Web-based activism seeks to keep e-masses in the know

It always seems the Internet is under attack. Every week some fresh outrage breaks out over something that has appeared online. Sometimes it’s a morality issue stemming from some indecent website or video.

This time the website in question is WikiLeaks.org. The site recently leaked footage from 2007 that shows an attack by American helicopters on a group of Iraqis that killed two Reuters reporters and a handful of civilians.

WikiLeaks came under fire immediately for the video and was forced to contend with accusations of impeding a military investigation, leaking sensitive government material and showing a complete lack of civic responsibility by posting the video. Some have called the site a collection of hearsay and unchecked facts.

However, all of these critics are missing the point of WikiLeaks: it is a brilliant new take on political activism.

Internet activism is nothing new, but it has sadly been shortchanged and underestimated. When it comes to Internet activism, most people simply think of donating money to political candidates’ campaign websites, best typified by the drive for online fundraising that helped finance Barack Obama’s successful bid for the presidency in 2008. However, there is much more to it then that.

The Internet is essentially the ultimate hybrid of communication technology and information storing. All it takes is an Internet connection to share documents instantly, send mass e-mails across the globe and network in ways that regular activists cannot.

The Internet has fostered the evolution of activism in many forms — there are now online flash mobs set up to protest human rights violations in China, and global petitions that sympathizers can sign electronically to help stop the spread of AIDS in Africa. Some even take more radical approaches, like flooding a disliked company’s website to crash the servers in protest.

Internet activism has evolved alongside social networking. As more people are able to interact with one another, they can share more information over a greater area and at a faster rate. They just need a central hub to compile this information so that they can link to it: That’s where WikiLeaks comes in.

Despite its name, the site has nothing to do with Wikipedia — the prefix wiki simply means a collaborative website. According to the site, WikiLeaks was founded by “Chinese dissidents, journalists, mathematicians and start-up company technologists” from around the world.

The site hosts suppressed documents as well as classified reports from governments and organizations. Many of these reports, like the recent video from Iraq, describe suspicious activities or abuses on the part of these groups. The goal is not to slander any group unjustly but to expose the world to the surreptitious activity of high-profile organizations and governments.

With no central figure, the site relies on a board of advisers and a series of experts to vet all submitted intelligence for authenticity and accuracy. The primarily volunteer-run servers of the site are located in Sweden, where the law defends Internet anonymity.

Since its launch in 2007, the site has not only exposed corruption in countries like Kenya but also used its resources and viral skills to defend journalists who face imprisonment for their stories. If that isn’t activism at its finest, then what is?

It is important to note that WikiLeaks is not itself the source of the leaked information. Government sources provide the video, so any claims to arrest or charge WikiLeak contributors with espionage don’t hold water. If people feel the need to press charges, they will have to find those responsible for the leaks.

In many ways, the controversy surrounding WikiLeaks is essentially a digital-age update of the Pentagon Papers scandal. In 1971, former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked a classified report on unpublicized American acts in Vietnam and Cambodia to The New York Times. This led to lawsuits against Ellsberg and The New York Times, and ultimately the Times’ actions were ruled legal by the Supreme Court.

Going by that approach, WikiLeaks’ actions, no matter how radical, are simply legal forms of political activism and information dissemination. It is publicizing intelligence to expose corruption and abuse of power. It is simply doing what the media is expected to do: provide a check to the power of government. And in that case, it is succeeding.

The media serves to hold the government and other organizations accountable for their actions. In recent years, however, the traditional media has faltered in that approach, watering down its exposés and reports for fear of reprisal. WikiLeaks does not do this. It posts the full documents, unedited, and with full impact.

Should people hack government accounts and steal classified documents from organizations? No. But if someone on the inside leaks a sensitive report, what is wrong with there being a site that collects and showcases that report?

The press is one of the greatest checks on government corruption and abuse of power, and the Internet is finally stepping up to help. WikiLeaks is not some evil site trying to undermine civilization, but a great tool for political activism. And isn’t that what the Internet needs?

Nicholas Slayton is a freshman majoring in print journalism. His column “A Series of Tubes” runs Thursdays.