A simple theory of WikiLeaks

Recall Timur Kuran's theory of preference falsification: many people follow the herd rather than revealing their true views, and this is most common in autocracies.  In those cases, public opinion may suddenly flip.  WikiLeaks, by making some truths common knowledge, has its biggest effects on autocracies, even if the leaks are from the United States.

Two possible results of the recent revelations could be that the Sunni Arab autocracies will have to cozy up more to Iran (their citizenries don't hate Iran so much, and so they might filp against their own leaders) or that China abandons North Korea altogether.  In the former the government has to match the public opinion and in the latter case perhaps the public opinion can flip against North Korea and confirm a trend already underway in the government.

What about democracies?  The most likely result (though not from this recent batch) is to encourage war-mongering attitudes against potential enemies, due to perceived slights.  Such feelings are usually produced collectively, and subject to sharp triggers, following the revelation of knowledge or pseudo-knowledge.  Remember the Zimmermann telegram?

Here are comments from Douthat and Wilkinson.


It doesn't mean the disclosures do not have positive effects. It could work positively that Turkey will shift more to the West as their actions are revealed. They are under more scrutiny

Or, that China, if it is imposing a cost on the Middle Eastern states who now have to spend more on defense, will come under more pressure from other middle east oil suppliers to enforce sanction. They are under more scrutiny.

The one that worries me is North Korea: what do their leaders think is a possible end game, and, under what circumstances, are they willing to lose if they are going to lose anyway.

The amusing thing about the Zimmerman Telegram is that no one could believe it at first because it seemed so ridiculous. People thought it was a ploy by British intelligence (who waited for the right time to release it). Zimmerman made the mistake of confirming the document.

Diplomacy was not Prussia's strength in that era.

My optimistic medium-long term result of the leaks is that it will strengthen to public/private/secret divide. A lot of efficiency is lost by not having more accessible public data. Conversely, a lot of private and/or secret information falls into the wrong hands.

Historically, information requests and disbursements were handled personally... with the varying levels of discretion/indiscretion being tempered by the limited human bandwidth for transferring, reading and interpreting data by hand, and checked by human judgment at various levels. Digitization and computerization eliminates these historical limitations... Wikileaks should accelerate the decline of an outdated informational system that had undoubtedly already been producing both harmful leaks of true state secrets, and obstructing proper governance by hiding corrupt, unjust or ugly information that is nonetheless public domain.

(These comments are more of a reflection on the Douthat take.)

Having read what Obama's diplomats are telling him about Sarkozy, I look forward to someday finding out what Sarkozy's diplomats have discovered about Obama.

I immediately thought of the Timur Kuran post when I read about the WikiLeaks story, and kept checking back here wondering if you were going to post on the connection.

What struck me as most relevant, however, was Kuran's notion of availability cascades: that perceptions seem more plausible as they become more prominent in public discourse. It seems to me that many pieces of conventional wisdom became prominent as a result of availability cascades pushing them to the fore of discussion, rather than because more people rationally came to accept them. I'm wondering if CableGate will alter this process, or simply temporarily change the mix of perceptions about international politics that currently prevail.

It was a long time ago, but I spent two years in the middle east in the early 70s and at that time there was no love lost between the arab street and the iranian. None.


NYT, Guardian, Der Spiegel et al. are trying to piecemeal, hype "CableGate" to maximize readership with banners such as: "9/11 of diplomacy!" "shocking revelations of insight into the US State Department!" "the world will never be the same," "Diplomats collect intelligence on other diplomats!" "Medvedev is Putin's Robin according to the US"

It's a let down due to the lack of schadenfreude for the anti-US crowd. See the "changes" due to the leak of the "earthshattering" Iraq/AfPak information.

Due to the anti-climatic ending, the tin foil cap people are already claiming that the cables were planted to stir an Arab-Persian rift, a pretext for an Iranian strike, and cause tensions between China and NorKo.

I'm willing to bet that this is Wikileaks' last interesting dispatch since the US army informant is in prison.

Assagne will be a media darling to the "Open source" crowd. He will ride the speaker circuit giving talks on such deep topics as "transparency" and "casting light on the darkness" and nihilism for dummies.

It seems to me like a return to RealPolitik 101:

"The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets."

This thread reaffirms my previously held beliefs that Ross Douthat can be very smart and that Robert Gates can be very wise.

You are pulling stuff out of your bottom.

While I understand the interest in Wiki-leaks, I'm a bit perplexed by how sensational the organization seems to think the leaks are. Frankly, most of the information seems to have been pretty widely suspected, albeit short of conclusively known, to anyone with internet access.

The actual meat of what is revealed probably can't be used by the vast majority of citizens or even located by them, as it is now simply hidden in plain sight. I can't identify who agent "X" received information from, and will probably have a lot of difficulty burning any of the sources involved, unless I'm already in the know.

So, really, if most of us already knew the government was acting like this, or at least had a strong inclining, why would we behave differently once we knew for certain this had gone on?

I mean, really all Mr. Assage did was possibly burn a few sources, cause some trifling embarrassment, and put government spin machines into high gear.

While, I'd like to think the "openness" of the materials would do something, I think it more likely that it creates an event which people can use as cover and ammo to make moves that were already in the works.

The WikiLeaks story is very likely to have no real impact whatsoever, even in the relatively short term.

The world is awash with conspiracy theories, so the "truth", such as it may every truly be known, ends up being just one more. Truth, it is said, needs a bodyguard of lies.

There are two ways to hide, which are polar opposites: completely out of sight, or blending into a very large crowd. In between (conspicuously "blending" into a small group) is the worst place to be. For governments trying to hide the truth, that unfavorable "in-between" world was the 1960s and 1970s, when television news covering Vietnam and newspapers covering Watergate actually mattered.

But today, too much information is almost equivalent to too little information, and too many news sources is equivalent to too few. No one drinks too deeply from the firehose of infotainment; the average person just shrugs and goes back to watching "Dancing with the Stars". And governments are well aware of this.

Here's a conspiracy theory for you: WikiLeaks is actually an elaborate psy-ops initiative. For verisimilitude you include a whole batch of realistic information which is carefully chosen to be embarrassing but of no real long-term consequence, and then you salt in the few pieces of genuine information (or disinformation) that you wish to surgically insert into the public consciousness. It would be astonishing, for instance, if that list of Afghans collaborating with the US government didn't include a bunch of actually loyal Taliban supporters who are now viewed with great suspicion by their colleagues, if they are not actually deceased. Mission, as a banner once said, accomplished.

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