Monthly Archives: July 2010

On Wikileaks, government 2.0, open government and new media hurricanes

The war logs from Afghanistan may well be the biggest intelligence leak ever. Wikileaks represents a watershed in the difficult challenge of of information control that the Internet represents for every government.

Aeschylus wrote nearly 2500 years ago that “in war, truth is the first casualty.” His words are no doubt known to a wise man, whose strategic “maneuvers within a changing information environment” would not be an utterly foreign concept to the Greeks in the Peloponnesian War. Aeschylus and Thucydides would no doubt wonder at the capacity of the Information Age to spread truth and disinformation alike.

In considering the shifting landscape above, Mark Drapeau has asserted that “government 2.0″ is the “newest reality of new media.” I’m not convinced by his assertion that “no one is answering” the call to engage on that information battlefield. Given constant answers from various spokesmen over the past week, or this afternoon as the war logs leak breaks, that doesn’t appear accurate.

It’s similarly unclear to me that, were government agencies to develop a more agile media culture, it would sustain a more informed electorate. It’s not clear that it would lead to more effective data-driven policy, nor the transparency that a healthy representative democracy needs to thrive.

More nimble use of new media is important, particularly for the armed services, but given the existential challenges posed by energy, education, healthcare, environment, unemployment and the long war it’s hard to support the content that it should be the focus of open government efforts.

As for his consignment of “journalistic standards” to the company of “other quaint attitudes,” I’d posit that differentiating between propaganda, agitprop and factual journalism matters even more today.

I don’t see standards for separating fact from fiction as quaint at all; if anything, the new media environment makes that ability more essential than ever, particularly in the context of the “first stateless news organization” Jay Rosen has described.

There’s a new kind of alliance behind the War Logs, as David Carr wrote in the New York Times.

That reality reinforces that fact that information literacy is a paramount concern for citizens in the digital age. As danah boyd has eloquently pointed out, transparency is not enough.

What is the essence of open government?

Governments that invest in more capacity to maneuver in this new media environment (the theater of public affairs officers and mainstream media now occupied by the folks formerly known as the audience) might well fare better in information warfare.

Open government is a mindset, but not simply a matter of new media literacy. To suggest that the “essence of open government” is to adopt a workplace environment that both accepts the power of new media and adapts to it seems reductive. I’m unconvinced that it is the fundamental element of open government, as least as proposed by the architects of that policy in Washington now.

It would also seem to have little to do with what research suggests citizens expect of government, even those of a libertarian bent.

Citizens are turning to the Internet for data, policy and services.

Given an estimated 1.47 trillion dollar budget gap estimated for next year, I wonder whether citizens might prefer a leaner, more agile government that leverages technology, citizen participation and civic hacking than a more new media-savvy culture. Those are, after all, the elements of social government or government 2.0 that I’ve heard about from him for years.

There’s also the question of fully addressing the reality that in a time of war, some information can and will have to remain classified for years if those fighting are to have any realistic chances of winning. Asymmetries of information between combatants are, after all, essential to winning maneuvers on the battlefields of the 21st century.

There’s no doubt that government is playing catchup given the changed media environment, supercharged by the power of the Internet, broadband and smartphones. This week we’ve seen a tipping point in the relationship of government, media and techology. Comparing the Wikileaks War Logs to the Pentagon Papers is inevitable and not valid, as ProPublica reported

It’s not at all clear to me, however, how the military would win battles, much less wars, without control over situational awareness, operational information or effective counterintelligence. Given the importance of the ENIGMA machine or intercepts of Japanese intel in WWII, or damage caused by subsequent counterintelligence leaks from the FBI and elsewhere, I question the veracity of the contention that “controlling information better” to limit intelligence leaks that damage ongoing ops will not continue to be vitally important to the military for as long as we have one.

More transparency and accountability regarding our wars to the nation, Congress and president are both desirable and a bedrock principle in a representative democracy, not least because of the vast amounts of spending that has been outlaid since 9/11 in the shadow government that Dana Priest reported out in “Top Secret America” in the Washington Post.

Wikileaks and the Internet add the concept of asymmetric journalism to the lexicon of government 2.0 to the more traditional accountability journalism of Priest or database journalism of the new media crew online at Sunlight and elsewhere. Fortunately for their readers, many of those folks continue to “adhere to journalistic standards and other quaint attitudes and rule sets and guidelines.”

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Stonington Farmers Market in Deer Isle, Maine

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