The current Wikileaks affair is an interesting case that sheds some light on possibilities for global activism. As Paul Stacey (coining the term ‘wikivism‘) argued in the case of Wikipedia:
Online Deliberation » Wikipedia and the Age of Free Knowledge

The building of a network of contributors around common values and a ‘trust ethic’ are conditions that wikis necessitate and, at their fullest, encourage others to develop and build on. One might even suggest that wikis harness almost ‘revolutionary’ potential, at least in the sense that they make possible the production of new relations between communicating individuals that, in many ways, take on a future of their own (Stacy 79).

The “future” that Stacy hints at becomes particularly important in relation to deliberation. To have a functioning public sphere within our society, universal access to societal deliberation must exist.

Although the quote here pertains to Wikipedia, a similar case I think can be made for Wikileaks. What Wikileaks does is to break the secrets of states so they become open for public deliberation. This action and the counter-reaction of states therefore tell us something about the limits and extent of state power with regard to Internet activism. The accusation of the US but also of for example the Dutch government is quite simple: Wikileaks threatens ‘our’ security by releasing all these documents. It is not possible to close the borders and to seal off the national air space in order to isolate a country; nor is it sufficient to close down internet sites; mirrors seem to appear faster than they are being closed. A while ago many researchers involved in globalization and transnationalism studies more or less assumed (partly for the reasons mentioned here) that the nation-state would become less significant. What we tend to forget however is that states still have a lot of power for surveillance because they can use the same techniques to counter activism. Moreover since 9/11 states have tried to strengthen their power in a process of securitization and domestication (of Muslims and Islam but the effects extend beyond these categories):Securitisation and Domestication of Diaspora Muslims and Islam: Turkish Immigrants in Germany and Australia | United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

the disciplining and management of a social category beyond state borders. They have been increasingly constituted as a homogenised transnational object through the harmonising of public policy and law and through the creation of a Western public sphere produced by spectator-citizens witnessing mediated risk events.

We can see this transnational governmentality also in the case of the wikileaks affair where a Canadian PM advisor calls for the assassination of Assange and where apparently state pressure is enough to get companies to end their services for Wikileaks as Greenwald aptly shows in his overview of ‘the lawless Wild West Attacks Wikileaks‘. As Henry Farrell argues:
State Power and the Response to Wikileaks — Crooked Timber

states are not limited to direct regulation; they can use indirect means, pressing Internet service providers (ISPs) or other actors to implement state policy. For example, states might require ISPs to block their users from having access to a particular site, or to take down sites with certain kinds of content. More generally … a small group of privileged private actors can become “points of control”—states can use them to exert control over a much broader group of other private actors. This is because the former private actors control chokepoints in the information infrastructure or in other key networks of resources. They can block or control flows of data or of other valuable resources among a wide variety of other private actors. Thus, it is not always necessary for a state to exercise direct control over all the relevant private actors in a given issue area in order to be a successful regulator.

And, as Farrell argues, this is indeed what has been happening in the case of Wikileaks. In the Netherlands where one hacktivist was arrested after allegedly being involved in the attack against Visa, companies like Fox-IT deliver security and intelligence services for civil society organisations but also for the state. In an attempt to delegitimate these activists both the Dutch state and Fox-IT in their media appearances labelled the hacktivists as sloppy, shallow (and not very idealistic) vandals.

Although a case for the demise of the nation-state cannot be substantiated, this does not mean that digital activism is without any power or significance. Using the internet for global activism makes it more difficult for states to control the flow of information and the Internet plays a critical role in events, information and experiences being shared by people all over the world as Kevin McDonald describes in his book on Global Movements. The case of the recent Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo is an example of that as well as the case of Wikileaks. According to Liu Xiaobo:
The internet is God’s present to China | Liu Xiaobo – Times Online

The internet has brought about the awakening of ideas among the Chinese. This worries the Government, which has placed great importance on blocking the internet to exert ideological control.

And in the case of Wikileaks:
WikiLeaks Shines a Light on the Limits of Techno-Politics – Whimsley

But while there are many cables in the pile that are of no interest to anyone and which seem to be marked as secret for no good reason, to focus on those is to ignore the real revelations that are coming out, day after day. The purpose of the leaks is to derail the American global agenda – if they haven’t succeeded, they will try again.

The openness question is always contingent, and to phrase political questions in terms of data is sidestepping the big issue. Your answer to “what data should the government make public?” depends not so much on what you think about data, but what you think about the government. Everyone is in favour of other people’s openness.

