Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s knowledge ecosystem.
Last week, a British court sentenced Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, to 50 weeks in prison for jumping bail seven years ago when he took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. The United States is now seeking Assange’s extradition for further prosecution. By now, Assange’s activities have been well documented: A federal indictment lays out his role in the 2010 posting of thousands of military field reports to WikiLeaks about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, WikiLeaks published nearly 20,000 emails from the Democratic National Committee. More recently, special counsel Robert Mueller announced that the documents posted on WikiLeaks were stolen by Russian actors to interfere with the U.S. election. After proclaiming “I love WikiLeaks!” at an October 2016 rally, President Donald Trump claimed in April “I know nothing about WikiLeaks.”
There is something specific that is often missed in discussions of Assange and the website he and his team have used to distribute information: WikiLeaks is not a wiki.
A wiki is a website where users can collaboratively modify content directly from the web browser. Wikipedia is the most well-known example, but other wiki knowledge base websites include the recent blockchain rival Everipedia; the puntastic Star Wars Wiki, Wookieepedia; and the satirical Uncyclopedia, whose article about Wikipedia credits the quote “Lies, damnned lies, and Wikipedia articles” to Benjamin Disraeli. The name itself comes from “wiki wiki” which means “super fast” in the Hawaiian language. Ward Cunningham, who invented wiki technology in 1995, chose the word wiki to evoke the speed and ease of editing web pages.
The underlying premise of wikis such as Wikipedia is that any user can edit the content of the page. Over the past 18 years, critics have argued that this radical openness leaves the site vulnerable to misinformation. Back in 2007, the former president of the American Library Association said, “Any professor who encourages the use of Wikipedia is the intellectual equivalent of a dietician who recommends a steady diet of Big Macs with everything.” Although Wikipedia’s veracity continues to be challenged, today more than 1,500 professors have brought Wikipedia into the classroom. In 2005, the journal Nature published a study suggesting English Wikipedia’s level of accuracy was similar to Encyclopedia Britannica’s, and further research on the website’s accuracy has found similar results across other language editions.
No matter your opinion about the open-collaboration construct of a wiki, one thing is clear: WikiLeaks is not one. A wiki, by definition, allows users to edit the content, something WikiLeaks does not permit visitors to do. When the site publishes internal memos from the Catholic Church or documents from the CIA, users cannot change those documents—much less delete them. Other than the fact that the content is in many cases illegally obtained, WikiLeaks is much closer to a traditional blog.
I asked professor Joseph Reagle, author of Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia, why WikiLeaks uses the wiki prefix when it is categorically not a wiki. Reagle explained in an email that “WikiLeaks was partially inspired by Wikipedia, but that’s it.” When Assange launched WikiLeaks in 2007, he positioned it as an “uncensorable version of Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis.” Although WikiLeaks initially claimed the site combined the “simplicity of a wiki interface” with the “protection and anonymity of cutting-edge cryptographic technologies,” Reagle told me that this wasn’t true: Its public submission system was insecure and was taken offline after an internal defection. According to the MIT Technology Review, WikiLeaks briefly used a “wiki model” when it first launched. But this period where the public could actively post and edit materials was short-lived, ending by 2010. Since then, the website has been releasing documents in a curated and intentional manner presumably directed, until recently, by Assange himself.
WikiLeaks’ use of wiki has hurt the Wikipedia brand. As Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, has said, “I wish they wouldn’t use the name, they are not a Wiki.” Both the general public and public officials have at times mixed up the two websites. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee mistakenly denounced Wikipedia in 2016 for the leaked Clinton emails. As John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight episode about lethal injection noted, the general counsel for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections testified that before a botched execution, he had used “WikiLeaks or whatever” to research a drug. WikiLeaks defector Daniel Domscheit-Berg recounts in his book that people “often got us confused with Wikipedia.” And Steven Pruitt, the most prolific contributor to the English-language Wikipedia by number of edits, has been caught in the WikiLeaks crossfire. Pruitt said in an interview that he had difficulty landing job interviews because prospective employers thought he worked for Assange’s website instead of volunteering in his free time for the internet encyclopedia. For a Wikipedia community concerned about a long-term decline in participation, the suggestion that a Wikipedia hobby might affect real-life employment is not-so-fabulous advertising.
Yes, it’s fair to criticize Wikipedia for the toxic behavior shown by some members of its contributor community. (See, for example, Julia Jacobs’ detailed coverage of harassment based on gender and sexual orientation on Wikipedia in the New York Times.) But to suggest that Wikipedia and WikiLeaks share a fundamental character is a serious injustice. Think about it: One site seeks to produce a free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality and has so far advanced humanitarian objectives like providing quality medical information to people in developing countries. The other was the conduit by which a foreign actor attempted to disrupt the U.S. election. And consider who calls the shots. Wikipedia is written by its self-organizing community; WikiLeaks reflects the urges of its singular editor in chief (even in absentia). Unlike Wikipedia, where editorial decisions are made by community consensus, there is no polling or request for comment before batches of confidential documents are published to WikiLeaks.
Unfortunately, the confusion between true wikis and the non-wiki WikiLeaks closely aligns with other ways the internet has gone wrong over the past 30 years. As Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, wrote in a March retrospective, “while the web has created opportunity, given marginalised groups a voice, and made our daily lives easier, it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit.” We’re all familiar with how the web has created opportunity for crimes like publishing stolen documents or identity theft. But it also opens the door for scams of another sort, including misrepresentation. Maybe Assange intended WikiLeaks to be a true wiki when he founded the site back in 2006. Maybe he always envisioned his website as a more personal platform. What we do know is that the site did not sustain the model of open collaboration—for nearly a decade, it has not been a wiki at all. Co-opting the wiki moniker would not be the worst of WikiLeaks’ offenses. But it might be its original sin.