July 26, 2010

Wikileaks' Afghanistan adventure

I've noticed on my Twitter account that opinion on the information contained in the leaked Afghanistan documents obtained and released by Wikileaks varies between "yeah, we knew that. So?" to "Oh my God!".

I think there is much more to this whole episode than whether or not you knew civilians were being killed in Afghanistan and former ISI officials were giving advice to insurgents in Afghanistan. This is about public opinion. Measuring what the public thinks and predicting how it might react to events is an imprecise science (much like the related fields of economics and sociology). But it's still very real. You might not know how it works but you can feel its effects when governments start clamping down on banks, launch military campaigns or pull troops out and come home.

And when it comes to public opinion, lots of vagaries start making a huge difference - like how you found out. When George Galloway suggested that British MPs were greedy, people rolled their eyes, nodded or smiled. The general thought was, "yeah. But they are politicians, what do you expect?" However, once the British MPs expenses scandal hit the headlines with details of taxpayers coughing up for duckhouses and flatscreen televisions, the result was a national political crisis.

For Western news organisations, unsustainable losses over the past decade or two have meant the degredation of the kind of infrastructure that allows the media to act as a check on executive power. At the same time, the medium that caused the decline in traditional news ogranisations - the Internet - is also picking up the slack. The Telegraph's coverage of the expenses scandal was built on extensive groundwork done by independent journalists who write extensively on the web. Most conflict coverage since 9/11 has been done through embeds with Western military forces. (the stand-out exceptions here are people like Nir Rosen, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and Mitch Prothero) While this is great in the short term for those prosecuting the war, after a while, militaries start to believe their own hype, which actually does longer term damage as it makes PR disasters such as prisoner abuse and the Nisour square incident more likely. 

I'm not into offering "big thoughts" or indulging in grand "blue sky thinking" but there does seem to be a growing trend internationally away from control and direction by organisations and governments towards impetus for action coming from groups of individuals who are somehow harnessing technology. Organisations like Wikileaks leave grand old names like Reuters, BBC and the New York Times rewriting news they didn't break. (That said, the NYT is one of a few organisations investing heavily in original reporting, which shows in their output.) At the same time, a leaked video of a girl getting beaten by the Taliban in Swat  presented the Pakistani government with the political cover it needed to launch a campaign against the Pakistani Taliban last year.

What makes any difference here is whether any of this changes anything. Does public opinion get swayed? Do politicians feel the need to react? Do insurgents find a sense of justification for their actions (or fall in support when they screw up)? The answer to all of these questions is yes.

So the response here isn't, "yeah, whatever, we know this" or "OMG! why did no one tell me?!". The question to ask is how the information is being digested. That was the question I wish I had asked more thoroughly on the night of September 11, 2001, when I went out and about in Cairo to ask people what they thought.