Wikileaks: A Modest Defence

by Henry Farrell on December 22, 2010

Gideon Rachman wrote a somewhat arch “article”:,s01=1.html#axzz182N9peXP last week, suggesting that the US should give Julian Assange a medal for “inadvertently debunking decades-old conspiracy theories about its foreign policy.” I wasn’t really convinced by his argument (I am far from sure that he was fully convinced himself), but “this Bloomberg piece”: perhaps suggests a more convincing justification.

bq. Novaya Gazeta, the Moscow newspaper controlled by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and billionaire Alexander Lebedev, said it agreed to join forces with WikiLeaks to expose corruption in Russia.

bq. Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, which publishes secret government and corporate documents online, has materials specifically about Russia that haven’t been published yet and Novaya Gazeta will help make them public, the newspaper said on its website today. “Assange said that Russians will soon find out a lot about their country and he wasn’t bluffing,” Novaya Gazeta said. “Our collaboration will expose corruption at the top tiers of political power. No one is protected from the truth.”

I’ve been reading Evgeny Morozov’s “forthcoming book”: on how the Internet _doesn’t_ release magically sparkling freedom-and-democracy ponies that transform autocracies into thriving civil societies etc, which has an interesting discussion of Russia. As Morozov notes, there is relatively little active censorship of the Internet in Russia. Instead, authorities rely on friendly websites that they can rely on to pump out useful disinformation. They can also lean on Russian’s widespread (and partially justified – if I had been the victim of Sachs, Shleifer & co’s experiments in creating a market in a vacuum, I would not have warm fuzzy feelings myself) distrust of information and policy prescriptions from the West, to prevent alternative accounts from leaking through from international media. The result is a country where the government is usually able to shape public debate with a high degree of success. Alternative viewpoints are not so much censored as shouted down.

But Wikileaks – precisely because the US government hates it so vociferously – arguably has much better street-cred than any number of Western-funded civil society grouplets. It doesn’t look like anyone’s idea of a US front group . The plausible result is that Russians may be more inclined to trust it than foreign funded media, or, perhaps, domestic news sources which are too obviously biased in favor of the government.

None of which is to say that such trust would be entirely justified if it is given. Precisely because Wikileaks seems independent, it is likely to present irresistible temptations to e.g. intelligence agencies as a laundry-shop for information and disinformation. Nor, for that matter, is Lebedev devoid of political self-interest. But if Wikileaks succeeded in either becoming a major news source in itself, or of transferring some of its legitimacy to news sources which relied on information from it, it would help inject a little diversity into Russian public debate. Not that the US government should be giving it medals still – this would obviously be self-defeating. But to the extent that the US wants to see some opening up of kleptocracies like Russia, it might, in the long run, tacitly end up preferring a world with Wikileaks to one without it.

The Christmas sermon

by Daniel on December 22, 2010

Another year over, and what have we done? Once more, I muse philosophically on matters of risk and return, at annoying length (at least I cut out the footnotes this year). But first, perhaps, a little quasi-seasonal story:

The Great Homeopathic Cocktail Bar
[click to continue…]

Two weeks ago I noted that G.K. Chesterton had written a novel that is, as it were, the limit case of sf. A futuristic exploration of the hypothesis that nothing much will change, scientifically. I just noticed that, in What’s Wrong With The World (1910), he offers a bit of theory on the subject.

The modern man no longer presents the memoirs of his great grandfather; but is engaged in writing a detailed and authoritative biography of his great-grandson. Instead of trembling before the specters of the dead, we shudder abjectly under the shadow of the babe unborn. This spirit is apparent everywhere, even to the creation of a form of futurist romance. Sir Walter Scott stands at the dawn of the nineteenth century for the novel of the past; Mr. H. G. Wells stands at the dawn of the twentieth century for the novel of the future. The old story, we know, was supposed to begin: “Late on a winter’s evening two horsemen might have been seen—.” The new story has to begin: “Late on a winter’s evening two aviators will be seen—.” The movement is not without its elements of charm; there is something spirited, if eccentric, in the sight of so many people fighting over again the fights that have not yet happened; of people still glowing with the memory of tomorrow morning. A man in advance of the age is a familiar phrase enough. An age in advance of the age is really rather odd.

It is amusing to imagine all sf novels written in the future tense, as if their authors were squabbling prophets.