After a slow trickle of stories over the better part of 2016, the CIA has released a statement claiming that the Russians used cyberwarfare to attack the U.S. election. Russian agents spread disinformation through “fake news” and pro-Donald Trump Twitter bots, attacked Democratic congressional candidates, attempted to hack voter information in various states, and funneled information from hacked emails to WikiLeaks to harm Hillary Clinton and help Trump.
While the CIA and other intelligence agencies will determine a response to the Russians, it’s the WikiLeaks dump that is the most problematic going forward for journalists and American news consumers. WikiLeaks brands itself as a neutral clearinghouse for whistleblowers, but it has been exposed as a pawnshop willing to fence information to others to attack their political enemies. Going forward, the press and the public should think twice about jumping at the next “data dump” from WikiLeaks.
As an entity, WikiLeaks, along with its founder, Julian Assange, has done some good work. A site dedicated to exposing corruption around the world by releasing information unfiltered and "uncurated" is a necessary space as governments become more secretive and the consequences for citizens become more severe.
As with a midnight album drop, the press and politicos jump online whenever WikiLeaks dumps a new cache of information exposing petty venality among global diplomats, secret wars in Yemen being planned by U.S. officials and other shenanigans. However, in 2016 the most consistent information dumps from WikiLeaks have been from a set of hacked emails from Clinton adviser John Podesta. Damaging information was always dropped at crucial times in the presidential campaign, right before the Democratic convention or during the heated debates, and the information was always harmful to Clinton and seemingly timed for maximum news coverage and impact.
The problem is that most of this information was just lapped up without much care. WikiLeaks proudly doesn’t "curate" its data drops, which means that it doesn’t redact personal information or do simple things like differentiate between forwarded mail and actual emails. Which meant that at one point during the campaign, right-wing bloggers accused Clinton of writing some crazy racist conspiracy email that was written to her, not written by her.
I’ll admit: In my younger, poor, graduate school years, I frequented a pawnshop or two. It was the fastest, cheapest way to get a new laptop cord or a new PlayStation game if you were willing to take the risk. Anybody going to a pawnshop knows there’s a good chance you’re buying potentially damaged and almost definitely stolen goods.
Usually a pawnshop owner, let’s call him “Julian,” turns a blind eye to it. If some guy comes in to pawn a watch with the inscription, “From Hillary to my favorite little sister on her birthday,” Julian is probably going to sell it anyway. It’s not his job to vet who brings in what or how.
But if, the next day, that same man comes back to pawn a blouse with the name Hillary embroidered on it, and then the next day with a portrait with the name “Hillary” carved on the side, it’s obvious that these aren’t just random items for sale. This man is specifically robbing one person and using the shop to fence the goods.
At that point, if Julian has the slightest ethical twinge, he should stop taking items from this person or demand that he at least diversifies what he's bringing in. “I run a reputable pawnshop, I’m not here to be a part of your private war against Hillary,” the ethical Julian would say. Unfortunately, WikiLeaks doesn’t seem to have the same ethics as your average pawnshop owner.
In fact, over the last year, WikiLeaks has pretty much lost its ethical high road altogether. In its arrogant commitment to "uncurated data," it has released personal information like phone numbers, credit cards and home addresses of people who were in no way connected to the corruption being "exposed": men and women at the Democratic National Committee who had nothing to do with trying to stifle Bernie Sanders; Turkish citizens who attempted to overthrow dictator-in-training Recep Erdogan, many of whom have received death threats and worse. When Edward Snowden, no stranger to exposing corruption and malfeasance on the part of the government, criticized WikiLeaks for this lack of care and curation on Twitter, the site attacked, claiming that he was sucking up to Hillary Clinton.
While WikiLeaks founder Assange has been very clear that he disliked both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, his organization continues to operate like the worst kind of white-privileged, ideologically purist Bernie Bro. By actively dumping information only about the Clintons (and never asking that the Russians provide it with information about Trump or the GOP), WikiLeaks prioritized taking down Clinton over the potential danger of a Trump presidency.
Perhaps that’s why the once "neutral" WikiLeaks found itself defending white nationalist Milo Yiannopoulos when he launched hourslong racist attacks against actress Leslie Jones, on the grounds that any kind of censorship was a threat to its "mission." Because purity of speech is more important than the life and safety of those to whom the speech is directed.
Now that WikiLeaks has been exposed as a pawn in Russia’s cold cyberwar against the United States, it has started to lash out at anyone who questions its methods instead of owning up to being owned. As I recently experienced:
The WikiLeaks project is not inherently bad. There is a role for whistleblowing in our increasingly connected and overly surveilled world. In addition, while the Russian attack on our elections is actionable, this is a chickens-coming-home-to-roost moment for the United States. This country has a centurylong history of influencing and manipulating elections in other countries—Iran, Russia, the Congo—and often in ways that aren’t nearly as "nice" as releasing hacked emails.
This is about realizing that Wikileaks is not a neutral player in exposing corruption. It picks sides; it cared more about the Clinton Foundation than the Trump Foundation; it cared more about Podesta’s emails than Trump’s tax returns. Consequently, instead of following whatever new information drop it is promoting, we should ask where the information was obtained, what else is WikiLeaks not revealing and does the timing of this drop suggest an ulterior political motive.
I like a good pawnshop deal as much as the next person, but not when I know all the goods are stolen from one person.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.