7 Lessons That WikiLeaks Teaches Us

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Too much has been written about WikiLeaks.

Most of the debate is about the legalities and moralities of what WikiLeaks is (and what it means). If you take a step back, and look at it (without prejudice and without passing legal judgment), there are many lessons about how new media acts (and reacts) that are excellent business lessons as well. Consider this a cautionary tale.

Here are 7 lessons that WikiLeaks teaches us:

  1. Transparency first. If your default position is to hide information and keep it secret, the new world is going to cause you many sleepless nights. WikiLeaks shows us that businesses will be best suited to lead with transparency first and (when no longer possible) shift to secrets as a form of integrity-based decision making to protect their "secret sauce" (whatever that may be). Leading with being secretive has no place in our new, more transparent, world. As people divulge more and more information about themselves online and connect to more and more people, that is becoming the cultural norm, so any actions (be it by business or government) that do not have that level of transparency will be seen and felt as "hiding" or being "secretive."
  2. You are media. Any individual can have a thought and then be able to publish that thought in text, images, audio and/or video to the world for free (or close to it). This doesn’t just mean that everyone is a publisher, it means that every individual is (or can be) a media channel. WikiLeaks is a media entity (Mathew Ingram nailed it in his Gigaom Blog post, Like It or Not, WikiLeaks is a Media Entity). If we agree with this sentiment (and we should), all media properties need to be protected (to some degree) by our first amendment rights.
  3. Publishing has changed. This ties directly into the last point. We may not like it, but WikiLeaks is both a publisher of content and a media channel. So is this Blog. That means that we – as a society – need to re-evaluate our definition of publishing. A while back, Christopher S. Penn asked on an episode of Media Hacks if something written and published in the MMORPG game, World of Warcraft, should be considered a book? That’s a question/debate for another Blog post, but we can all agree that it is – without question – a form of publishing. Would the mass media and academic intelligentsia consider that publishing? These newer forms of publishing threaten their business model and question their legacy (people don’t like when you do that). But, let’s face it, publishing has changed.
  4. Information travels fast. Legal or not. It’s no longer about crisis management of better public relations, we have shifted to the real-time Web. And, the news has shifted along with it. We do not find out about a plane crash on CNN. We find out about it because the survivors are tweeting, shooting videos and streaming it live. Information doesn’t travel faster now… information is happening in real time.
  5. Decentralization is real. While WikiLeaks has passed the massive amount of content over to some major newspaper media outlets to turn the information into snackable content for the mass public, the structure and organization of WikiLeaks points to a new regime. The new company is (and can be) a decentralized organization – one that runs on a handful of laptops and smartphones. They are a credible competitor. The idea of a few people working from their local Starbucks when compared to another business with a fixed address and infrastructure used to be seen as both laughable and unprofessional. No more.
  6. Credible Anonymity. This will – without question – become one of the biggest trends we will start to see in the digital channels. Think about it this way: when reading a customer review on Amazon about a book, who would you trust more, Sarah P. from Sioux Falls or an anonymous reviewer who says that they work for one of the biggest book publishers in the world and that they read 3-4 books a month (total book worm) but can’t identify themselves because the book that they are reviewing is from a competitor? I would chose the anonymous book worm. For all we know, Sarah from Sioux Falls is a lunatic who walks the streets with Kleenex boxes for shoes. Who do we know at WikiLeaks? What do we really know about Julian Assange? Even with these pending criminal charges, does that make the content they are publishing any less credible? As Social Media allows individuals to open up, publish their lives and share everything, there will be many other places where anonymity will prevail, and the content will be as (if not more) credible than the content where full disclosure is happening.
  7. We are not ready. The shocking part of WikiLeaks is how everybody else (those who do not understand Internet culture) is reacting to it. They are not used to this type of organization. They are not used to the way it looks. They are not used to the way it feels. It’s awkward and because of that, it feels both strange and threatening. It simply validates that we are not ready for the massive changes that are happening and that will continue to happen (for more on that, please listen to what Don Tapscott – the co-author of Wikinomics and Macrowikinomics – had to say about technology and the digitization of everything right here: SPOS #225 – The World Of Macrowikinomics With Don Tapscott).

