Julian Assange is back in the news again, and you can bet that there’s no one happier about it than Julian Assange.
The controversial WikiLeaks founder made headlines over the weekend when Assange and company republished all the emails from December’s Sony hacking scandal and made the files more accessible for viewing. “This archive shows the inner workings of an influential multinational corporation,” said Assange. “It is newsworthy and at the centre of a geopolitical conflict. It belongs in the public domain.”
Unsurprisingly, Sony wasn’t so keen on WikiLeaks’ decision to get involved in their business, with a spokesperson declaring, “We vehemently disagree with WikiLeaks’ assertion that this material belongs in the public domain and will continue to fight for the safety, security, and privacy of our company and its more than 6,000 employees.”
MPAA Chairman and former Senator Chris Dodd also spoke out against Assange’s actions. “This information was stolen from Sony Pictures as part of an illegal and unprecedented cyberattack,” Dodd said. “Wikileaks is not performing a public service by making this information easily searchable. Instead, with this despicable act, Wikileaks is further violating the privacy of every person involved.”
WikiLeaks asserted that their main reason for republishing the emails was to expose hidden collaboration between the government and the entertainment industry. Specifically, the website pointed to Sony Pictures Entertainment’s CEO Michael Lynton going to dinner with President Obama at Martha’s Vineyard and Sony employees taking part in fundraising events for the Democratic party.
However, it’s not exactly a revelation that Hollywood has ties to the government. After all, if the controversy surrounding The Interview proved one thing, it’s that Hollywood is under just as much political pressure as any other industry. But more likely than anything else is that Assange republished the Sony emails to remind us that WikiLeaks still exists.
It’s not exactly a revelation that Hollywood has ties to the government.
The last time WikiLeaks made a real splash was two years ago, when the site released a record-breaking 1.7 million government documents. “With its trademark modesty, WikiLeaks describes its trove as ‘the single most significant body of geopolitical material ever published,’” noted the Guardian’s James Ball following the 2013 leak.
Except that these documents’ significance was marred by the fact that they were decades old and had previously been made available online via the United States National Archives. As for the content of the leak, the documents were comprised of U.S. diplomatic cables sent between 1973 and 1976, an important time in American foreign policy, wherein Henry Kissinger served as Secretary of State.
The release of these cables was a strange turn for WikiLeaks. In the past, the website had mostly dealt with whistleblowers. In contrast, the ’70s-era documents could’ve been dug up by most any traditional newspaper.
The site is merely treading ground others have already walked upon.
On the one hand, this moment might’ve marked a maturation point for WikiLeaks, the first sign of a transition from upstart hackers to serious news organization. It also might’ve been the beginning of an era in which WikiLeaks will function as digital record keepers, keeping the history that the government doesn’t want you to know about not only alive, but accessible 24/7 on the Web. (The site’s republication of the Sony emails would also suggest this possibility.)
But on the other hand, the 2013 leaks also indicated that Assange could be losing his edge. At one point, WikiLeaks was the place you went to find the information you couldn’t find anywhere else, but with their last few major releases, the site is merely treading ground upon which others have already walked.
Even before 2013, there were signs that WikiLeaks’ power was fading. In 2010, the website detailed plans to release the contents of a Bank of America executive’s hard drive. With America still reeling from the financial collapse of 2008, this was poised to be the next phase in WikiLeaks’ development. The site had exposed corruption abroad, and now it was going to do it here at home. Wikileaks had already shown us abuses of power in the military, and this promised a move to the financial sector. Assange himself bragged that the hard drive might bring down at least one bank.
But then nothing happened. Why? The facts are still murky. ReadWrite’s John Paul Titlow suggests, “At least a portion of that data was allegedly destroyed by a former WikiLeaks collaborator with whom Assange had a falling out. It’s not clear what, if any, data remains. The data, the seizure of which caused Bank of America to launch an internal, preemptive investigation, has yet to see the light of day.”
