Yesterday, I pointed out the ID number discrepancies in two of the diplomatic cables published by the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar, which — despite not having been released yet by Wikileaks — are being claimed by al-Akhbar as authentic.
I have no idea whether these cables are real or fakes. They look real and sound real, but let’s admit that it doesn’t take much imagination to suppose that someone could have tampered with certain parts of a cable, adding or subtracting information, or even inventing an entire cable out of nothing. After all, the U.S. government is not rushing to authenticate these documents, so who is to say that cable #08BEIRUT372 (published here by al-Akhbar) represents the unadulterated record of what Minister al-Murr said to embassy officials on March 10, 2008?
Which brings me to what I feel is the biggest problem with the whole Wikileaks affair: there’s nothing “wiki” about it. The definition of a wiki is “a website that allows users to collaboratively create and edit web pages using a web browser.” In the context of an informational resource like Wikipedia, the basic theory is that the collaborative editing process is self-regulating and ultimately leads to the filtering-out of inaccurate information. Obviously, this theory is just that: a theory, and we can all point to countless instances of Wikipedia getting something wrong. But the point of a wiki is to enable users to address inaccuracies and inconsistencies, thereby correcting (or at least nuancing) the public record.
The most important difference between Wikipedia and Wikileaks is that Wikileaks is not a wiki. The information it presents is completely unidirectional: there is no centralized mechanism to allow for the authentication of the information that it presents. And that, in my opinion, is a major problem, particularly in light of the possibility (nay, likelihood) that individuals, organizations, and possibly even governments will begin using the now familiar diplomatic cable template to spread misinformation.
Do you doubt this will happen? Marc Lynch gave a great paper at MESA this year in which he argued that Arab governments have been remarkably successful at staying one step ahead of democratization movements in their countries precisely by deploying online media to serve their own ends. It seems to me that the potential and incentive to spread misinformation via the fake Wikileaks cable are obvious, given that: (a) the U.S. government is not tripping over itself to authenticate certain cables; and (b) we’ve already seen Middle Eastern government officials dismissing legitimate Wikileaks cables as fakes.
So, in the chaos of too much information, who will be the arbiter of authenticity? Wikipedia puts that job in the hands of the public, and provides a centralized forum for it to take place. Will Wikileaks do the same?
Let me just conclude by saying that this is not a critique of the entire concept of increasing transparency via leaked documents. Nor am I suggesting that the Al-Akhbar documents are fake. I am simply pointing out the problems raised by the lack of an authenticating mechanism. (And I’m sure many others have been saying this, but I just haven’t been paying close enough attention.)
Update: I’m now hearing from multiple sources that al-Akhbar is explaining the discrepancies in ID numbers as a simple clerical error. That could certainly be the case, so I will give them the benefit of the doubt since the cables look authentic to my untrained eye. But I wish they’d clarify where they got them from, given that Wikileaks has not mentioned giving any such documents to al-Akhbar.