campaigner said she was “working with” Valenti on an article and it appeared the next day! — and then progressives and leftists on Twitter, still entirely too credulous about WikiLeaks’ effluence, leap to the conclusion that Valenti worked for the campaign and that she was paid to do so. Cue the man calling Valenti a “skank” (one of many she’s been attacked by since this story dropped).

In a progressive culture understandably saturated with suspicion and outrage, ambiguous remarks highlighted in a hacked email are manna from heaven to one’s confirmation bias if one sees “liberals” as the useful idiots of fascism and empire. It’s all too easy to look past what was actually said and instead see what one wants to — with dire consequences all around.

This speaks to a larger problem in activist communities: Too often, our overzealousness and undue willingness to take it upon ourselves to act as judge and jury online lends support and moral weight to virtual abuse. But this particular case merits examination because of the unaccountable credulousness with which too many leftists are still treating Julian Assange and WikiLeaks (the two being one-and-the-same these days). Though his descent into racist, conspiracist Jew-baiting has gone on for a while now, events this election year have drawn it into stark focus.

White nationalist David Duke high-fiving Assange on Twitter is a sign that it’s long, long overdue for progressives to consider the source of the material leading them to think certain feminist and black journalists are traitors to all that is right and good.

It’s impossible to discuss WikiLeaks without discussing the issue of transparency, a less perspicuous word than one might think. If you mention the abuse some of these journalists have received, even those who are sympathetic to such brutal treatment will say something to the effect of “that’s the price we pay for freedom of information,” or “some transparency is better than none.” Still others will argue that the public has a right to see John Podesta’s emails because he’s a prominent and powerful public figure, one who’s only due to get more powerful if the polls are right and Hillary Clinton is duly elected.

But the problem with the transparency argument is that it rarely asks “what do we actually know now that we didn’t before?” Further, it fails to ask “do we have the tools to properly understand what we’re looking at?” If neither of these questions are asked, much less satisfactorily answered, then you don’t have transparency: You have occlusion. Matters become less clear, and your knowledge is at best incomplete and at worst outright defective.

In other words: a smokescreen.

Online, information overload can be the easiest way to hide or obscure something; a digital version of corporations or governments flooding journalists with tons of paperwork when they request a document. Terabytes of junk data for the world to see means little without some form of responsible curation. Otherwise it’s a titanic Rorschach test — bait for conspiracy mongers, bigots, and people with axes to grind.

To wit, WikiLeaks, despite its newfound penchant for “radical transparency,” may still be culling data. Information about a €2 billion transferred from the Central Bank of Syria to a state-owned Russian bank was kept out of a 2012 leak, despite Syrian rebel hackers’ excitement at having uncovered the sanction-violating transfer. It’s part of a larger pattern whereby Assange’s leaking seems calculated to benefit the geopolitical interests of the right-wing authoritarian state. We do not know why Assange redacted the incriminating Syrian email (which, unlike the ones leaked against American journalists, does clearly indicate a financial transfer). But it does make dubious the idea that Assange is willing to leak everything on anyone so long as they’re rich and powerful.

That last point, however, deserves to be more closely examined. After all, we can theoretically agree that politicians forego a certain amount of privacy when they gain power over our lives. But no one seems to know exactly where the line is. That lack of a line is what gave the world John Podesta’s risotto recipe, as well as information about staff members’ personal problems and traumas that we truly had no right to know.

In a thought-provoking conversation over at The Intercept, journalist and activist Naomi Klein made this exact point when talking to Glenn Greenwald:

“I’m concerned about the subjectivity of who gets defined as sufficiently powerful to lose their privacy because I am absolutely sure there are plenty of people in the world who believe that you and I are sufficiently powerful to lose our privacy, and I come to this as a journalist and author who has used leaked and declassified documents to do my work.”

She points out, correctly, that this logic is slippery and has been used to invade the privacy of activists — herself included. I would add that we live in an age where all the drawbacks of celebrity can be bestowed on anyone at a moment’s notice, with none of the benefits. Harassment on social media often works like this: A person is harassed for something they are believed to have said or done, then the harassment becomes “newsworthy” enough that the target is now “famous” and must forego a certain amount of privacy, providing a moral license for further abuse disguised as a quest for accountability.

The GamerGate harassment campaign employed this tortured logic when justifying its assault on progressive videogame journalists, including me. From the posting of our home addresses, to attempted and successful hacks, to mining everything we’ve ever said to anyone online for proof of “corrupt” relationships, it was all justified through recourse to our profession. Right now, there are websites that hyperlink certain Twitter exchanges I’ve had as prima facie proof that I had intimate relations with people I hardly know, and I still have to live with the consequences of that highlighting, two years on.

Both Greenwald and Klein talk about how they disagree with Assange’s unwillingness to redact and curate his leaks because he fails to minimize damage to innocent bystanders. It’s worth remembering that the contents of a leaked email account will include references to countless other people besides the target, especially if the account is used for personal reasons. It is no more in the public interest to publish such things than it is for a tabloid newspaper to do something similar (like, say, hack the voicemail box of a missing teenager, giving her parents false hope that she was still alive). Such matters are prurient and decidedly not in the public interest, an ethical distinction that applies as much to transparency activists as to professional journalists.