With all of this in mind, can’t we look to the ongoing WikiLeaks incident as an amazing opportunity to listen, understand, grow and adapt?


  1. I’ve got to call Streisand Effect on Wikileaks as well – for the unfamiliar, Wikipedia has an excellent run-down (as they always do). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streisand_effect
    Your point about decentralization is perfect – both on the side of Wikileaks itself, and on Anonymous, who made the news in a number of locations today with their DDOS attacks on a number of former Wikileaks supporters. Decentralization is a big deal – if it’s done well.
    The points about publishing and cultural preparedness for transparency are salient – just wanted to call out point 5, as it’s not something actively being discussed in the media from any angle.

  2. Let’s face it…if Wikileaks had posted Chinese Army secrets, Fox news would be chuckling all the way to Beijing. So the fact is that the USA is the recipient of this month’s embarrassment award and it doesn’t take too lightly. The politicians reminded their bosses (the corporations) how much they do for them, and became indignant about Wikileaks revelations, and they all ganged together to try to shut it down. We all believed the internet to be a true democracy until we now see that the dominant players have simply changed from paper publishers to electronics ones (Amazons) who are in the same beds as the political institutions. With over 500 sites now mirroring Wiki, there is no chance of shutting it down. And even though Visa and Mastercard and Paypal are permitting political pressure to justify severing the financial access of Wiki, the site won’t die. These are simply bullying tactics of a hurt wolf. Assange is being setup to go to jail, then he’ll be setup to be killed. Yet his legacy will remain that he uncovered truths which some governments would have preferred stay secret. Can you imagine the truth that the King of Saudi Arabia would be secretly applauding if the Israelis took out a threatening Iranian nuclear capacity? Well its right there in black and white. So what Wikileaks did was expose hypocrisy in government and politics and in fact did a favour to the US political attaches to be more careful about how they talk, write or judge their partners. I saw some comments from american readers about how the information exposed how much foreign governments were all about themselves. Do the 180degree on that America and ask if the mirror isn’t more appropriate for those types of sentiments. We are indeed seeing the power of the many small ants against the centralized power of the giants, only they were all supposed to be on the same team (democratization of information) and now we see that little has in fact changed, its just moved from paper to electronic. And therein lies the opportunity we can grab to talk to our governments about transparency and true community. “One nation under G-d”….is G-d more with any nation than the rest?

  3. I’m not good in english but 7 Lessons That WikiLeaks Teaches Us= I know what your talking about AND IT’S TRUE BUT FIRST NOBODY UNDERTAND THAT BECAUSE THEY DONT UNDERSTAND HOW A COMPUTER IS WORKING!!

  4. I understand the point you are making about the distirbution of information and our changing world but I am aghast that your tone seems to canonize these people.
    It’s easy to look at this issue at arm’s length because these leaks expose ugliness and embarassments within a government, and especially the U.S. government, which is so very fashionable to criticize.
    But let’s get real for a minute. These leaks exposed people in dangerous situations who are risking lives for our security. It is probable that people have died because of these leaks. If it was your son or daughter, would you be celebrating this fact?
    Let’s bring it closer to home still. I worked in Fortune 100 companies for many years. I know that the way deals get done can be ugly. Sometimes we hate what our customers put us through and internal documents and recorded conversations may even reflect that sentiment. Sometimes we say things in private that would embarass us in public. It is a very human thing to do.
    Are you saying that this is also fair game for public consumption? Would it be OK for me to publish private documents about you and your company that could destroy your business relationships, your company, long friendships, even your marriage … just because I had them?
    And that is exactly what is happening. That is the precendent that is being set here Mitch. Not only is privacy dead, civility, common sense, ethics and decency are dead too. And while I understand the immeidate and viral realities of technology, I abhor what it has become in the hands of idiots looking for a few minutes of fame.
    Please be a voice of decency in this digital world. We should be profoundly disturbed by these breaches of human decency.