This openness appears to be essential for public deliberation (according to many supporters) and in the case of Wikileaks that does involve leaking cables with apparently trivial issues. As the now famous Aaron Bady explains in his reading of an essay by Assange:
Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy; “To destroy this invisible government” « zunguzungu

Wikileaks does not leak something like the “Collateral Murder” video as a way of putting an end to that particular military tactic; that would be to target a specific leg of the hydra even as it grows two more. Instead, the idea is that increasing the porousness of the conspiracy’s information system will impede its functioning, that the conspiracy will turn against itself in self-defense, clamping down on its own information flows in ways that will then impede its own cognitive function. You destroy the conspiracy, in other words, by making it so paranoid of itself that it can no longer conspire:

The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption. Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.

The leak, in other words, is only the catalyst for the desired counter-overreaction; Wikileaks wants to provoke the conspiracy into turning off its own brain in response to the threat. As it tries to plug its own holes and find the leakers, he reasons, its component elements will de-synchronize from and turn against each other, de-link from the central processing network, and come undone. Even if all the elements of the conspiracy still exist, in this sense, depriving themselves of a vigorous flow of information to connect them all together as a conspiracy prevents them from acting as a conspiracy.

And one of the interesting things in this Wikileaks case is that, based upon Aaron Bady’s analysis, the US reaction against Assange in fact validates the leaks because they can never arrest Assange (for example for being a spy) without making clear that the cables are authentic. The counter-reaction therefore affirms the intentions of the Wikileaks activists. The case of the activists trying to support Wikileaks by attacking websites of for example Visa, may have a less clear political profile. Nevertheless, it is a little bit too simple to assume that the hactivists in the Wikileak case are mere vandals. An insider look by anthropologist (you really need an anthropologist for that…) Gabriella Coleman makes this clear:
What It’s Like to Participate in Anonymous’ Actions – Gabriella Coleman – National – The Atlantic

We see here how one participant is trying to rally the infantry to stay on target but this is followed by critical commentary on motivations behind the attacks. But is it the case that “most people here do not fight because of something?” In reality, it is hard to tell. In some ways, it may be impossible to gauge the intent and motive of thousands of participants, many of who don’t even bother to leave a trace of their thoughts, motivations, and reactions. Among those that do, opinions vary considerably.

And yet there are other statements made by Anonymous that do give a clear sense that some fight for “something” and that this is part of a larger political plan, even if surely not everyone participates in Anonymous for noble causes. Along with IRC, Anonymous have also made ample use of collaborative writing software, in this case Pirate Pad (which rose from the ashes of Etherpad) and do so to coordinate actions, pick targets, and write manifestos. If IRC is where the cacophonous side of Anonymous is most clearly manifest, then the documents and conversation on Pirate Pad reflect a calmer, more deliberate and deliberative side of Anonymous, where participants offer arguments that are picked apart or supported through reasoned debate.

As with all social movements participants have a wide variety of motivations for being involved in hactivism in favour of Wikileaks; some have idealistic motives others have not (and the distinction is not always that clear). These hactivists can perhaps be seen as modern anarchists as Farrell explains in a very good review of Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination (by Benedict Anderson, yes the one of ‘imagined communities’) and The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (by James Scott). The lack of a clear political profile and the apparent shallow commitment of digital activists appears to limit the potential of these modern anarchists. As Farrell explains:
The State of Statelessness – Henry Farrell – The American Interest Magazine

Thanks to Noam Chomsky, the Internet and the anti-globalization protests of the late 1990s, multitudes of young activists now either see themselves as anarchists or are attracted to aspects of anarchist philosophy. Yet this hardly adds up to a coherent political movement.

While anarchism still inspires political action, anarchists do rather little to organize that action into a larger program for change. Like other activists, they have taken advantage of the Internet to organize protests, but the Internet is no substitute for a directed organization. It can create solidarities and facilitate simple forms of collective action, such as raising money or turning up in the same place for a protest. But it cannot easily sustain complex activities that require long-term commitments. Here, in particular, the Internet actually accentuates some of anarchism’s inherent weaknesses.

But maybe we need to re-visit Granovetter’s argument about the strength of weak ties in order to fully appreciate the ties that are being created online.Weak Ties, Twitter and Revolution | Wired Science | Wired.com

While Gladwell argues that the flat hierarchies of online networks are a detriment to effective activism — he cites the leaderless P.L.O. as an example — Granovetter points out that leaders of social movements often depend on weak ties to maintain loyalty. He notes that organizations dominated by strong ties tend to produce fragmentation and cliquishness, which quickly leads to the breakdown of trust.

