Shockwaves from WikiLeaks cable release felt at Wikipedia
The controversies over the ongoing United States diplomatic cables leak by WikiLeaks are having a noticeable impact on Wikipedia and Wikimedia, due mainly to the widespread confusion between Wikipedia and WikiLeaks that has lingered since the setting up of WikiLeaks almost four years ago (see earlier Signpost coverage: "Difficult relationship between WikiLeaks and Wikipedia"). As in the aftermath of WikiLeaks' Afghan War documents leak, Sue Gardner and Jimmy Wales stated – in interviews with the BBC and Al Jazeera, respectively (see below) – that there was no connection between WikiLeaks and Wikipedia. As reported earlier, Jimmy Wales has criticized WikiLeaks several times for possibly endangering innocent people by revealing their identity in the leaked documents.
However, Wales' criticism of WikiLeaks was much more measured than that of Larry Sanger (known for his role in starting Wikipedia until 2002), who on November 26 began posting critical comments about WikiLeaks on Twitter. They soon received wide attention as the view of "Wikipedia's co-founder" – Sanger proudly observed that apart from blogs such as Little Green Footballs, 265 different Twitter users had retweeted or replied to his initial tweets (by December 6, he had posted more than 140 messages on the topic). One of Sanger's comments read:
Speaking as Wikipedia's co-founder, I consider you [WikiLeaks] enemies of the U.S. – not just the government, but the people.
It was quoted by Gordon Crovitz in the opening paragraph of an opinion article in the Wall Street Journal, to support the claim that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had "ended the era of innocent optimism about the Web". On the other hand, Sanger received many adverse reactions which appear to have prompted him to elaborate on his views about "Wikileaks' latest disastrous actions" in an essay published on his website, saying about his motivation, "I suppose at this point it is my duty to post at least the following; I think I'm in a position where I could do some good, so I had better". He clarified his affiliation as follows: "I was and am not speaking for Wikipedia, but only for myself." Responding to Twitter users who had announced they would not donate to Wikipedia in protest at Sanger's views, he said: "To those who said that they'd stop contributing to Wikipedia, you might not know that I left Wikipedia a little over a year after I got it started, and have since founded a competitor." Sanger complained about "people insulting me vociferously", but himself called Assange a "twit" in his essay. In 2008, when WikiLeaks had already published much classified material, Sanger had praised it: "specific online services, such as WikiLeaks, have been set up for anonymous free speech. Long may they flourish", but in September 2010, after the site's first major US-related leaks, he toldThe Signpost that "I certainly don't approve of Wikileaks' latest behavior. Publishing classified material anonymously (or not) is a no-no".
Ward Cunningham, the inventor of the wiki, seemed to feel considerably less entitled than Sanger: An article by a reporter of The Oregonian quoted him as saying "I don't think the fact that I wrote wiki gives me any more say than anybody else", and recommending opinion pieces by other commentators instead. However, Cunningham pointed out that "WikiLeaks doesn't use much of the wiki offerings. It's not really a collaborative effort."
As observed by Media Matters, right-wing US talk show host Glenn Beck ("Beck just makes things up about Wikipedia") was also confusing Wikipedia and WikiLeaks in a November 30 show: "The storm is here, the one we have been telling you about for five years, it's here. And Wikipedia is just a part of it", quickly being corrected by one of his sidekicks to "WikiLeaks". However, another added: "Wikipedia is also a part of it though. Those bastards, and their 'free' encyclopedia! I hate those people!" As summarized by Media Matters, Beck then insinuated the involvement of George Soros (a billionaire whose charitable activities are viewed with suspicion on the American far right) in WikiLeaks via its use of the MediaWiki software: "Beck then asserted that Soros 'helped develop software' for Wikipedia. Sidekick Stu Burguiere responded, 'I’ve read this before, but I don’t think it’s actually accurate.' Beck went on to add: 'Maybe you’re right. ... I’m not saying it’s nefarious. What I’m saying is that he is an open society guy. This is an open society – this is perfect open society stuff. ... The software was, I think, helped developed by Soros, which is the software that WikiLeaks is using.'"
Across the Atlantic, the Wikipedia/WikiLeaks confusion had a tangible negative impact on the German Wikimedia chapter. On November 30, it announced the resignation of its treasurer, who cited adverse reactions among his customers that were threatening the existence of his (real-life) company; he also requested to have his account on Wikipedia deactivated. He later told news magazine Der Spiegel that he had already lost three contracts for this reason.
One long-time Wikipedian became a tangential subject of the massive WikiLeaks media coverage: In a widely cited report-cum-interview about Julian Assange, ForbesquotedDavid Gerard's observation that Assange had "titanium balls", recalling his resistance to efforts to censor a website of Gerard's in the 1990s at an ISP where Assange worked as sysadmin.
One of the cables leaked so far (less than 1000 of around 250,000 altogether) contains mention of Wikipedia: A January 2010 message from the US embassy in Luxembourg reported on public appearances by former Guantanamo detainee Moazzam Begg (lobbying EU governments to accept former detainees, in accordance with US goals). This included one at a screening of the documentary film Taxi to the Dark Side. The cable recommended Wikipedia for background information: