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The Radia Tapes, WikiLeaks and Insurgent Media

The power of governments, corporations and older power structures has been sharply, and suddenly, challenged by the emergence of a viral new media. Despite all efforts - ignoring, monitoring, threatening and censoring - it has been near impossible to control the flow of information outside the traditional filters of mainstream media. On the other hand, the control of governments and corporations over the internet is increasing. How will this struggle play out?

COMMENTARY

The Radia Tapes, WikiLeaks and Insurgent Media

Monobina Gupta

The power of governments, corporations and older power structures has been sharply, and suddenly, challenged by the emergence of a viral new media. Despite all efforts – ignoring, monitoring, threatening and censoring – it has been near impossible to control the flow of information outside the traditional filters of mainstream media. On the other hand, the control of governments and corporations over the internet is increasing. How will this struggle play out?

Monobina Gupta (monobina.gupta@gmail. com) is a journalist and author of Left Politics in Bengal: Time Travels among Bhadralok Marxists.

T
he torrent of questions, statements of outrage, surprise and even bewilderment that flooded cyberspace following the leak of the Radia tapes at home and the WikiLeaks cables abroad, point to an insatiable curiosity among citizens to know and confront the “unknown”, to catch a glimpse of the invisible hand behind major decisions – political, economic, military. Before the explosion of cyber technology, when information percolated mostly through the controlled sluice of the mainstream media, that much desired glimpse of the “truth” behind everyday affairs of state was hard to come by. Once in a while the Bob Woodwards and Carl Bernsteins of media lore would appear on stage with fantastic exposes. For much of the time however decisions, even when terribly conflicted, were handed down, neatly packaged and sanitised, without bearing on them any imprint of messy back room transactions that had made them possible. Of course, the not-so-gullible or the prone-to-becynical raised questions and speculated about the invisible actors who had a hand in cooking the broth; but the government and the powers that be could swat them with an easy swipe of the hand.

Collapsing Barricades

But now an insurgent media is travelling far and wide, taking on a life of its own. With their attention riveted on the Radia tapes, ordinary Indians who form this newly emerging insurgent media pitched their voices to a clamour and flooded Facebook, Twitter, and a plethora of blogs with impassioned debate and incessant critique. The mainstream media, for a long time, tried ignoring the issue – that of criticising its own practices – hoping the online cacophony would die, if simply out of exhaustion. But the rage of the common news consumer not only did not subside, but eventually social media forced large corporate media houses to confront their demons.

Even as people attempted to digest the information contained in the 800-odd tapes gradually making their way into the public domain, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks exploded once again. Mainstream media in the west seized upon the information through news columns, despite warnings of serious strategic and diplomatic implications in doing so. The architect of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange – a reader of Kafka, Koestler and Solzhenitsyn (Khatchadourian 2010) – revels in his theories around conspiratorial states.

Both instances are garnering a lot of public attention and raising fundamental questions about the nature of social media. Clearly, the structure and the content of information are rapidly transforming. Barricades cordoning off the consumer of information from its provider are collapsing. A wide range of alternative media and social networks have kept conversations going in newly mediatised countries like India, leaving mainstream publications with little alternative other than joining a debate they should have started. In this era of flourishing cyber-insurgency, controlling and streamlining information is becoming increasingly difficult. The mono poly exercised by media houses in India is being rapidly questioned. Consumer discontent is no longer limited to usually discarded letters to the editor. Now, the average consumer of news compulsively turns to the internet, reaching out to an audience more expansive than the readership of a single publication. The fact that almost all Indian celebrity-journalists have in the past year embraced social networks only makes it worse for them because now a feedback loop is established: when they slip up, their Twitter account and Facebook page are hammered by disenchanted viewers.

But leaks seem to fill a vacuum not only in the simple volume of information they reveal, but also in the desire of the consumer to know more than the obvious. Media theorist Marita Sturken has written in a different context of paranoia and conspiracy as articulations of a particular form of relationship with the state, of expressing specific notions of citizenship (Sturken 1997). As

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both the Radia tapes and WikiLeaks seem to indicate, fast-paced changes in the information world can, in the coming days, only facilitate more leaks, promoting the circulation of subversive knowledge, different forms of belonging within nations.