  5. Let’s get reallyyyy real for a moment:
    A) “These leaks exposed people in dangerous situations who are risking lives for our security.” when you say OUR security who is OUR? Are you referring to humanity or someone sitting in his pimped Bentley enjoying the free** that’s putting some people to death from starvation or low wages? or by causing revolutions* and overthrowing their freedom further through these deals? use your imagination and think Micro & Macro deals.
    B) “Probable that people have died => would you be celebrating this fact?”
    Probability does not produce facts! You’re guessing Mark. For debates on previous leaks and guesstimations please refer to countless videos and debates at Democracy Now website that has refuted these in the past by statements from government officials. Yet personally I don’t believe either side 100% as I have not seen the documents but at least they refer to it by name and people so one could do research. Please provide solid evidence and facts when arguing facts.
    Guess what the deals got done ugly, and they shouldn’t have, now you’re justifying these deals by putting fear into your argument (though I’m sure it’s not intentional and you’re a victim yourself, as a matter of fact everybody on this planet is, including the source of this fear infected virus)
    If your customers put you through something you hated: “don’t negotiate with terrorists” that’s rule number one, otherwise it sounds like hypocrisy. If you say something that embarassed you to get a business deal closed, it’s not human, the term is shameful and inhuman, because you’re making a profit at someone’s loss. So you have to make a choice are you going to do this right or are you going to quit this line of work and be in a line of work that is human.
    Now here you’re threatening again personally: “would it be ok to publish personal stuff about you?” First although I do not defend Wiki, he is in jail due to personal release of information not business nor politics. Second you can publish private documents about his company’s wrong doings, unless you’re talking about corporate espionage and selling someone’s business model or plan, your argument is flawed.
    civility, common sense, ethics and decency were long dead when you agreed to go through those ugly deals… clear enough?
    Let’s not judge the guy, for being an idiot or genius for that matter. We’re all here posting here for a few minutes of fame!
    Yes let’s be disturbed this is from your company’s homepage:
    “Welcome to the world’s first company dedicated to the business of Free**.
    Free** media and the power of Web 2.0 represent the most exciting revolution* in communication and business in over a century.  Social media platforms have turned the traditional marketing model on its head and put the power in the hands of the people.”
    reading that I have to agree with you : It is easy to look at this issue at arm’s length indeed!

  6. “Nothing is more fairly distributed than common sense: no one thinks he needs more of it than he already has”, Descartes

  7. A lot of people make the argument that this transparency means less security. I’ll be honest and say that though I’ve not read all of the documents, the blurbs I did read were not at all shocking to me (e.g. Saudi Arabia wishing ill on Iran). Those of us non native Americans tend to have a more cynical view of things and I don’t think security is any more or less threatened.
    One item I’d add to the list for your consideration: What WikiLeaks does do is confirm that the Emperor doesn’t have clothes. And all of us our emperors here. Consequently we all have to hold the mirrors up to ourselves and be much harder on ourselves than we were before. Do we really walk the talk? Do we care to walk the talk? Do we care if we were to be busted for not walking the talk? What is the risk of being busted? Etc.
    Thanks for a thought provoking post – more effective than my morning coffee!

  8. If in the final analysis WikiLeaks contributes to reduce rampant Hypocrisy in the “Diplomatic” Corps of all nations, one positive result may be to speed-up the process of solving some of the problems that for decades have afflicted Humanity but never get resolved due to their perverse hypocritical behaviour.
    Obviously, I know I am dreaming in Utopic Technicolor. This will only happen when we’ll begin to think as a Planet nor as Nations; the day when Earth will be under an Intergalactic attack. By then, it will be too late. Utopic enough?

  9. Great post and analysis, Mitch. This is, indeed, a great lesson for businesses, individuals and the definition of publishing. Here is a link to CBC’s report on a case currently before Canada’s Supreme Court where the court has been asked to decide, “whether a person can be found to have defamed another just by including a hyperlink to a defamatory website”. Very scary! http://bit.ly/h1Mme6
    Other than the personal and possibly questionable charges against Julian Assange, I do not believe that, to date, any country has levied charges against WikiLeaks. As much as I disagree with WikiLeaks’ release of improperly obtained, and potentially dangerous, information, I question why credit card companies deem themselves the police. I would love to see the release of the internal correspondence and pressure that led to those decisions.

