What Data Dumps Are Doing to Journalism

feature image via Shutterstock.

Lately, I can’t get a scene from The West Wing out of my head. It’s from a sixth season episode called “The Hubbert Peak,” and it’s notable because it’s the first time a character in the series encounters a gossip blogger. She works for a “weblog” called DistrictScene and she gets a scoop that Josh totaled an SUV while taking it for a test drive. “It’s not the end of the world,” Josh tells Donna when she shows the story to him. “It’s a weblog; it’s not The Washington Post.” But it becomes a big deal when the blogger calls Josh and he tears into her “off the record” while she blogs his comments in real-time. “You’re gonna post this? I said it was off the record!” Josh asks her. “She’s not a journalist!” Toby, who’s listening to Josh’s side of the conversation, snaps.

It’s no secret that technology fundamentally changed journalism and continues to change it. I do not call myself a journalist even though I am a member of the press. I’m like that blogger Josh or some other fictional person encountered—I don’t pretend to be a reporter, though I work in media. I make that distinction because I don’t want to erode journalism any further. I stick to my own ethical code, but I have never been indoctrinated into what it means to be a journalist. Mostly, I write opinions or wax academic. I sometimes report news. But I have not paid the dues nor had the training to be a journalist.

This week, a spotlight has been focused on Wikileaks as President Obama commuted the majority of Chelsea Manning’s sentence and accused rapist and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, though he agreed to basically a trade, said this did not meet his demands and he would not be extradited to the US until Manning is released from prison in May (this drove me crazy, by the way. Does he not know what extradition is? You have to be charged with something to be extradited, and the DOJ hasn’t announced it’s charged him with anything. Sweden, however, wants to extradite him; he’s allegedly raped women there! But no, I guess he’s not gonna talk about that). Wikileaks was also the platform that Russian hackers used to release the Clinton Campaign emails. Assange denies that Russia had anything to do with it, despite a general consensus within the US intelligence community. He’s praised the disruption of American government in an interview with Italian newspaper la Repubblica:

ADVERTISEMENT

“Donald Trump is not a DC insider, he is part of the wealthy ruling elite of the United States, and he is gathering around him a spectrum of other rich people and several idiosyncratic personalities.”

He added: “They do not by themselves form an existing structure, so it is a weak structure which is displacing and destabilising the pre-existing central power network within DC. It is a new patronage structure which will evolve rapidly, but at the moment its looseness means there are opportunities for change in the United States: change for the worse and change for the better.”

The technology industry has not set parameters for who and what can and should be disrupted. This is just the logical follow-through to a culture that’s been brewing for decades. Disrupting the American government is what many nerds might consider a win. Disrupting journalism as well. But what this culture of disruption implies is a deep distrust of existing power structures as being inherently unethical or inefficient. That something deserves to be disrupted because it is slow or wrong. I get where the desire to improve comes from. I have it too. Humans basically all do—we want to do more, be better. Strive. But what this particular disruption has done instead is hand the journalistic keys over to a faceless mob and given outsized influence over a US Presidential election involving a woman (and the most qualified candidate) to a reported rapist. Technology culture, and in particular the culture of leaking, helped do this.

Under Resourced

The advent of the internet apparently killed print news. We’ve been hearing about that since the web’s inception. I feel like I don’t even really need to cite a source on this one, it’s just accepted fact: the internet makes it harder for news media to make money. In an economy where money is based on clicks, the most popular stories are prioritized. You want to know my most popular post of last year? I’m pretty sure it’s this, which is Very Important, but it’s also not incredibly thinky. And it certainly isn’t a piece in which original argument or in-depth reporting is present. Let’s face it: we like candy. Humans are giant grown babies who like brain candy. Even Google’s artificial brain likes that the internet is made of cat videos.

So money is now tied to how popular content is, and candy-content is king…where does that leave our free press? Does it mean each journalist is scrambling to put out seven pieces a day that are as popular as cat videos? And that if this doesn’t happen, does that mean the pool of journalists at any given reputable news organization grows smaller and each individual journalist’s workload grows larger?

