New York Times author Jim Rutenberg’s devoted his Sunday column to the subject of Julian Assange and the role he played in the most recent election. Rutenberg points out that the impact Assange arguably had on the 2016 election is in line with what he set out to do back in 2006 when he wrote an essay outlining his ideas and motivations. This was before he was famous (or infamous) as the creator of Wikileaks. Here’s Rutenberg:
Even his toughest critics acknowledge how clearly he saw the politically disruptive potential of technology, back when some of us were getting our first BlackBerries.
It’s what prompted him to start WikiLeaks, which “pioneered something extremely important and very dangerous to large organizations that keep lots of secrets digitally,” as the journalist Glenn Greenwald told me in an interview last week. From the start, Mr. Assange said WikiLeaks’ prime directive was to expose hidden data sets that “reveal illegal or immoral behavior” in government and big business.
Assange’s theory was that conspiracies are actually computational networks which act to perpetuate or expand the power and control of the conspirators. From his 2006 essay:
Conspiracies take information about the world in which they operate (the conspiratorial environment), pass through the conspirators and then act on the result. We can see conspiracies as a type of device that has inputs (information about the environment), a computational network (the conspirators and their links to each other) and outputs (actions intending to change or maintain the environment).
The key point here is that Assange sees nations as conspiracies of information. He specifically talks about authoritarian regimes in his essay, but his ideas ultimately apply to any government. Assange writes that there are several ways to limit the computational power of a conspiracy. The traditional approach is to eliminate the leaders through assassination, but he suggested another approach made possible by technology:
Traditional attacks on conspiratorial power groupings, such as assassination, cut many high weight links. The act of assassination — the targeting of visible individuals, is the result of mental inclinations honed for the pre-literate societies in which our species evolved…
Let us consider two closely balanced and broadly conspiratorial power groupings, the US Democratic and Republican parties. Consider what would happen if one of these parties gave up their mobile phones, fax and email correspondence — let alone the computer systems which manage their subscribes, donors, budgets, polling, call centres and direct mail campaigns? They would immediately fall into an organizational stupor and lose to the other.
In his column, Rutenberg credits me with predicting how Assange’s theories would eventually play out:
No one seemed to grasp what Mr. Assange was hinting at more clearly than the conservative writer John Sexton, who foresaw the events of 2016 in a post that was published on Breitbart News and his own blog in 2010.
“You can take his example further by imagining what would happen to, say, the D.N.C., if it suffered a massive Wikileak of secret data,” Mr. Sexton wrote, referring to Mr. Assange’s essay. “It seems entirely possible that a leak of the contents of their email for one month would be exceedingly damaging to them.”
To be clear, I didn’t really predict anything, certainly not about this election. I did try to imagine how things might play out if Assange got his hands on material targeting the Democratic party’s top operators. As we all know, Assange did get his hands on exactly this kind of material thanks to hackers our intelligence agencies have identified as Russian. The intelligence agencies add that the hackers appear to have been working at Putin’s behest, possibly because of a grudge he held against Secretary Clinton.
Rutenberg goes on to argue that Assange’s hampering of the Democrats benefited Trump (though he doesn’t say it was decisive in the election). He also argues that Wikileaks wound up benefiting Russia at America’s expense. This line of argument is more in line with declarations from the intelligence community prior to the election. At the time, the assumption was that Putin’s goal was not to benefit Trump per se, but merely to damage the credibility of American democracy. And this brings me back to something else I wrote in the same blog post back in 2010 which, unfortunately, seems to be vindicated:
Put aside for a moment the question of whether Assange has broken the law or merely acted as a journalist. I see a fundamental problem with his theory. The truly authoritarian regimes like Russia, which came off as a mafia state in the latest wikileaks, are past caring what their people think. As we’ve seen in the past two years, Russia has a bullet for every journalist who dares to criticize the state. The same is true in Saudi Arabia. The people there may not like their rulers speaking ill of Iran, but what are they going to do about it? There are a lot of places in the world where the pen is not mightier than the sword.
In fact, the only place where Assange’s theory could work is in a robust democratic society where people are already empowered to make changes based on new information. In other words, on a global scale Assange’s method of regime change will only affect those nation-states that need it least.
I don’t believe Assange’s actions were decisive in the election of Donald Trump, though as I’ve written before the election was so close that anyone can blame anything for the outcome. Nevertheless, it does seem to me that Russia (assuming our intel community is correct) succeeded in sowing doubt about American democracy among a great number of Americans. In the last two months we’ve had efforts to eliminate the electoral college, last-ditch recounts, unprecedented attempts to rally faithless electors, plans to protest the inauguration and numerous Democratic objections to the certification of the vote. All of that is premised on what the media has incorrectly dubbed “Russian hacking” of the election.
To the degree Assange’s theories about conspiracies of information were shown to have some validity, it’s also true that his theories only seemed to benefit an authoritarian Russian regime at the expense of American democracy. While the left only sees the damage in terms of Trump’s victory over Hillary, the real, lasting damage may be the spread of the idea that the election’s results are illegitimate.