Wikileaks @ IAMCR 2011: Lessons and Perspectives

wikileaks_logoA pair of well-attended Special Sessions were held at IAMCR 2011 Conference which examined the implications of WikiLeaks for the field of media and communications. The first session, entitled 'Lessons from/for WikiLeaks: Perspectives from Media and Communications', offered perspectives from both practitioners and academics regarding WikiLeaks and the wider issues the project poses to the field of media and communications.

The two sessions served as a springboard for an edited volume which will feature contributions from participants involved in both panels More details on this edited collection will be released soon.

The second WikiLeaks panel focused on the various legal, political and communications implications of the activities of the 'whistle-blower website' and its leading proponents. This report looks at the first panel.

The panel opened with a pre-recorded video from The Nation journalist Greg Mitchell who discussed the issue of gatekeeping in the context of the mainstream media's partnership with WikiLeaks. As both the volume of leaks and the number of countries they referred to increased, Mitchell argued that local news organizations assumed a gatekeeping role by filtering information so that it was relevant to their domestic audience.

Lisa Lynch of Concordia University, one of the first academics to publish about WikiLeaks, explored the tension between the restlessness of the WikiLeaks story and the WikiLeaks fatigue that by then was setting in amongst journalist. Lynch also traced how American discourse about WikiLeaks shifted from viewing WikiLeaks as a media organization to a political actor who is therefore not entitled to undertake journalism.

New York University’s Biella Coleman, whose focus was on online activism in relation to WikiLeaks, discussed the Anonymous collective. She shed light on its background and past internet-based activism. Coleman concluded her talk by noting that the prevalent use of Denial of Service or DoS attacks by Anonymous raises the question as to whether such tactics in a digital age can be considered a legitimate form of civil disobedience.

Next came Bart Cammaerts of the London School of Economics, who was also interested in resistance, developed his concept of the media opportunity structure. Cammaerts positioned WikiLeaks as “gate openers”, as opposed to “gatekeepers”, arguing that WikiLeaks reflects how, in an age of digital networks, networks can be fought with networks.

Hopeton Dunn (University of the West Indies – Jamaica) saw WikiLeaks as capturing an uncomfortable coming together of old and new media. Dunn also argued that WikiLeaks causes us to rethink our definition of news. In an age of twenty-four hour news, news has often meant information which is brand new or unfolding, yet, in the case of WikiLeaks, much of the information was dated, but still ‘newsworthy’ as it was information which was previously unavailable to the audience.

Lastly, Ibrahim Saleh (University of Cape Town) examined to what extent WikiLeak's releases influenced the revolutions which unfolded in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Saleh argued that while the information released by WikiLeaks would have certainly afforded elites in these countries some insight into backroom dealings, given the levels of media penetration and literacy, the extent to such information was translated into a format useable by the public is questionable. Moreover, credit for the uprisings in the MENA region should not go to WikiLeaks or social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter but instead to groups such as workers’ rights movement in the region.

In sum, the IAMCR 2011 conference presented a timely platform to consider the broader implications of WikiLeaks across politics, policy, activism and journalism.

by Patrick McCurdy (University of Ottawa)