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Wednesday, December 08, 2010 

Julian Assange, Wikileaks and bloggocks.

The whole saga surrounding Julian Assange, Wikileaks and the allegations made against him in Sweden has been I hope all will agree, dreadfully reported and commented on, including and especially by bloggers. Doing so accurately was always going to be made difficult by the differences between English and Swedish rape law, and also by the fact that until Assange's appearance in court yesterday, the full claims made by the two women against him were not known. Now that they are, it's apparent that two of the charges would in this country be investigated as allegations of rape.

In the light of this, John Band's initial post on Liberal Conspiracy on the case, which caused so much gnashing of teeth earlier in the week reads especially badly in places. It doesn't however alter his point, which was subsequently all but ignored by many of those who responded so furiously, that very, very few women who make rape allegations are liars. Even taking into account things said in the heat of the moment, and on Twitter, with its inherent limitations on expression, Cath Elliot's tweets and subsequent post were the product of bile and dogma rather than anything approaching an open mind. It might well be the antithesis of feminism "to automatically assume that a man accused of sex crimes is innocent", but it is the legal position that someone is innocent until proven guilty. To assume that is not to feed into the "prevailing misogynistic anti-woman narrative that says that all women who accuse men of rape are lying", nor is it an example of the "way left wing men always sell out women in the end".

As Chris has argued, cognitive biases have come into play on both sides. Too many assumed and indeed continue to allege that the claims made against Assange must either be malicious or part of a conspiracy to discredit the organisation which he has come to represent, when there is very little to no evidence whatsoever that the entire process has been motivated by anything other than the Swedish state wanting to see justice done on the behalf of two of its citizens. Unarguable is that they have handled the case very badly indeed, and as a result smears against Assange by those who oppose what Wikileaks has been doing since it started releasing the documents apparently obtained from Bradley Manning have been made far easier. While it's true that Wikileaks and Assange are not one and the same thing, such has been Assange's role both as its main creator and public face that it's not surprising that the two have become all but inseparable in the eyes of the media and indeed others.

One of the reasons for just why bloggers have fallen down so badly in this instance was elucidated by Assange himself at the beginning of the release of the current cache of US diplomatic cables. He and Wikileaks believed that rather than professional journalists doing the heavy analytical lifting from the documents, it would have been the bloggers and the likes of Wikipedia editors. Instead, the case has been the exact opposite. It's only when the initial work has been done that those individuals then started to dig deeper and provide extra perspective. In this regard, Assange and his friends fell into the belief that has been common for some time among the more prominent advocates of blogging, that it's been they rather than the mainstream, or rather the "dead tree press" or "lamestream media" whom have been in recent times providing the scoops and stories which have then been followed up by the old media. While this has been true in a few cases, it's overwhelmingly still been the dedication and hard work of professional journalists that have meant we've had such exposes in recent years as the rendition scandal, or the expenses file. True, it's often that these scoops are provided to journalists by sources or whistleblowers, yet it's still down to their work and the organisations that pay their wages that we've had governments held to account.

With the mainstream media not acquitting themselves well in respect to reporting accurately a story which began in a country where few have correspondents and where the main language spoken isn't English, bloggers had to rely on the few sources that were available or those that did attempt to look into the background of the case in more detail. This was further hindered by, as Unity explains, one of the main sources from Sweden being directly involved with Assange, putting into question their integrity. What's more, blogging itself increasingly seems to be becoming just an adjunct of wider social network interaction. With time which may once have been spent on posts being hived off to the use of Twitter and Facebook, articles in general and the research being done for them has been shortened further. This is a personal view, and one which many will disagree with, but Twitter especially seems to be exacerbating this tendency; anything that can't be said with relative brevity increasingly seems to be disregarded. What was once contained to forums where walls of text were greeted with the somewhat tongue in cheek response "tl;dr" seems to be spreading to blogging. Time constraints have always been something of an explanation, and it's often true that less is more, yet the discussion of certain subjects, especially those where little is certain often require care which can't be adequately expressed in as few words as possible.

To return to the cognitive biases on display, one of Cath Elliot's points against those defending Assange does hit the mark. Wikileaks has been almost unanimously accepted as a force for good purely on what it has released rather than its views on freedom of information, and with that has been supported with little thought for the potential ramifications if it starts releasing personal as well as government information. While I can no longer find it, during one of the outbreaks of the intermittent News of the World phone-hacking scandal the site ran a comment piece which was highly critical of the Guardian's stance on the matter on the basis that the information obtained via the method should be in the public domain regardless any public interest being served by its release. With the criticism that followed the release of the Afghanistan war logs, which on Wikileaks itself still contained information which could have identified the source (although it seems, as far as we know, that no one named has suffered personally as a result), that free for all stance might well have changed, yet we certainly can't be sure of what those behind the site would do should a cache of such material fall into their hands. Much the same applies to the "Anonymous" grouping and those behind Operation Payback, who many are cheering on, myself included, for hitting back at those spineless enough to withdraw their service from Wikileaks without providing a legal reasoning for doing so. We might not be so pleased should their next target for their opt-in botnet be less deserving.

One of the worst traits of modern media is to try to provide immediate context, and with it comment while also attempting to uphold the same levels of objectivity and authority associated with "old-fashioned" reporting. Doing so is all but impossible when you have the resources of a newspaper, let alone when you're a one man band. We would all greatly benefit if we dropped the pretence of being an unimpeachable source of the facts. Equally, we should be less quick to assume ill intent or read more widely into something from a single, short post. This might however be to go against the very grain of the internet, not just blogging.

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