Between the Bank of America failure and the disappointing 2013 documents, WikiLeaks has had a rough couple of years. But part of this is likely due to their own legacy. WikiLeaks opened the doors for an era where hacktivists can distribute information like never before, and Assange and company just haven’t been able to keep up with what they started.
Assange and company just haven’t been able to keep up with what they started.
If WikiLeaks and Chelsea Manning were the beginning of this classified information golden age, then Edward Snowden was the logical continuation. Unable to resist getting in on the headlines, Assange did, to his credit, manage to insert WikiLeaks into the Snowden affair.
After Wikileaks helped Snowden flee to Russia, Gawker’s Adrian Chen wrote, “We are witnessing the next phase of Wikileaks’ evolution, from whistle-blowing outlet to a full-service travel agency for people who have pissed off the United States.” He goes on to warrant, “In its new form, Wikileaks’ biggest asset remains Assange’s gift for publicity—his ability to turn any story into a thrilling tale of Wikileaks-Versus-The-World, even while he’s hampered by his government-mandated staycation in London.”
The other true victor in the hacking revolution has been the collective Anonymous. Naturally, in their continued quest for relevance, WikiLeaks partnered with them in the release of several million emails from security-consulting firm Stratfor.
This was the beginning of a shift in WikiLeaks’ culture for two reasons: 1) the site was breaking away from partnering with older, more trusted media outlets, like the New York Times and the Guardian, and 2) Wikileaks was no longer in charge. The folks behind Wikileaks were forced to admit they weren’t the smartest, savviest people in the room. Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram writes, “The partnership with Anonymous may make sense, but it almost feels like Anonymous is taking the lead role now, as WikiLeaks’ dominance continues to weaken.”
WikiLeaks’ alliance with Anonymous majorly backfired.
Worse still, WikiLeaks’ alliance with Anonymous majorly backfired. Though the build-up to the leak painted them as a kind of privatized CIA, the actual contents revealed little. On top of which, the disappointing venture once again left WikiLeaks torn hopelessly between two worlds, without having steady footing in either.
By then, Wikileaks had lost the trust of the newspapers with whom the group once worked so closely. And in the following years, Anonymous has done just fine without Wikileaks, grabbing headline after headline, while Julian Assange’s once formidable empire has yet to regain its former glory. When even middle schoolers can hack like nobody’s business, we must ask ourselves, does anyone really need WikiLeaks anymore?
Julian Assange would like us to think so, and that’s why we’re hearing about the Sony emails again. However, WikiLeaks’ republication of the Sony emails is not particularly courageous. While Americans have a notoriously short attention span when it comes to privacy, the emails’ reappearance hasn’t really taught us anything we didn’t already know: Hollywood is powerful, prejudiced, and desperate for new ideas.
However, it’s not Hollywood’s desperation that’s the problem. At this point, Assange seems more concerned with making people aware that WikiLeaks remains alive and well, rather than using it as a platform to enact real change and promote awareness. As Adrian Chen explains, the underlying issue is Assange himself, dismissed by Chen as “a creepy fugitive from a sex crimes investigation whose crippled website is still running on the fumes of Chelsea Manning’s five-year-old document dump.”
While activists should think twice before elevating someone with such a sketchy personal history to mythic status, you have to hand it to Julian Assange. Years after WikiLeaks’ inception, he has revealed himself to be an intelligent and shrewd, if egomaniacal, self-promoter. As long as he’s a part of it, the organization will always take a backseat to Assange himself. WikiLeaks could carve out a space for itself in this surveillance-ridden, data-collecting world. But if Wikileaks does make another grand attempt at changing the world, you can be that Assange will be at the forefront, ready to collect all the glory.
Depending on what side you come down on, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden may be heroes. Julian Assange wants to look like a hero, but with WikiLeaks becoming more obsolete everyday, he may have to settle for being a footnote.
Chris Osterndorf is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on websites such as the Daily Dot, Mic.com, Salon, xoJane, The Week, and more. When he’s not writing, Chris enjoys making movies with friends. He currently lives in Los Angeles.
Illustration by Max Fleishman