  10. Everywhere I go, I find a story on Wikileaks. I’m close to giving up on the Internet, before it all becomes 4chan.

  11. My citations got wiped in my previous comment, lets try again:
    Very good post! I would say that not all lessons are learned yet and cite John Battelle in this post http://bit.ly/euxi70 “The Wikileaks story may well be, as pointed out by many, the most important and defining story of the Internet age. In that perspective, I do not agree that “Too much has been written about WikiLeaks.” when considering Wikileaks as the manifestation & catalyst of a paradigm shift.

  12. Mitch, great post. And commenters, nice conversation about WikiLeaks (the entity). But what about #wikileaks (the hashtag)? Here’s what I learned:
    Traditional media (even those in democratic states and those which value ideas like free speech) celebrate their own form of censorship. It’s called the Producer – Publisher – Editor.
    On December 8th as the sites of Visa and Mastercard were under ddos attacks, Twitter was BLOWING UP with mentions of #wikileaks. There was a lot of hype, a lot of mis-information and a lot of BS, sure…but it was news and it was unfolding right in front of us.
    That evening I scanned all the national news broadcasts and all the local news broadcasts. Hardly a single mention of the events relating to WikiLeaks, the group known as Anonymous, Visa or Mastercard. In fact, the most dominant story that evening was remembering John Lennon. Man, I love the Beatles and respect the legacy of Mr. Lennon, but the dude’s been dead for 30 years. That story has been told.
    The fact that a decentralized group of hacktivists can get together remotely and punch the financial institution in the face like that is pretty scary.
    I wasted a lot of brain-cycles trying to figure out why the traditional “news” didn’t air the story. I can’t figure it out. But the fact is that they didn’t [air the story]. Somebody or some group of somebodies in charge of the broadcasts, decided not to run the story.
    Ultimately the lesson I learned was not so much about a violation of trust or an act of censorship on the part of traditional media, but rather it was about the power of the real-time web and the citizen journalists which monitor the web.
    I’m sad about the failure of the old institution(s), but excited about the promises of the new.

  13. Isn’t the most important lesson that todays governments (and indeed politics and diplomacy in general) are not properly equipped to deal with the internet age.

  14. Beyond the politics and morale of it… there is no one secret file… there are no copies… data is data and it’s just as findable in the cache of a Web browser as it is by Google… if enough people want to make that information findable.

  15. The most interesting thing about Wikileaks is that it has shown that there will be a new kind of tax on companies and individuals (and yes governments). A “reputation tax”.
    In the past companies and individuals could expect a certain degree of marketing and spin and behind the scenes “privacy” to get away with “sub optimal stuff”. But now there is more of a likelihood that “sub optimal things” will come out in the open. They may hurt your revenues, or not. They may hurt your profits, or not. But they will most certainly hurt your reputation.
    I think this additional, new, “reputation tax” will give companies and individuals a pause and get them not to do sub optimal things. In that sense I think the tax is a good thing and a sign of things to come.
    Great post Mitch!

  16. I don’t see where I’m doing any form of canonizing. It’s amazing to me that it takes such a dramatic extreme for all of us to wake up and realize that the world has dramatically changed. Within that change comes a huge shift in how we do business. The post was only about that.
    We’ve been saying it for the past decade, but it takes something big and nasty to strike for all of us to wake up. Napster did this music. WikiLeaks is doing this to government. The plane crash in the Hudson River did this for Twitter.
    Just wait until WikiLeaks starts doing this to business… oh, wait… they already have.

  17. Great post Mitch! I love the fact that the ‘control’ over information is getting less wieldly. What I would have liked is if China, India, Brazil, Russia etc were all at the receiving end in as much a way as the US is. In such an equal playing field…perhaps we can dream of a time when people cannot be manipulated into dying and killing others.
    At the business level, a call for transparency implies that there is internal transparency too. Much like you say that every individual is a media channel..similarly every employee is then a spokesperson, in a very real sense. This can happen only if every employee is also the owner his OWN brand ( which acts as the employers spokesperson). This requires businesses to be as mindful about treating employees as vice-versa. This also implies that control over the message that is being sent out is more decentralized (just like it is for Governments).
    Anything less would result in the attempt at transparency failing, with consequences for both parties.
    Would appreciate your thoughts on this.

