Philip Dorling October 29, 2011
THERE was no shortage of commentators forecasting the imminent demise of whistleblower website WikiLeaks following Monday’s announcement by founder Julian Assange that the organisation was halting its flow of leaked documents to concentrate on fund-raising.
The urgent funding drive – caused by the banking embargo that has cut off 95 per cent of WikiLeaks funding – combined with publicity surrounding Assange’s legal difficulties (including sexual molestation questions he faces in Sweden, as well as US efforts to pursue WikiLeaks for espionage), have overshadowed another, quiet but far-reaching, development.
Throughout the turmoil of the past 18 months, one constant has been the exponential growth of WikiLeaks’ global support base. Followers of the website’s Twitter account have increased nearly tenfold to 1.2 million. And evidence is now emerging that the website has played an important part in seeding and enabling the protest movement Occupy Wall Street and its international offshoots.
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, with Assange addressing protesters in Trafalgar Square in London on October 8.
What is not well known, and has gone unreported, is the key role that WikiLeaks supporters have played in igniting the surge of internet-based activism that has so far resulted in protests in reportedly more than 1000 cities in 82 countries.
Most accounts of the Occupy movement focus on the Canadian-based Adbusters Media Foundation’s proposal in July for a peaceful occupation of Wall Street to protest against corporate influence on democracy. Activists from the Anonymous hacktivist 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 by WikiLeaks last year as it released US Army helicopter gunship footage from the war in Iraq, US military war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq and more than 250,000 classified US State Department cables.
Twitter exchanges between WikiLeaks supporters in the US, Australia and elsewhere resulted in the establishment in November 2010 of a WikiLeaks news website – WL Central. Editors and contributors to WL Central included Canadian human rights activist Heather Marsh, New York internet activist Alexa O’Brien, well-known Melbourne-based ”Twitter journalist” Asher Wolf and another, Sydney-based Australian 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 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 to promote US protests along the lines of the mass movements that were overwhelming despotic political leaders 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 new 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, 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 beginning of protests. Soon the groups had morphed into a broad national, then international, movement.
Perhaps the best description of this new mode of 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 … by somebody in their spare time from their kitchen.”
While the origins of the Occupy swarm are diverse and complex, Assange’s contribution was acknowledged by an Anonymous collective representative interviewed by The Saturday Age 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’ modest running costs – the most significant of which are 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. The difference is that 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 – also last Monday – that WikiLeaks will soon reactivate its confidential document submission system (this has been inoperative for more than a year after former staffers removed critical software) suggests that the organisation will be around for some time.
Meanwhile, Assange’s broader influence is perhaps best described through his use of a quotation from the French writer and aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupery: ”If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”