Leak Journalism

So reporting is becoming under resourced and harder to do as a result of the internet. What was once an art is now deemed inefficient, and there were always large swaths of the American population underrepresented in journalistic media (that’s not new with the advent of the internet), so the unethical or unjust feeling is also there. Distrust and inefficiency leaves something ripe for technology culture to come along and disrupt it. Enter Wikileaks. Founded in 2006 as a repository for documents obtained by anonymous sources and leakers. Assange and his co-founders do this to disrupt authoritarian governments with radical transparency. They list the US as an authoritarian state but seem to abstain from whistleblowing or critique of Russia and actively publish individual’s personal, private documents in the name of their mission

Don’t get me wrong, leaks have been around forever. It’s one way journalists have grabbed many a starting point on stories those in power would rather have kept quiet. Wikileaks certainly wasn’t the start of leaks. But it was the start of a searchable and publicized database of leaks, open to anyone with access to the internet at any time, and not just a source contacting a journalist. But according to The Center for News Media Teaching and Learning at Columbia, a leak does not investigative journalism make:

“Leak journalism is not investigative reporting. An investigation can begin from a leak, but journalists must do their own digging, verify information and provide context. Unless they do so, their reports will be distorted and incomplete. They will also be allowing themselves to be used to manipulate public opinion and to advance the agenda of individuals, rather than the public interest. “

With journalists spread thin as internet culture attempts to kill their profession, doing the digging becomes less important than being fast and having a snappy headline. Which means a good deal of weight is provided to sources like Wikileaks. While there are many involved in it, one person stands out as being consistantly and constantly associated with it. And that’s Assange. Who does a show on Russian State television.

It is true that news organizations are using technology to make providing a leak to their journalists easier and more private than ever before. The New York Times, for instance, has an anonymous contact page that links to their WhatsApp and Signal. Their paragraph on sending email lets a potential whistleblower know that Mailvelope is a good Chrome and Firefox extension to easily encrypt email messages in your browser. Hell, they even have a short tutorial on how to download the Tor browser in order to use SecureDrop with The Times. And they tell you what makes a good tip. In short, they provide everything a whistleblower needs to leak information to one of the largest, most successful news media outlets in the United States. They give more outlets, in fact, than Wikileaks does.

But on the other end of that string and tin can is still a journalist. A member of the establishment. Wikileaks disrupts that flow of information by skipping a person who’s job it is to provide context and verify information. To make the story out of the raw data. A person trained in how to do that, in what is ethical. A person legitimately protected because we (at least until this administration) value a free press. It turns that data, instead, over to internet people.

The Reddit Investigators

Citizen journalists are valuable, especially in places where there is no free press. As journalists continue to be under resourced and over worked, the US’s reliance on them continues to grow as well. But consider who has the time, energy and inclination to parse a vast data-dump on Wikileaks. And I’m talking vast. If we’re looking at the leaked Clinton emails from when she was Secretary of State, that’s more than 30,000 emails. 50,547 pages of documents. Enter the Manosphere, a curious overlapping of neo-Nazi men, men’s rights activists and male nerds. They congregate in the darkest corners of the internet, and also totally unchecked on Reddit. If you listen, for instance, to Gimlet Media’s Reply All (a podcast about the internet that I highly recommend), you might have heard about how Reddit searched the Podesta emails by, essentially, splitting them up and crowdsourcing investigation via faceless internet mob. From the Voyage Into Pizzagate episode, a conversation with a The Donald subreddit moderator:

We have three hundred and fourteen thousand plus subscribers. I always have to go back and check because we get a couple thousand a day now. And, uh, it’s just nonstop, it’s a nonstop Trump train…When Wikileaks was coming out, The Donald kind of spearheaded that effort where we crowdsourced the investigation. We, we said okay listen, they’re dumping thousands of pages a day, no single person can go through this, so we would essentially post the Wikileaks article on the top and say, okay, go through this and everyone post what you find. And within minutes, sometimes, the things that we were finding were getting posted on the news.

So at this moment in our history, because of Wikileaks, a large amount of citizen journalism that is taken seriously by news outlets is being conducted by people who are vehement Trump supporters, pick up artists and Gamergaters. None of these groups are known for great ethics in journalism, and faceless mobs of any sort aren’t usually on the ethical up and up either. And they are being fed their data-dumps by a man that Sweden would like to extradite to try for rape. And the U.K. REALLY wants to send him back there if multiple rulings at basically every level of the legal system is evidence enough. The way that data dumps and the internet are affecting journalism expressly puts women and marginalized groups in the way of those reputed for their hatred of women and marginalized groups.

This Is Fixable

Let’s ponder some ways we can fix this. I love the internet. And while I’m no longer sure that technology is net good, I am certain that I don’t want to give it up. We need to figure out a way to divorce quality journalism from popularity of topic, or all we’re ever going to eat is candy. And I think the way to do that is by subscribing to media that does good work. We live in a capitalist society; we have to vote with our gay dollars. Subscribing to your local newspapers is one way to do it. Donating to ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom, is another. And if you’ve got info that needs to be shared with the world? Leak to a journalist, not a faceless mob. If you don’t want to leak to the New York Times, that’s fine. Try your local paper or hey, leak to ProPublica instead.