This suggests that part of the reason Martin Luther King was able to inspire such discipline among a relatively large group of followers was that he cultivated a large number of weak ties. As a result, people felt like they trusted him, even though they barely knew him. Here’s Granovetter:

Leaders, for their part, have little motivation to be responsive or even trustworthy toward those to whom they have no direct or indirect connection. [This is what happens in a group without weak ties.] Thus, network fragmentation, by reducing drastically the number of paths from any leader to his potential followers, would inhibit trust in such leaders.

Obviously, this 1973 paper doesn’t explore the implications of weak ties that develop online. Do all those Tea Party activists feel like they have weak ties with Sarah Palin? Perhaps these online relationships are intrinsically different than those weak ties we form at the office, or the dinner party?

These are all important questions, and I don’t think we have many good answers. But I would quibble with Gladwell’s wholesale rejection of weak ties as a means of building a social movement. (I have some issues with Shirky, too.) It turns out that such distant relationships aren’t just useful for getting jobs or spreading trends or sharing information. According to Granovetter, they might also help us fight back against the Man, or at least the redevelopment agency.

Nevertheless I do share the reluctance to attribute revolutionary capacities to the Internet to easily like happened in the case of the Green Movement in Iran as the so-called Twitter Revolution. Going back to Farrell’s review:
The State of Statelessness – Henry Farrell – The American Interest Magazine

Scott’s message, if a message it is, is that the possibilities of anarchy are fundamentally limited by the modern state. We cannot get away from the state, so the best we can do is to chasten and moderate it through the institutions of representative democracy. This speaks well to the incoherencies of modern anarchists. It is difficult to imagine anarchism succeeding for the simple reason that there is no reasonable prospect that the state will wither away. The inherent vagueness of anarchism, its frequent unwillingness to articulate and interrogate its own goals and its methodologies directly, and its sometime elevation of mere action over the calculable political results of those actions are all part of the implicit tribute anarchism pays to its enemy. Anarchists even struggle to persuade themselves that they would want to live in a truly stateless society, let alone to persuade the vast majority of their fellow citizens to do so.

Anderson’s history draws us to rather different conclusions and expectations. He suggests that anarchism’s ideological weakness is connected to its very real strength; the one is the obverse of the other. […]

The network that anarchists helped sustain, which brought together insurrectionists, journalists, novelists and the odd liberal intellectual, was formed less by a common ideological project than by profound indignation and solidarity with others agitating against injustices. Here, the very incoherence and malleability of anarchism proved to be an advantage. If it did not achieve much in itself, it allowed others who were associated with it to achieve much indeed. Anarchist newspapers and journalists helped make the Montjuich prison into a source of great shame for Spain, so much so that it proved impossible successfully to prosecute the man who assassinated the prison’s chief torturer.

Here we see the links between the anarchist network of the 19th century, bound together by letters, novels and personal travel, and the anarchist network of today, bound together by the blogs, forums and listservs of the Internet. […] They create links of solidarity across borders. […]

If Scott provides good reason to believe that anarchism will never achieve its global ambitions, Anderson suggests that perhaps those global ambitions were never the most interesting thing about anarchism. Even in a world where the state is here to stay—notwithstanding all the chic nostrums and prophecies about its rapidly growing porosity and looming obsolescence—global networks founded on sympathy, solidarity and a real if diffuse sense of common purpose can help balance against the abuses inherent in the form of the state. Here, anarchists resemble the American Founders, who saw the spirit of liberty as a necessary bulwark against concentrations of power, and were themselves partly embedded in international networks preaching revolution and social upheaval. In building a truly global economy, the great states have given anarchists the opportunity to rebuild their networks of sympathy and common political purpose across borders. Today’s anarchists want to change the world through distributed action rather than a pistol shot. It seems to be working out better.

The weak ties and perhaps shallow commitments fostered on/by the Internet may generate some small-scale changes in individuals’ lives and in small groups on the longer term that may even be more important than the large scale attacks and counter-attacks that are going on now.(See also Maximilian Forte’s take on the Wikileaks Revolution) Twitter, Facebook, Wikis and other forms of digital media probably have more to do with individuals asserting their own place in the world and people trying develop their own voice, than with some revolutionary potential. At the same time however Wikileaks is an example of weak ties on which a network of contributors is build around shared values and a trust ethic (to take up Stacey’s point again). One could say that Wikileaks/Assange created weak ties making people who do not belong to the network and/or do not know Assange trust them enough to join them and stand up for them. Although in general the revolutionary potential of the Internet may seem rather limited, in this case the Internet can be a substitute for directed organization certainly (and here it comes again) in the wake of what Bady has called the ‘counter-overreaction’. The ‘counter-overreaction’ does not only validate the leaks but also directly provokes and feeds the activism against the states’ responses to Wikileaks. What the effect is in the longer term remains to be seen.