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WikiLeaks – Old School Diplomacy Meets Social Media

There are things I believe I shall never say; but I shall never say those things I do not believe
Immanuel Kant

Setting aside legal issues, the recent WikiLeaks release of sensitive State Department communiques has serious implications to those driving adoption of social media in government. The same ecosystem embraced to help elect a President has in the words of some turned on him as the spirit of uber-openess inspires the release of information that no one ever intended or arguably needed to be public knowledge.

I am not questioning the motives of those inclined to risk so much to expose what they perceive to be deception or injustice. There is however a sort of naiveté and self-righteous indignation that belies the fact that the implications of releasing contents of internal debate and individual opinion are far more serious than being unfriended on Facebook.

This is not to say that there was a lack of appreciation for the serious nature of it all. I am sure it was debated but because the words are not those of the leakers to begin with there is an denial of any culpability to any negative repercussions from the release itself. This will be a hollow argument when lives are lost.

The naiveté however is unilateral. Both the authors and the leakers are victim of their own over confidence in the electronic marketplace of ideas.

The sheer volume of personal insights and faux intimacy inspired by Facebook and others has in many ways desensitized us to the impact of revealing private conversations and the processes we all go through to arrive at an opinion. 

When formulating a position on any complex topic considering the absurd, using hyperbole to test boundaries and traipsing through the improper and impolite to gain insight is often a useful device. So long as there are checks and balances on those improprieties and the absurdities we consider never take shape in reality.

While the contents of the now infamous cables were not posted as social media content that is exactly what they have become. We have a window into the casual comments and observations that fed the development of political interpretation and response.

No one outside the community was ever meant to see this material yet the thoughts of countless bureaucrats are laid bare for hyper analysis in a 24 hour news cycle. Every one that sent one of those cables regrets ever letting their choice of words turn into ones and zeros. Like the rest of us they were naive to think that what they typed would never be read by the target of their commentary.

Everything you type or record, no matter how insignificant is at risk of being “promoted” into the public consciousness. Sadly for technology this incident destroys a trust in the minds of decision makers that has taken a generation to build. The real casualties in this latest skirmish will be fledgling attempts to provide open access and social capabilities to information communities throughout the ranks of government.

Certainly the scrutiny is warranted but much more of the organizational backlash will likely take the form of a poorly thought out lockdown. The criminal on trial will not be the person that leaked the data or the companies that published it but the very culture of openness that allowed people to expose impressions and opinions through what they were duped into believing were private communications.

In my next post I will explore why despite the magnitude this incident is  just a “run of the mill” enterprise content management problem solved by thousands of businesses every day.

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