Staff Writer for Autostraddle, Part-time Faculty at The New School (teaching digital storytelling), Managing Editor for Scholar & Feminist Online at Barnard Center for Research On Women. Follow me on Twitter @AEOsworth or on Instagram, also @AEOsworth.

A.E. has written 544 articles for us.

7 Comments

  1. First of all: great work, Ali. While I don’t agree with most of it, it’s really good and informative writing.

    I have a question. Is there an actual proof of “Russian hacking”? How did it happen? How exactly did Russians influence the election? Because I read articles about it and I simply cannot find answers. All I see is accusations “Russia hacked the election, end of story”. I don’t know if I’m missing something, maybe because my English is not perfect? (And they didn’t do very good job since Trump lost popular vote, I quess. I’m just skeptical about this.)

    “Wikileaks disrupts that flow of information by skipping a person who’s job it is to provide context and verify information. To make the story out of the raw data. A person trained in how to do that, in what is ethical.”

    I don’t agree with you here (that’s the point of the whole article, I quess). I don’t want “the story out of the raw data” (I mean not only). I wan’t that “raw data”. Because journalists aren’t always objective. I actually trust very few of them. And it’s about trust. When a journalist reports about, let’s say, situation in Aleppo – it’s a matter of trust. I haven’t been there. I can’t say I know what’s going on there. Because we have BBC etc. reporting how people commit suicide there because they don’t want to be captured and we have Vanessa Beeley telling how people are celebrating there because they are finally liberated. It’s about who I choose to believe. And right now, I’m just confused because I find less and less sources valuable. It’s exhausting. For most of the time I have to look to the right-wing side to find a decent critique of Obama or Hillary because on the other side I won’t even get a mention about Middle East mess they are responsible for (and not only Middle East). Then they won’t write anything critical about Trump so I have too find another source. (There of course good, objective journalists who report on mistakes of both sides and I deeply value them. It’s just an overview of the situation from my point of view.)

    I don’t recall any of Assange’s leaks that turned out to be untrue (if I’m wrong, please correct me). I will gladly accept his “data dumps” despite of what I think of him as an accused rapist. Because I think people should have an access to information, to direct sources. All people.

    • I’ll elaborate a bit Ali’s point of:
      “Wikileaks disrupts that flow of information by skipping a person who’s job it is to provide context and verify information. To make the story out of the raw data. A person trained in how to do that, in what is ethical.”

      concrete example?
      lets imagine you were a lgbtq activist in a country that persecutes and kills people for being queer. you must be a very brave and strong human being, congratulations! now, lets imagine you decided to set up a website like autostraddle for the community in your home country, secretly of course, using all kinds of proxies and stuff to avoid your true identity from being discovered by the security forces. a few people know what you are doing, you are not doing it alone, you have friends and allies who help you. now lets imagine, the US embassy in your home country found out your true identity and it writes a cable back to d.c. “hey, in this country there is this impressive activist, her name is alex soandso, and she is doing this and that and is there a budget for us supporting her a little?”
      maybe there is, maybe there isnt, maybe you never hear from them, maybe you do, maybe you are happy about a little funding, maybe you refuse to accept any government money. it all doesnt matter. Suddenly, a data dump publishes all us cables between 2014 and 2017 and your name is out there online searchable and the security forces in your home country knock on your door, arrest and kill you.

      publishing raw data can put people in danger. it is not “neutral” or “objective”. it is irresponsible because it can cause real harm.

      I totally get that you wouldnt trust just one person that you dont know to “check” data for you. Luckily, that is not what happens. There are people trained for that kind of work, and they have an institution behind them who is guaranteeing with its reputation for the quality of their work, and not just one institution – or one person – for things like wikileaks, snowden, panama papers etc? journalists formed teams, internationally, across media. It was not decided on the whim of one person what to publish and what not, but trained journalists were second guessing each other and making sense of the raw data together.
      (and yes, you read that correctly: wikileaks has sometimes chosen to rely on journalists rather than publishing raw data. to then switch back to publishing raw data unredacted. more on a concrete example here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_diplomatic_cables_leak)

      • Thanks for answer! That’s an aspect of the problem I certainly didn’t think about.

        I agree with the last part. People should be protected and of course they should make sure no one will be put in danger. I understand that. But after this “making sense of” I think raw data (of course if there’s anything that will risk lives of some people it shouldn’t) should still be published.

        “publishing raw data can put people in danger. it is not “neutral” or “objective”. it is irresponsible because it can cause real harm.”

        I feel like we focus more on that than on what the leaks reveal. And they reveal the harm that is already done and the harm people should know about.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.