  18. haha I’ll take a shot at it and use your own quote avanish: whatever you do, don’t suck at “your reputation!”

  19. I like your vocabulary today Mitch, ‘within’…’change’… I woke up years ago… and started a thought process around an organiaztion called ‘change within’

  20. No. 7 is the most vital lesson. From Wall Street to Main Street, America definitely is not ready for the power that social media puts into the hands of the average person.

  21. Somehow reminds me of the “Spooky Action at a Distance” theory in quantum physics. Seemingly disconnected events turning out to be intrinsically linked. 🙂

  22. Good points. Information spreads extremely fast, such as when a certain celebrity passed away ( I can’t remember who ) not to long ago people knew about it over the internet faster than his wife knew.

  23. Awesome post !
    When the internet started to become a real “thing” email addresses were [email protected] ; because of a fear of personal information being published and exposed. “Don’t give out your real name” was a common phrase.
    The paradigm shift has happened. Information is everywhere and people are proud to be the ones Re-Tweeting and Re-Posting the story.
    In fact, the more secret the info SEEMS to be, the faster it spreads (leaks ?) as everyone wants to have a “breaking news” piece !
    Companies need to understand that customers are no longer talking behind your back about your bad product/service. This conversation is happening in a very public space.
    Companies who stick to traditional thinking, who try to control the story, who try to get a PR company to mitigate damage, will not make it.
    In a space where everyone is connected and no conversation or topic is off-limit, there is simply no room for contentment

  24. Great post! I really do hope that someone somewhere learns some lessons from this saga. So many companies (and the general public) don’t seem to fully understand the ramifications and potential of the digital world. To many, it’s still treated somewhat as a novelty.
    @Jon Davito: down here in Australia, the hacktivists got a lot of coverage; it was close to headline news. Wikileaks in general is getting a lot of coverage, mainly because the some of the leaks have embarrassed the Australian Government.

  25. The name “Assange” is dificult for non english people, then I find the way to memorize it:
    Ass Angel
    It´s funny, it´s apocalyptic, it´s gaming.

  26. The political world touched by Wikileaks has never been ready for almost any kind of change. This social change, well, that’s even worse. Most of them claim to be working on behalf of people for the people’s good, but they really don’t know much about people at all.
    Ironically, I doubt Wikileaks will change anything, it will just make people like me and you nod and admit we are not ready.

  27. I think Wikileaks represents a new form of decentralized and distributed media. The governments of the world are trying to shut this down because it poses a direct threat to their power center. I think technology proves that you can’t shut down free speech, though I dislike the actions of anonymous. I think once this concept of anything goes continues that sites that talk about people like http://www.dirtyphonebook.com will be how gossip is spread and news is attained. It’s an interesting future with benefits and negatives: I just hope the government doesn’t try and restrict free speech and lets the market sort it out.

  28. I agree Gabrielle…is our technology becoming ubiquitous to an extent that it disregards any semblance of ethics/civility. It isn’t surprising that in nearly every career field today, colleges teach a course on ethics as they have become so “fuzzy” as to leave us lacking any sort of moral plumbline. Journalism in particular has crashed in this arena of civility and become more of an entertainment/tabloid type of entity than a “who, what, where,” news-type of reporting it used to be. These Wikilleaks have compromised peoples’ lives and our national security as our military will have difficulty finding anyone to help in the future from these Middle Eastern countries when they see former informants and their families dead due to their outing by Wikileaks. This is not reporting/journalism, it is more akin to espionage in certain respects. And I agree with many posts here…our gov’t seems gravely lacking in its ability to defend innocent lives and national security from this medium of threats.

  29. A very enjoyable post. As someone working in IT and network security, part of my job is to prevent leaks of confidential information, so I have been trying to take a step back from the hyperbole in the media and reflect on my own situation. There is an interesting article over at 360 about practical steps IT managers can take to reduce the risk of this kind of monumental leak happening on their watch (regardless of the rights and wrongs of this particular whistleblower):

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