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From Indymedia to Wikileaks: What a decade of hacking journalistic culture says about the future of news

The first time I ever heard the words “mirror website,” I was sitting at a debris-strewn desk, hunched over a desktop computer, on the second floor of a nondescript office building on East 29th in Manhattan. I’d recently started volunteering with the New York City Independent Media Center, an organization that would turn out to be one of the first “citizen journalism” organizations in the United States — though certainly no one would have called it that at the time. The IMC was in its third day of participant-powered coverage of protest actions taken against World Economic Forum (WEF) meetings in New York. It was less than five months after September 11; the city was cold and bleak, and people were tense. Really tense. And our website, NYC Indymedia, had slowed to a crawl.

“It’s going to crash,” I muttered.

“Don’t worry,” I was told. “We’ve got it mirrored on a bunch of backup servers. The updates from people using the Open Newswire won’t show up right away, but they will show up, and people will still be able to read the site.”

I wish I could say that the Indymedia site was crashing because we were — like Julian Assange — the targets of powerful governmental forces, but I suspect the website slowness had more to do with unexpected server load and a tenuous back-end infrastructure than with any sort of global conspiracy. Nevertheless, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was all going to be okay. Somewhere, a person who knew all about such complicated things like “mirrors” and “servers” was taking care of it.

I raise this old story from the prehistoric days of online citizen journalism because, when I read tweets like “the first serious infowar is now engaged, and the field of battle is WikiLeaks,” I think it’s worth taking a step back and trying to put recent developments in perspective. The battle over Wikileaks, and the journalistic questions that it raises, are genuinely new developments — but they’re new developments grounded in a few long term trends and a history stretching back nearly two decades. The impact of WikiLeaks on journalism is more an impact of degree than of kind; what’s happening isn’t entirely new, but it is happening on a greater scale than ever before.

I want to talk about two general trends I see shaping journalism, trends that are highlighted in developments at the leading edge of “journalistic hacktivism” over the past decade.

The Internet-powered introduction of new “objects” into the journalistic bloodstream

Collapsing business models aside, the primary change shaping journalism over the past ten years has been the introduction of strange new “digital news objects” into the traditional journalistic work flow. In the days of the coverage of the World Economic Forum by Indymedia, these new objects were first-hand citizen accounts, on-the-scene photos, and other forms of primitive “citizen journalism,” uploaded in real time to websites. Since 2002, we’ve seen these forms of first-hand eyewitness slowly be embraced by mainstream news organizations, from CNN’s iReport to The New York Times’ Moment in Time crowdsourced photo series.

Now we see news organizations struggle to integrate massive amounts of semi-structured data into their traditional workflow — some (though certainly not all) of it coming from non-traditional informational actors like WikiLeaks. Drawing on the pioneering work of media theorist Lev Manovich, Columbia professor Todd Gitlin has recently argued that

…the definitive informational metaphor of our epoch is the database. The database is not just a metaphor, in fact — it’s a certification of what knowledge looks like and how it is to be gained. A metaphor is a carrier, a condensation of meaning. A database is a heap.

While I don’t entirely agree with Gitlin about the political meaning of WikiLeaks (disclosure: Gitlin was my dissertation advisor), I do agree that the challenge traditional journalists now face is how to “come to terms” with the presence of these strange new objects. What journalistic status should we accord databases, and how should we manage them inside conventional news routines? Much like the first citizen photos from the scene of protests and natural disasters required journalists to rethink what counted as journalistic evidence, WikiLeaks’ slow-but-steady release of 250,000 diplomatic cables is prompting journalists to ask similar questions about what they do. The difference between citizen photos and databases is a difference in scale, and extreme differences in scale eventually become differences in kind.

So the presence of these strange new extra-journalistic news objects isn’t all that new. New “quasi-sources” have been hacking journalistic workflow for years. What’s new is the scale of the evidence that’s now bombarding journalism. The question of how to manage reader-submitted photos is a qualitatively different question than the dilemma of how to manage hundreds of thousands of leaked cables being provided by an information-transparency organization whose ultimate motives and values are unclear. Think of the State Department cables as a massive pile of crowdsourced evidence — only in this case the “crowd” is the U.S. diplomatic corps, and the first work of document collection and analysis has been done by an outside organization.

