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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9 Comments

Filed under government 2.0, journalism, social media, technology

9 responses to “On Wikileaks, government 2.0, open government and new media hurricanes

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  4. Jack Holt

    First I must say that these are my views and mine alone and do not necessarily represent the view or opinions of the Dept. of Defense or the U.S. Government.

    There is no easy way to think about this and I hope this makes sense to you. We live in a very complex environment. That said, let’s explore a couple of things. In your Tweet you asked about Jungian philosophy and yes, I believe Jungian philosophy will most definitely help. Jung’s concept of individuation plays out before us. Most of us don’t see ourselves as undifferentiated from everyone else. We look at the Wikileaks articles, or the Washington Post “Top Secret America” articles and think, “but what can I do about it.” We all must realize our place in the whole of the community. Without each of us taking our place there is a hole in the community. We each have a unique place. We look inside to find what we have to give to the outside. All very philosophical, I know. Now for the practical …

    Controlling information when we can will always be important. But secrets are also a burden. There is much more freedom and power in transparency.

    What we haven’t thought or talked about it is how these events affect all of us as a community. Right or wrong some things that were secret are no longer. What does that mean? That means that we are each and every one responsible for what we now know.

    We can argue as to why it is bad to tell secrets, but we can also argue why it is bad to keep secrets and neither changes what has been done. We must now all be vigilant to watch out for each other. For example, if you know of, or work around, any of the facilities in the Post articles, you are now responsible to help keep watch over those who work there to help keep them safe. They are working to keep us safe. Now we must work for them as well. We are all responsible. If you see something suspicious, report it. It is now up to you.

    Truth, as we typically understand it, is fungible. It is based on facts about what is known and understood; which is why it is “the first casualty.” When things happen, facts are changed. As facts are changed understanding is changed, or should be. (I don’t fully understand all I know about “truth.” There is so much more about truth to learn, and I’m not completely happy with what I’ve written here, but it serves to setup my next paragraph and hopefully our thinking.)

    Truth, facts, understanding, knowledge are all products of communication. Communication and information are inextricably intertwined, but are completely different things. Let’s review Jack’s Laws of Communication:

    Jack’s 1st Law of Communication – In absence of a net force, information at rest will remain at rest.
    Jack’s 2nd Law of Communication – Information experiencing a net force experiences Communication. Therefore, Communication is Information in action.
    Jack’s 3rd Law of Communication – For every Communication (Information in action), there is an equal and opposite Communication (Information Reaction).

    Communication is about “doing” things.

    And now let’s review Jack’s Laws of Information:
    Jack’s 1st Law of Information – Information is power, but only powerFUL when communicated.
    Jack’s 2nd Law of Information – Information AS power is measured by the difference between communication “intent” and “effect.”
    Jack’s 3rd Law of Information – Proficiency in wielding information as power is the difference between reacting and responding.

    Situational awareness is a function of Information and Communication. Now understand that there are two ways to share Information, distribution and discovery. Situational awareness is enhanced when both methods are used. Social media tools allow us to communicate differently to enhance situational awareness. When used in a gov 2.0 scenario and especially in the US, we all now have a responsibility to the information distributed or discovered. We have from our inception been an open, transparent government of the people, by the people, for the people. New communication technologies have opened the doors to just how complex is the environment.

    Karl von Clausewitz described complexity as two wrestlers locked in the struggle. Each with pressure on the other that put them in positions that would not be possible were it not for the opponent. When we open up the doors and allow more participants onto the field, we each now have a responsibility to the outcome and we join ourselves to the wrestlers and we become a scrum. Each of us with our own individuality adding to the synchronicity of the situation and pressing to advantage our “truth.” But the effort is not about control, it is about effect. And the question now becomes not “what can I do about it,” but “what WILL I do about it.”

    We are each responsible to each other.

    • digiphile

      Thank you for the thoughtful, informed and lucid comment. Even that Jungian thought, whom I often find impenetrable, makes sense in the context of the individual’s relationship to the community and responsibility once knowledge is gained.

      I don’t entirely agree with you that “we have from our inception been an open, transparent government of the people” from the start, although our messy market democracy is surely amongst the most aspirational attempts at such a polity in history. My American history isn’t perfect but I know we’ve always had some secrets, particularly where national security, war or disruptive technology is concerned.

      While there’s much to consider in what you’ve shared, particularly with respect to the applicability of the rules you list, the idea that we’re in this together resonates. As a society increasingly bound by optic networks and radio waves, our shared responsibility towards community similarly increases.

      The tectonic forces that are disrupting our society as a result of the exponential uptake in social software online and behind the firewalls in enterprise created a bonafide media earthquake this week. I’m still making sense of them (obviously), along with many others who are considering the phenomenon. It’s rare Jay Rosen calls something “new.” I tend to agree with him here.

      Trusting people with the responsibility to hold onto sensitive or disruptive tech is an age-old dilemma, and one neither our political, business, academic, religious nor military leaders will be able to solve easily in the years ahead. The proverbial genie is out of the bottle.

  5. Kelcy

    The “proverbial genie” is not out of the bottle. Your first sentence in this paragraph talks about trusting people to hold onto sensitive or disruptive technology; this is not really the issue in the examples you are using. The issue in these cases is about the information – the content; technology merely exacerbates the potential for quickly mishandling (e.g. “leaking”) large amounts of sensitive information. Technology may also assist in protecting sensitive information but it is only part of the solution since the underlying problem is really about human behaviors that are as old as humankind. Social networking applications merely accelerate the impact of those human behaviors and lead to increased conflicts. William Wallace wrote a book on Techno-Cultural Evolution:Cycles of Conflict of Creation. http://www.amazon.com/Techno-Cultural-Evolution-Cycles-Creation-Conflict/dp/1597971073/ref=sr_1_fkmr1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1280290829&sr=8-1-fkmr1 The overall premise is that we create technology and then technology recreates our cultures. Although slightly dated given the accelerating rate of technology, the book provides a wonderful history of the impact of technology on human cultures. We are now in a time where increasing technological creativity is causing conflict in our cultures. Hard saying if it is those who are agile who survive, but there is great need for agility in handling changing technological environments when basic human behaviors are basically unchanged.

  6. Social networking applications merely accelerate the impact of those human behaviors and lead to increased conflicts

  7. Pingback: Revisiting Disasters, Social Media and Crisis Congress at FEMA

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