Saturday, November 05, 2016

The Ethics of Wikileaks

Wikileaks, and other information repositories like it, raises some interesting ethical problems.

To date, Wikileaks has pretty much taken a wholesale approach to the information that comes its way - it all gets published regardless of its validity, relevance or timeliness.  Many have applauded this, especially with bulk leak of government documents in the past which have revealed some less than savoury goings-on in various departments of government that we might not otherwise have gotten wind of.

But there is always more to these situations, and this week's supposed "linking" of the Clinton campaign to satanism, or at the very least, occultism, is a good example of when things are problematic.  The e-mail in question is actually quite innocuous, and if you did even a small bit of research, it became clear that the email originated with a woman who does performance art, and one piece of her works is called "Spirit Cooking".   After that, it should all be moot.  Of course, a quick search of "Spirit Cooking" shows the right wing agitation media has taken up the cause at full volume.

Okay, let's be clear on one thing - I don't expect any partisan media organization to be objective - that died somewhere in the 1990s.

However, Wikileaks raises some ugly, unpleasant topics that we need to discuss - namely the ethics of such repositories of information.  As the example above shows, it is incredibly easy for information to be taken out of context, and be twisted into something it so clearly is not.

We spend a great deal of time trying to assess information "in context".  We bristle now when we can't get the pieces around a particular story, or inspect original source material.  This speaks to a great deal of mistrust of the information sources that used to be seen as impartial and reasonable.  Wikileaks and its backers would no doubt advocate that the "public has a right to access the raw information".  To some extent, I agree with this.  In today's world, the ability to inspect original material has become important simply because so many news sources have become speakers for particular viewpoints.

On the other hand, Wikileaks is publishing information wholesale.  They make little or no effort to curate the material, or provide any kind of informed context with it.  This makes the information extremely easy to misinterpret, take out of both explicit as well as implicit context.  In today's world, that makes information remarkably easy to "weaponize".  Grab a phrase, grab an e-mail, and leave out the context - and you have weapons-grade stupidity to go after your opponent with.

All domains, even performance art, have their own language which those who are not part of that "in-group" may misinterpret those words.  "Spirit Cooking" is a great example of that.  Knowing the full context, it's the title of a performance art piece with no material connection to anything even remotely evil.  Domains like military or foreign affairs are much more complex to understand, requiring significant experience or study to be able to put into context.  What sounds completely outrageous to an outsider, may well in fact be a perfectly reasonable statement when placed in context.

I think we can agree that the era of the journalist as an ethical, objective observer are in the rearview mirror.  If we're lucky, the reporter is objective, and the publisher allows the story to be published under whatever rules the corporate ownership has drawn up.  The need to triangulate across multiple sources has never been greater.

So, where does that leave Wikileaks?  Do we consider them "great warehouses of information", with no particular responsibility to ensure that the information has appropriate context?  Or should we treat them more like we might a museum, with an obligation to curate the materials in their possession, and acquire appropriate context to make it all fit together?  Personally, I do not think we can view Wikileaks, or any other bulk information outlet, as "just a warehouse".  Their role today is just as important as the newspapers were in the past.  There is an implicit expectation that the information is verifiable, and accurate.

Just as archeology in the 19th and early 20th centuries was plagued with massive frauds by hucksters hoping to make themselves wealthy off the "fad" of the time, in the information era, we become more dependent upon the reliability of the sources we use.  It only took a handful of blatant frauds to make archeology much more rigorous and skeptical in its practice.  The same needs to happen with Wikileaks type organizations.

So, from this, I see two major ethical statements for information warehousing:

1)  Information shall be from known, verifiable sources.  Where that is impossible, the information must be marked as such.

2)  Information warehouses have an ethical obligation to ensure that expert assessment of the material is provided along with the information itself.

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