The long rise of the news geeks

In the case of both Indymedia and WikiLeaks, developments which have had a serious impact on the newsroom have been powered by what I like to call the “leading politicized edge” of the online geek community. It’s not surprising that, as leading hacker anthropologist Gabriella Coleman has noted:

Politically minded geeks bred during the era of cheaper PC’s, home-schooled programming, and virtual interactions chose to use Free Software for the implementation of the early proliferation of Indymedia centers. Mailing lists and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) — both widely available in free software versions at the time — were the main communication tools that facilitated conversation between dispersed tech-activists first establishing centers in different locations like Washington DC, Boston, London, and Seattle.

Ten years later, the story is largely the same. Today, working journalists are confronted by ideologies of “information liberation” and terms like “distributed denial of service attacks” (DDOS) and “website mirrors.” While these ideas and innovations have not been created within journalism, they impact the flow of information, and thus impact journalism itself. A few days ago I wrote that Wikileaks was “organized informational anarchism with journalistic consequences.” This new world of geek-powered information innovation requires an appropriate level of response from our centers of journalistic education and from our newsrooms

The occasional news-oriented hacker aside, it’s important for journalists to keep in mind that, despite some surface similarities, all denizens of hacker culture are not the same. Anonymous is not Wikileaks. Indeed, both Anonymous and hacker organizations are quick to point out that Anonymous and distributed denial of service attacks are not “hacking” at all. My tech-savvy friends who first taught me about website mirrors in 2002 were rather unique in the open source world; not everyone in that world cared much about either journalism or the World Economic Forum.

While it might be heartening to swell the ranks of journalism by drawing all advocates of digital transparency into our ranks, journalists need to ponder what aspects of these powerful online communities they want to embrace and what aspects they might want to leave behind. But they can only do that if they think historically about the path online journalism has taken over the past decade, and if they understand the way that today’s hackers and technologists are shaping our information flows.

(Many thanks to Gabriella Coleman for her comments on an earlier draft of this post.)

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  • Leigh

    I always get a bit frustrated when people still talk about WikiLeaks whose “ultimate motives and values are unclear.” Julian Assange has written whole essays on it, there is a um, I think 2006, manifesto that is widely available. I have never seen any other journalistic or rather publishing enterprise produce so many policy documents. And it’s the content of those documents that should be today’s matter for discussion, not silly calls for assacination, extra-legal pressure on corporates and DDoS attacks on those corporates. It makes me tired.

    The Todd Gitlin TNR article had many huge factual inaccuracies, which I emailed him about. If we cannot even get the facts right of what the Philosophy and actions of Wikileaks are, any discussion is deeply pointless. And this is in the academic community. Henceforth, back to those assacination calls and stupid DDoS attacks.

  • micah

    “I wish I could say that the Indymedia site was crashing because we were — like Julian Assange — the targets of powerful governmental forces, but I suspect the website slowness had more to do with unexpected server load and a tenuous back-end infrastructure than with any sort of global conspiracy” — actually you could say that. At times the site ‘crashing’ was due to an overwhelming load during heavy news moments (such as conventions), at other times it had to do with poorly written software, and at other times it had to do with being targets of attack. Sometimes those attacks were brought on by right-wing little green football type people (at least one of whom ended up in jail), at other times the attacks were, just as are in the wikileaks case, distributed denial of service attacks with no clear origin, but suspicious IP addresses linked to governmental sources.

  • C.W. Anderson

    Thanks for your comment Micah. It makes sense that it was often a combination of all those things; I wanted to err on the side of caution by not *assuming* that was it, but I had a hunch. And like I said, I was always on the “editorial end” of the IMC operation and usually (though this changed as time went on) had only a vague clue about what was going on at the back end. Indeed, one of the reasons I wrote this was to encourage that there be less of a separation of these roles in the journalistic future.

