Philip Dorling October 29, 2011
WikiLeaks may be suffering but its influence grows daily, writes Philip Dorling.
There was no shortage of commentators forecasting the imminent demise of whistleblower website WikiLeaks following Monday’s announcement that it was halting its flow of leaked documents to concentrate on fundraising.
The urgent funding drive – caused by the banking embargo that has cut 95 per cent of WikiLeaks funding – combined with publicity surrounding founder Julian Assange’s legal difficulties (including sexual molestation questions he faces in Sweden, as well as US efforts to pursue WikiLeaks for espionage), has overshadowed another quiet but far-reaching development.
Throughout the turmoil of the past 18 months, one constant has been the exponential growth of WikiLeaks’s global support base. Followers of the website’s Twitter account have increased almost 10-fold to nearly 1.2 million. And evidence is emerging of its important part in seeding and enabling the international political movement that has culminated in the world’s first global protest action.
A trenchant critic of the influence of corporations on political life around the world, Assange has been enthusiastic in his support of the Occupy movement, recently observing that ”the politicisation of the youth connected to internet is the most significant thing that happened in the world since the 1960s. This is something new, a real revolution.” The organisation has also expressed its support for the protests through its Twitter account, and Assange addressed protesters in Trafalgar Square in London this month.
What is not well known is the role of WikiLeaks supporters in igniting the surge of internet-based activism that has resulted in protests in reportedly more than 1000 cities in 82 countries.
Most accounts of the Occupy movement focus on the Canadian Adbusters Media Foundation’s proposal in July for a peaceful occupation of Wall Street to protest at corporate influence on democracy. Activists from the Anonymous collective also encouraged followers to take part in the protest, calling on protesters to ”flood lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street”.
However, investigations of the pattern of internet activism over the past year indicate the origins of the Occupy movement are to be found earlier, in the wave of activity generated last year when WikiLeaks released US Army helicopter gunship footage from Iraq, US military war logs and more than 250,000 classified US State Department cables.
Twitter exchanges between WikiLeaks supporters resulted in the establishment in November of a WikiLeaks news website – WL Central. Editors and contributors included Canadian human rights activist Heather Marsh, New York internet activist Alexa O’Brien, Melbourne ”Twitter journalist” Asher Wolf and a Sydney activist known by her Twitter account @Jlllow.
While WL Central focused on support for the transparency website, some of its contributors were more ambitious. By her own account, Marsh hoped to ”encourage and facilitate connection and communication for the revolution, both in Canada and around the world”; while O’Brien looked to ”push … the edge of digital social media for scalable organisation of civil disobedience and non-violent protest”.
In February, prompted by the WikiLeaks banking embargo, and inspired by the role of online activism in the Arab Spring, O’Brien established ”US Day of Rage”, a website intended to promote US protests along the lines of the mass movements in the Middle East. A US Day of Rage Twitter account was established on March 10. Four days later, the account had 1077 followers and was reportedly growing at a rate of three followers every 10 minutes. On March 14, Marsh used the WL Central website to promote the group’s cause.
”Americans are outraged because they realise that there is something terribly wrong with the way our nation is governed, and the way in which our public discourse is conducted,” she wrote. ”The nation’s institutions, meant to underpin the principles of our democratic republic, do not function effectively in the 21st century. Their failure leaves us prey to rampant corruption, unprincipled and abusive government action, and a demoralised populace.”
While Assange’s involvement, if any, with this initiative is unclear, that same day, WikiLeaks tweeted a link to the US Day of Rage announcement on the WL Central website, with the observation ”Arab revolutions to spread to the US? A United States ‘Day of Rage’ is brewing.”
US Day of Rage’s growth dramatically accelerated. In April, Marsh again used the WL Central website to elaborate US Day of Rage’s critique of ”corporate influence [that] corrupts our political parties, our elections, and the institutions of government”.
By August, US Day of Rage had combined with Occupy Wall Street to announce September 17 as the date for the start of protests. Soon the groups morphed into a broad national, then international, movement.
Perhaps the best description of this new mode of highly dynamic political activism is provided by the internet activist and leader of the Pirate Party in the European Parliament, Rickard Falkvinge, who in a forthcoming book characterises it as a ”swarm”.
”A swarm is a new kind of organisation, made possible by available and affordable mass communication,” Falkvinge writes. ”Where it used to take hundreds of full-time employees to organise 100,000 people, today that can be done – and is done – by somebody in their spare time from their kitchen.”
While, the origins of the Occupy swarm are diverse and complex, Assange’s contribution was clearly acknowledged by an Anonymous collective representative interviewed by the Herald yesterday: ”[Assange has] been quite supportive … Movements are hard to get off the ground, hard to make go viral. [WikiLeaks] by tweeting [Occupy Wall Street] info early, encouraged those who wanted to see it take off to continue working.”
This in itself does not alter the significant problems Wikileaks faces in its day-to-day running. But various factors are in its favour. While the success of Assange’s new funding drive remains to be seen, it will probably meet WikiLeaks’s modest running costs – the most significant of which is the group’s access to servers to maintain its internet presence. Nor is it the first time WikiLeaks has suspended operations to focus on fund-raising. But it is now doing so in the context of a much larger supporter base and a broad surge of online political activism associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
This base, along with Assange’s announcement that Wikileaks will soon reactivate its confidential document submission system (this has been inoperative for more than a year after former staff members removed critical software) suggests the organisation will be around for some time.