The Epistemic Impact of Leaking the Known

Important insight from Henry Farrell about the value of leaking things that people “already know.”

Finally, the most interesting consequence of Wikileaks is not that it has released much genuinely new information into the world (there are some consequential facts that were not widely known, but they are a relatively small part of the story). It is that it is redefining the boundary between facts that ‘everybody’ (for political elite values of ‘everybody’) knows but that are non-actionable in the public space, because they are not publicly confirmable, and facts that are both perceived as politically salient and confirmable, and hence are legitimate ‘news.’ Wikileaks means that many issues that are known are now also confirmably known, and confirmed as being known by the gatekeepers of public knowledge. I strongly suspect that this would not be true if Assange had not struck alliances with respected media organizations. The interesting action is precisely in the interaction between media organizations and organizations like Wikileaks, which are neither traditional sources nor media organizations themselves. This relationship is what will largely determine how the balance between ‘news’ and politically salient but non-actionable information shifts.

That seems about right. I wouldn’t say that I, or anyone else who really cares about the question, actually learned from WikiLeaks that Arab dictators represent themselves to Western officials as very hawkish on Iran. But thanks to WikiLeaks it crossed the line from being something “everyone says” to something people in the media can straight-up report. And Washington, as a company town, is filled to the brim with these kind of things that “everyone knows” but few people really know for sure and nobody wants to publish.

Hollywood is also like that. For all the celebrity gossip that’s published, there’s a remarkable quantity of stuff that “everyone knows” and is nonetheless held back because it’s not really verified or verifiable.