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Whistleblower platforms in the wake of Wikileaks’ demise

What happened?

The recent arrest of Julian Assange could very well be the final blow to Wikileaks and its revolutionary ambitions. When Wikileaks launched in January 2007, it promised to be a safe haven for anonymous whistleblowers and a platform for radical transparency (i.e. “an intelligence agency for the people”). However, the arrest of Chelsea Manning demonstrated how difficult it is to guarantee anonymity and allegations of anti-Americanism, a pro-Trump bias and Russian affiliations have irrevocably damaged the website’s image as a neutral and unbiased platform.

What does this mean?

The basic tenet of Wikileaks, and other whistleblower platforms, is that sharing information equals democracy and this is very much in line with the ideals that have surrounded the world wide web. This, however, does not mean all whistleblower platforms are alike. Wikileaks and its immediate peers (e.g. TOR browsers) claim to act merely as neutral intermediaries with no intent to curate any of the data they pass on. Institutional platforms, by contrast, e.g. governmental or managed by media actors, take on a much more active role in selecting, editing and researching leaks that are offered to them. Finally, there are, implicitly or explicitly, politically motivated sites which are focused on specific kinds of data (e.g. the hotline for leftist indoctrination in education as proposed by the Dutch Forum for Democracy).

What’s next?

The story of Wikileaks provides a useful lesson as to why whistleblower platforms cannot be truly unbiased and should not even try to be. An “intelligence agency for the people” may sound appealing, but society is probably better off when some sensitive information remains confidential. And, even in cases in which society “needs” such information (e.g. in the fightagainst corruption), some level of curation and additional checks remains necessary to minimize collateral damage and to fight “fake leaks”. Dealing with these sensitives is thus crucial for platforms to uphold their credibility and remain powerful forces for “the common good”.