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WikiLeaks Dump Method: Sociologist Says Not All Leaked Passes Public Interest Test


Are the latest revelations from WikiLeaks a welcome window on secrets that powerful public officials are trying to keep secret or a violation of the privacy of regular citizens? Zeynep Tufekci, one of this country's ranking experts on information technology and its implications, believes that question is called for after WikiLeaks has released 20,000 pages hacked from Hillary Clinton's campaign.

Professor Tufekci joins us now from the studios of WUNC in Chapel Hill, where she's an adjunct professor at the Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina. Thanks very much for being with us.

ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: Thank you for inviting me.

SIMON: What's your objection?

TUFEKCI: I have many objections. I do want to say, I think whistleblowing is a very important function in democracy. The problem I'm seeing increasingly is that instead of careful curated whistleblowing that takes public interest into account, what we are seeing is these mass-hacked emails just being dumped without any consideration for the privacy of the people.

And there's a lot of personal information that is being exposed. What this does - and this is what scares me - is that this method is going to be used in the future to any political organization - dissident organizations - that are trying to challenge power. And what they're going to end up seeing is that their personal information is going to be dumped for the world.

It looks like the method that started as a way to bring more challenge to secretive elites is actually now evolving into a method that is going to be very destructive to the ecology of dissent.

SIMON: Professor, I'm sure write dumb emails every day. But I was told a number of years ago by a lawyer - and I'll bet Hillary Clinton and Huma Abedin have been told this by high-price lawyers, too - you never write an email that you wouldn't be willing to see on the front page of The New York Times.

TUFEKCI: That, as a warning, strikes me a little bit like you shouldn't wear miniskirts if you don't want to be sexually assaulted, to be honest. It might not be - it might be something you take into account. But it doesn't mean that if the hacking does occur, that it's all fair game.

SIMON: But to get back to this specific trove of information, when it reveals that a candidate for president might have said one thing in front of corporate boards about things like the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and another thing on the campaign trail, don't the American people have a right to know that?

TUFEKCI: So things like Hillary Clinton's speeches - the Goldman Sachs speeches - I think those do pass the public interest test. Even given the importance of those few newsworthy items, if you ask me, is the dumping of this much private information and this much internal conversation - the damage this does to our political system - is it worth a few news items if I had a binary choice - all of it or none of it?

I would say we haven't gained that much. But the ideal wouldn't be that binary choice. The ideal would be that such leaks and hacks would go to responsible journalists who would go through this and would identify what is actually in the public interest.

SIMON: But these - this day and age - wouldn't people say the news organization is concealing information - that they want the chance to look at the original documents and decide for themselves?

TUFEKCI: I think, in this day and age, we really need to figure out when to hold back. In the past, news was driven by scarcity. There wasn't enough news. And you sent around journalists. And you said, let's find out what's going on.

Right now, there is too much information. In the 21st century, censorship doesn't work by withholding information. Censorship now works by flooding with information, by causing distraction, by causing confusion, by creating doubts and just this question mark and shadow so that you really can't figure out what's going on.

And to me, this is almost like the opposite of whistleblowing. This is whistle-drowning in confusion and distraction.

SIMON: Zeynep Tufekci is an associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science at UNC and a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. Thanks very much for being with us.

TUFEKCI: Thank you for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.