If information is power then the thousand mutinies spreading in the virtual world should be embraced with open arms. But in that celebration of democratisation and opening up of the media, it may not be entirely irrelevant to subject these torrents of information to a critical gaze. In fastglobalising media cultures like I ndia’s, questions of how to harness proliferating technology and information while channelling them into critical discourse are of utmost importance. The far-reaching changes sweeping across this media world appear to be constructing a new definition of citizenry as envisaged by Howard Rheingold, the journalist who invented and popularised the term “virtual community” – a term intrinsic to the vocabulary of contemporary society (Jenkins and Thorburn 2004: 8). To understand the implications of social media today it is important therefore to place it in a larger historical context.

Historical Perspective

Social or new media has evolved as a genre with a history of its own, carrying within it immeasurable social, political, economic implications, which seem to crystallise into a new category of global citizenry. The “citizen journalist” who through near obsessive blogging, tweeting, photographing and texting, networks with individuals, collectives, political parties and movements alike, may be the first and the most basic manifestation of a digitalised democracy, the first step towards stripping the definition of citizenship off its conventional markers.

Paradoxically however, the pheno menon of hybrid virtual communities spreading across the globe, erasing boundaries between nationalities and cultures, has gone hand in hand with burgeoning nationalistic jingoism in political praxis. This has meant a sharpening of the language of xenophobia, and calls for closing off borders to immigrants, ensuring that the free mobility of information and capital is not matched by the unfettered circulation of populations. But perhaps this is not a paradox: even the global citizenry “inhabiting” the cyber world

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january 22, 2011

seems riddled with the same parameters

of exclusion, as I will discuss later.

Media scholars, attempting to compre

hend the multidimensional character of

new media, argue that though the term

“new media” in itself is new, spanning the

last 50 years, this form of media has been

with us for centuries. For instance, multi

user technologies like mobile phones and

the internet have gained from the aware

ness of earlier technologies like the print

ing press, radio and the telegraph. Each of

these technological inventions has radi

cally altered the territory of information

(Hassan and Thomas 2006: xix).

Underlying the history of new media are

larger processes of socio-economic trans

formation that have characterised successive

epochs since the 19th century. Territorial

conflicts, imperial ambitions, and two world

wars paved the way for the modern system

of information we see today. With the end

of the second world war in 1945, the transi

tion into the cold war fostered rapid growth

of computer technology. In the 1950s lead

ing scientists advanced research in the field

of “Man-Computer symbiosis” (ibid:2003),

which propelled the emergence of cyber

netics pioneered by Norbert Weiner:

Equating humans with computers through a system of cybernetics was a powerful h ypothesis in the development of computer networking and the systems of communication that would eventually become the internet, the network society and the new media applications that made it possible (ibid).

By the 1980s the application of computer-based information and communication technologies, mostly developed in the military and commercial sectors, became widespread in the economy. These technologies were crucial to the “restructuring of the world’s economies to make them more ‘flexible’ and productive and efficient” (ibid: xxiii). The spread of the internet, alongside the growth of corporations such as Microsoft, Apple and Intel during the 1990s, laid the groundwork for the emergence and consolidation of the global information economy as we know it today.

Online Democracy?

The idea of cyberspace as “electronic commons” (Hurwitz 2003:101) is largely valid insofar as it supposedly lacks traditional monitoring and governance. “Networked

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citizens” use the internet to practise different forms of democracy – from outing in the public domain information that otherwise might have been weeded out by the mainstream media, confronting politicians and celebrities of all stripes, carrying on lively, participatory debates, to u sing these networks to mobilise political opinion, protests and agitations. The role of networks in providing visibility to an alternative political discourse is by now beyond serious dispute. Worth recalling here is the emergence of independent m edia centres in the aftermath of the famous anti-World Trade Organisation protests in Seattle in 1999. “What began as a tactical response to a specific protest has now become a self-sustaining volunteerrun organisation with outposts in Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, England, France, Italy, and Mexico”, write Jenkins and Thornburn (2003: 4).

