Unlike, say, bullets being fired from a gun, information spread online serves multiple functions at the same time. It can inform, confuse, overwhelm, and alter perceptions simultaneously.
For example, Wikileaks’ Cablegate leaks provided valuable insight on the US war machine in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. But the cache of documents also unfairly exposed many legitimate interests of the state.
Edward Snowden revealed an unconstitutional NSA program that the public would have never known about otherwise. His leaks also recklessly exposed scores of legitimate intelligence gathering programs at great expense to the US taxpayer. Their publication also caused tensions between allies and nations with generally good diplomatic relationships.
Both events are Janus-faced. Looked at through the lens of state power, they appear quite different from a domestic news perspective – but the domestic news prism is the one through which many people consumed the information.
While not questioning the accuracy of the content of the Cablegate or Snowden leaks, the positioning and timing of them appeared devised for maximum impact. Some was purely for publicity, yes.
But they were also time for a sense of crisis and embarrassment for the countries whose secrets these were.
In an alternative reading of recent history, you can see the documents dumps by both Wikileaks and the Snowden functioned also as assaults on the credibility and standing of Western power.
Certainly, that is how the Kremlin would see them and exploit them, even if in the West they triggered an urge for reform.
By 2016, the ‘leaked document’ / ‘documents leaked’ Google search term waves are unmistakably aggressive, employing some of the same channels and outlets. The Google chart linked below shows the term ‘leaked documents’ with a blue line and ‘documents leaked’ with a red line.
In the graph below, the first spike in 2010 is WikiLeaks’ Cablegate documents, the cache of State Department documents released to the world. The second spike, in 2013, is the Edward Snowden leaks of NSA documents. The third spike, is of course, WikiLeaks intervention (with Russian backing) in the US presidential election in 2016.
You can argue about the news legitimacy of the varying surges of “leaked documents” – but you can’t argue with the attention they captured. With a clear Russian hand in the latter two, the pattern is clear.
So why look at this now?
Because it shows what a long-term effort is needed to use information to shift a democracy’s discussion. In this case, the leaks helped drive up distrust in the US government on top of the other stated reasons for them.
But to see the real effect of this “leaked document” offensive, look at the geographical chart below.
It makes sense that they appear in English-speaking countries, as the documents were in English.
But when you consider the global reach of the disclosures from the State Department and the NSA, the interest-level within the US and Five Eyes partners, as reflected in search, is telling. (Driving wedges between members of the Five Eyes alliance and weakening it is a long-standing goal of the Kremlin. )
On this data looking back to 2004, there is remarkably little bleed-over into non-Five Eyes partners, which suggests the target for the information was always the alliance itself, especially in 2013 and 2016.
So when discussing the WikiLeaks Cablegate leaks and the Snowden leaks, look at them in the sweep of recent history. The information serves different purposes, depending on who is doing the consuming. While the disclosures triggered legitimate reforms, they were also a case of doxxing a nation-state.