Why Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are so divisive
It's simple. If you accept that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks once exposed secrets of the West of interest to the public, you also have to accept that they both spread disinformation and conspiracy rumours that attacked Western democracy for the benefit of the Kremlin.
Buildings are reflected in the window as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is taken from court.Credit:AP
But being able to do both may be hard. That's because if you belong to one camp you may be increasingly deaf to the arguments of the other side.
Working in media, I recognise the need protect the public's right to be informed. That includes protecting journalists reporting on powerful institutions and protecting them from the government itself.
Whether Assange qualifies as a journalist is another matter.
Yet watching those who make the claim Assange is only an unconventional journalist, I can't help but conclude many of WikiLeak's most ardent public defenders have rarely been trolled by WikiLeaks' partisans.
Those who questioned WikiLeaks' role in attacking American democracy are those who have often been targeted online by WikiLeaks' supporters. In being targeted, their free speech was targeted. Not the freedom to speak but to be heard.
The reality is: the trolling operation has long been part of WikiLeaks’ underbelly.
Assange had been quoted in private chats telling a confidant "be the troll you want to see in the world".
But many genuine supporters of a free media – and with what I assume are good intentions – may not realise this. Their ignorance derives not necessarily from indifference or opposition so much as from the emerging landscape of our communications technology.
Thanks to the internet and social media, the world is personalised to our views. Now nothing forces you to know what you don't want to know. Few topics display this socio-political illusion more than the topic of WikiLeaks and Assange.
For journalists and activists who challenged the Assange-approved version of himself, there was (and may well still be) relentless targeted trolling.
These aren't debates, or disagreements, but directed efforts to silence voices online.
Freedom of speech? Not when your right to free expression is under assault by an army of anonymous trolls.
Even as Assange and his supporters hold him up as a poster boy of free speech, the practical effort is for critics to learn the hard way to keep their dissent to themselves.
Assange (and for that matter Milo Yannopolis or Fraser Anning) operate in a world in which free speech is more akin to a free-for-all, in which abuse is freely spewed and those with the biggest megaphone or most tenacious backers win.
What's wrong with this picture is that freedom of speech is also the freedom to be heard.
The freedom to be heard means to be able to speak without fear of repercussion.
Former US recording industry executive Neil Turkewitz criticises the vision of freedom of speech that focuses "uniquely on preservation of a negative freedom – the absence of explicit restrictions" while ignoring "the broader implications and reality of freedom of expression".
While our friends in China live under an information system in which their ability to speak freely is constrained by the state, possibly even within Australia, much of the Western internet is constructed on this libertarian ideal.
And certainly, for ideological, technological and financial reasons, Western social media has thrived with this understanding of "free speech".
In that view, all speech is good and all is equal. Posting the Gettysburg Address or shitposting – it's all the same from a platform content perspective.
What's missing in the equation is truthfulness. Veracity isn't a variable in the core technology of the platforms. Truthfulness has almost no bearing on what spreads and trends virally.
In this way, the WikiLeaks saga is telling.
All things being equal, neither the free speech activists nor the democracy defenders would ever have to seriously contemplate the other side of the debate. Both sides will never arrive at the consensus so necessary in democracy.
Freedom of expression isn't simply the right to speak but the right to be heard.
This, to me, is the real significance of the WikiLeaks:
Both sides of the argument have merits, and in isolation most reasonable people can agree on various aspects of them.
Online, that outcome is impossible.
Chris Zappone is a senior writer.
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