    Leigh- you’re right to be frustrated with people speaking about their “ignorance” of #WL motives. For my part, though, I (once again) wanted to err on the side of caution. I think WL (and WL’s context) is changing so quickly that its hard to know how stable and solid anyone’s goals are here. That said, you’re right– there’s pretty clear and consistent documentation out there if you know where to look.

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  • http://http// salaud

    This article had to be written and it motivated me to write a bit more about it here

    I won’t take up too much space in this comment, but just to say that it also was irksome that a lot of the tweets going by forgot about Information World War I– that is, Indymedia. In my article I analyze the different tactics of Wikileaks / Operation Payback and Indymedia. I also state the contention more strongly, because I think it bears saying quite simply: No Wikileaks / Payback without Indymedia.

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  • Jeff Moe

    Back then, I wrote up an analysis of the attack that Micah mentions (one of a number). I see a copy of of that here:

    We would get a variety of attacks that were clearly orchestrated by *someone* but it’s always hard to say who. There were DoS attacks to block live radio streams, frequent SYN attacks, simple pings floods from a single IP…

    The only times I know of when it was incontrovertibly agents of the state involved in getting content stopped, is when they would go and physically take the servers. And in at least one case I recall, it took months to even find out the state was involved.

    Hi all. Viva wiki* :)

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  • Claudia Vandermilt

    A prime example of the urgency of information security needs in corporate and government organizations.

    It’s not necessarily that these organiations were hacked, news coverage seems to be pointing to insiders leaking the documents to WikiLeaks. Wikileaks posted the classified information, there’s no evidence that it hacked to get the info.

    Information assurance training can be taken online and prep individuals for high security positions.

  • bame/pablito

    I had the same frustration, having helped a bit with some indymedia problems, and was surprised that the google timeline for indymedia is pretty good and shows several of the repressions. Hi to Jeff and micah

  • micah

    I feel bad writing another comment because I dont want to pick on you, I actually think your piece is great, it is the only one that contextualizes these things in a broader framework, although now that I’ve read salaud’s entry above, that isn’t totally true anymore… but there was one other thing that was nagging at me that I just have to point out. Saying, “an organization that would turn out to be one of the first “citizen journalism” organizations in the United States” ignores quite a number of citizen journalism individuals and organizations that occurred pre-indymedia, indeed pre-internet. In fact the original purpose of the IMC was to create a space for all the individual citizen journalists who needed some common resources. but I know you know that, and you just didn’t qualify it.

    also, hi to bame, jebba and salaud… funny :)

  • andrew

    To deal with the scale of the information now bombarding journalism, perhaps journalists should get better tools. This requires stepping out of the safe discipline boundaries and getting your hands dirty by learning how to use automated semantic algorithms, or how to program Perl scripts. It is impossible for a single newsroom, much less a single journalist, to interpret a database the size of the Wikileaks file.

    Wikileaks also blurs the line between “journalist” and “activist”. How many jounralists are willing to risk what Assange is going through to get the information out there? Indymedia may have hacked by government agents, but no one ever called for Indymedia people to assasinated. The US is trying to make a crime out of simply reporting what the contents of a leaked file are.

    Fortunately, and I think this is why the government is losing its s**t about this, the age of information security is over. Whether it’s someone sticking a flash drive into a classified computer, or a group of hackers gaining access to some secret network and dumping the data online, once something is digital and distributed, it is not safe. Not even in prinicple. It is up to us, the citizens, and I would argue especially up to journalists to keep the hammer down on these authoritarian organizations – corporations and the government – to pry open their tightly guarded secrets about illegal and immoral behavior that is the rule, not the exception. And, those of us not in the fight need to openly support those brave leakers and journalists so that a critical mass of sympathy prevents the kind of repression the government so wishes to begin.

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  • Jonathan Stray

    To the point about journalists needing new tools to understand things like the earlier, larger Wikileaks releases — or really, any database, such as one released by a government for transparency purposes — a small group of investigative reporters, computer scientists, and academics are slowly implementing an open source system for visual analytics of very large document sets. One type of visualization we would like to make routine is demonstrated by our work on the Iraq War Logs. We would probably appreciate your help in some fashion.

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