In the case of WikiLeaks, this includes especially egregious cases like leaking the name of a Saudi man arrested for being gay, or the names of rape victims in the Kingdom. In the wake of the failed Turkish coup, meanwhile, Assange also recklessly published troves of information on nearly every woman in the country, as well as potentially outing anti-government demonstrators and rank and file government party voters — hardly wise in the wake of a violent coup attempt. The leak was supposed to be Premier Recep Erdogan’s private emails, exposing more of his increasingly authoritarian government; instead, the dump contained nothing from Erdogan and reams of sensitive information on private Turkish citizens.

Such infodumps have profound implications for any broadly construed right to privacy or to freedom of expression, as both are profoundly chilled by WikiLeaks’ indiscriminate exposures.

More problematically still, Klein makes another point about Assange: “There is clearly a vendetta element going on,” she notes, adding that it’s “understandable” because, as she sees it, Clinton’s State Department is “massively responsible for [Assange’s] lack of freedom.” She goes on to talk about her discomfort with this obvious motive, saying she’s disturbed by “seeing this election through one’s personal lens when the stakes are so incredibly high.” This vendetta angle was reinforced by a BuzzFeed article posted this past Sunday by correspondent James Ball, who used to work with Assange directly; he argues persuasively that the DNC leaks and the Podesta Emails are Assange’s way of “settling a score with Hillary Clinton.”

It certainly explains why, despite Assange’s “radical transparency,” he is myopically focused on Clinton and the DNC’s actions during the primary that nominated her, rather than spreading the embarrassment around a bit. Such a motivation hardly inspires trust in the source of these leaks.

Assange is not the supervillainous demiurge of Russian espionage some liberals imagine. Rather, he is that most prosaic of Information Age figures: a small man, too easily intimidated by women, who uses the force-multiplier of the internet to revenge himself upon them.

The leaks on the Clinton campaign are indeed embarrassing, but I use that word advisedly. They’re embarrassing in the way any private conversation’s contents are when read out to a wider audience; but they’re not necessarily incriminating. A good leak leaves blood on the floor — or exposes blood that others had tried to cover up, by showing hidden atrocities, say. The leaks by Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden fit this category, as does much of Glenn Greenwald’s excellent journalism on those same leaks. The Trump tapes, meanwhile, were in the public interest not because Trump said some bad words, but because he all but admitted to committing sex crimes.

The leaks on Clinton are bloodless because they merely expose the sometimes cynical calculations and overwrought stage management that go into every political campaign. Even the conference call that Lee Fang touts as “liberal bloggers huddling with the Hillary campaign to push Bernie hits” is standard operating procedure; politicos will have conference calls with journalists. President Obama routinely meets with opinion-leaders at the White House. Time magazine noted in 2013, “Obama meets a number of times per year with various journalists — often liberal — to have an off-the-record discussion about the administration’s views and plans.” Is this collusion? No, not in the slightest.

In reality, these latest leaks have just revived pre-existing harassment campaigns against certain liberal and leftist journalists — Jamil Smith, Jamelle Bouie, Jessica Valenti, Sady Doyle, and others — who were already popular figures of hate at the height of the acrimonious Democratic primary for being “Clinton shills” (never mind, for instance, that Bouie voted for Sanders).

Given that the targets are so often black journalists and feminists, it’s hard not to wonder at the motivation behind some of these leaks. Assange didn’t help himself recently when he posted a tweet falsely alleging that the London-based Economist newspaper was controlled by a “Rothschild,” clearly flagging an anti-Semitic conspiracy, because its latest cover story is deeply critical of Vladimir Putin. In Ball’s BuzzFeed article, he points out Assange’s comfort with courting conspiracists, and his indulgence of a pro-Putin, anti-Semitic writer by the name of Israel Shamir — who sought cables that would implicate “the Jews” in something.

Assange has been using the same coded language about “international banks” favored by Trump for his anti-Semitic signaling as well. I cannot say if Assange supports Trump in this election, but he clearly has no interest in hurting him nor in eschewing his rhetoric.

Breitbart has certainly taken notice, going from being firmly in the “hang Assange!” camp to acting as stenographer for the latest leaks. Why? Because WikiLeaks has gone from credibly indicting U.S. imperialism to pursuing a personal vendetta against Hillary Clinton.

One of Breitbart’s star writers, Milo Yiannopoulous, cut his teeth doing exactly this to women in the gaming industry at the height of GamerGate, using hacked or leaked emails to falsely implicate people in bizarre conspiracies. Now he’s proving that this method scales in both stakes and impact to the level of mainstream journalism, manipulating people’s desire for transparency and skepticism of the powerful, perverting it into the fire behind online mobs who do nothing but make a misery of innocent peoples’ lives.

To those progressives who still take WikiLeaks seriously: You’re being used.

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