I have earlier mentioned how rage and disenchantment on new media drove the mainstream media to bringing the Radia tapes into their discourse. Following the publication of the tapes, Ratan Tata sought legal redressal on grounds of invasion of privacy; and abroad, unsuccessful attempts were made to shut down the WikiLeaks operations. These developments seem to point to an incontrovertible fact: powerful actors – corporate, political or otherwise – do not want the lid blown off. They are uncomfortable with the realisation that the strident arrival of new media has made the task of keeping state/corporate secrets extremely tenuous, if not outright impossible.

Real vs Perceived Freedom

The most common sense argument is that these major innovations have spawned the idea of an alternative media that could challenge the domination of the nation state, break the monopoly of governments and powerful corporations in disseminating information and in addition, render insignificant territorial borders. This was the idea that stoked the imagination of a handful of engineers – Jerry Yang, David Filo, Jon Postel and John Perry Barlow – some of the “brainstormers” behind the internet revolution in the 1990s. However Jack Goldsmith and Tim Wu (2006: vii-ix) have chronicled the process wherein that dream of breaking free of government and

COMMENTARY

corporate control met with innumerable resistances; and the engineers often had to yield in the teeth of stout opposition. By the mid-2000s, the “Internet’s architecture had been shaped by the whims and obsessions of powerful governments in the United States, China, and Europe” they write.

Recognising the commercial potential of this technology, as well as the risk of contending with the “anarchy of information” in the public domain, governments stepped in to assert their power – legally, administratively, politically and culturally. As we are currently witnessing in the case of Assange, the governments’ legal powers of coercion – their way of punishing subversion – remain formidable. Equally important, even if they are unable to exert direct control over internet companies, governments are adept at arm-twisting l ocal internet service providers – the intermediaries – or target consumers, in order to drive information, inimical to their i nterests, out of the public domain.

Governments, democratic and totalitarian, have put in place different tools to

draw maximum mileage – political, economic and strategic – out of cyber technology, as well as to filter out information that can potentially hurt them on all these counts. The Chinese government, for instance, has created one of the most sophisticated systems of information barriers, which filter out information (ibid: 92-93). In addition, the government also frequently cracks down on subversive bloggers, closely policing internet cafes. The Chinese government has shown a keen interest to stay ahead in technological innovations; in fact, it is now using the medium to promote an aggressive nationalism and an equally aggressive campaign against the United States and Japan.

This latest round of bitter strife between WikiLeaks and governments across the world has underlined the multiple complexities inherent in issues of turf/content in the new media. Notwithstanding their uneasiness over large chunks of information put out in the alternative media, governments as well as economic entities, including corporations are maximising the benefits of rapidly expanding new media. In the days to come the new media will be an even more contested terrain, caught between the tugs and pulls of territoriality and an imagined borderless cyberspace, between control by governments and corporations and autonomy of expression.

References

Goldsmith, Jack and Tim Wu (2006): Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World (New York: Oxford University Press).

Hassan, Robert and Julian Thomas (2006): “Introduction” in Robert Hassan and Julian Thomas (ed.), The New Media Theory Reader (England: Open University Press), p xvii-xxvii.

Hurwitz, Roger (2003): “Who Needs Politics? Who Needs People? The Ironies of Democracy in Cyberspace” in Henry Jenkins and David Thorburn (ed.), Democracy and New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press), 101-12.

Jenkins, Henry and David Thorburn (2003): “Introduction: The Digital Revolution, The Informed Citizen, and the Culture of Democracy” in Henry Jenkins and David Thorburn (ed.), Democracy and New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press), pp 1-17.

Khatchadourian, Raffi (2010): “No Secrets: Julian Assange’s Mission for Total Transparency” in The New Yorker [available at: http://www.newyorker. com/reporting/2010/06/07/100607fa_fact_ khatchadourian]

Sturken, Marita (1997): “Reenactment, Fantasy, and the Paranoia of History: Oliver Stone’s Docudramas” in History and Theory, Vol 36:4:36, December.

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