What Wikileaks Means for Technology and Media

The website Wikileaks published over 90,000 documents leaked U.S. military documents from the war in Afghanistan on Sunday. The "Afghan War Diary," as they are labeled, cover the period from 2004 to 2010.

Wikileaks claims the documents do not infringe on current exercises in the region. And indeed, at first glance, they do seem to tell us what we already know: the trustworthiness of some of our allies is suspect; non-combattants continue to be killed; nation-building is slow and painful and things don't work out like we planned. As analysts and journalists - and thanks to the open availability of the wiki, anyone - pour over the documents to determine their content, the full impact of the release of information on the ongoing military efforts in the region remains to be seen.

But what has been immediately clear is the impact Wikileaks will likely have quite an impact here at home. This isn't just about warfare, it's about information warfare. And the impact won't just be felt but strategists inside NATO or the Obama Administration. Journalists in particular have been given pause by the disruption that Wikileaks, what NYU Journalism professor Jay Rosen calls "the world's first stateless news organization," portends.

Prior to publishing the documents this weekend, Wikileaks had given The New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Spiegel access to the information. The raw data -- and if you have visited the Wikileaks site to see the documents for yourself, you will agree: it is raw data -- were handed over to these three news organizations for their journalists to corroborate, analyze, and disseminate.

Julien Assange, the founder and spokesperson of sorts for the Wikileaks organization said in an interview in October 2009 that he sought to make the web a leakier place. Wikileaks acts as a conduit between sources and journalists. Whistleblowers submit their sources to Wikileaks, who protects the anonymity of its sources and assumes the legal risks associated with publishing the content. Once Wikileaks has verified the material, then the material is linked to the journalists. But once an embargo passes, Wikileaks publishes the material itself on its own website.

"It's counterintuitive," says Assange. "You'd think the bigger and more important the document is, the more likely it will be reported on but that's absolutely not true. It's about supply and demand. Zero supply equals high demand, it has value. As soon as we release the material, the supply goes to infinity, so the perceived value goes to zero." Assange is helping not just to leak information, but to get that information published, catering to journalists who are compelled to get "the scoop."

Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab has an excellent summation of some of the questions that Wikileaks raises for the field. How does it demonstrate the shifting power of the discussion of "news" between journalists, news sources, governments, bloggers, and citizens? How has Wikileaks as an organization (online, stateless, fiercely protective of anonymity) created a culture that is more akin to those likely to leaks information? And how will journalism be impacted by the massive amounts of data that we can have at our fingertips -- 91,000 pages of documents, the sort of collection that would have otherwise taken years and years to amass.

Most journalists seem to agree that the Wikileaks documents released on Sunday will not have as far-reaching a consequence on the war and on national sentiment as did the Pentagon Papers, leaked to the New York Times almost forty years ago. But they also concur that technology, social media, and big data has already shaken their industry substantially.