The recent Wikileaks / US cables saga, and the previous Iraq leaks saga, illustrate very neatly the problems ahead as we struggle to come to terms with the social media revolution. We are in a place where the world is changing, but we have yet to develop the rules and processes we need to adapt to this new world.
This new world is the world of greater transparency, where almost everything must be considered to exist in the public domain. Like it or not, this world is not going to go away; it follows inevitably from the fact that information cannot now be locked up and contained within institutionalised channels. The ability to publish information is now, as Clay Shirky says, “global, social, ubiquitous and cheap”.
At the heart of the issue is the shift in the nature of trust. In the old world, trust was institutionalised but in the new world it is vested within process. In the old world governments could advance the case that it was only necessary to trust the institution of government (and the various laws, codes, practices associated with this) and this then gave social permission for governments to hide what goes on behind the scenes. The problem with this institutionalised model is that any individual instance where government is found to have breached the rules and shown itself to be unworthy of trust, the whole edifice is in danger of collapse because we have to assume (in the absence of an investigation of process) that the single instance is typical of the whole. It is no coincidence that much of the focus of Wikileaks, which is essentially all about exposure of process, is on Iraq and Afghanistan – two areas where governments have been exposed as having been manipulative and deceitful. Wikileaks has become the process police, essentially saying “we can’t trust you anymore, therefore we need to see everything that has been going on”.
Process based trust works in a different way. It is based around having all the information available and supplied in a continual stream with a process in place that sifts, assesses and gives context to all of it. This process is provided by ‘the crowd’ with everyone doing their little bit, in the way in which Wikipedia operates. This is where Wikileaks has gone wrong. The way in which it has released the information does not respect the necessary processes of process driven trust. Instead they have adopted the old institutionalised model that is designed to create the maximum splash and noise in the belief that this is what is necessary to effect change. Its’ biggest failing in this respect has been in its use of traditional media ‘partners’ that it says are on board to provide the necessary context and interpretation. However, the traditional media partners operate to the old mass communication rules. They are not providing context, they are providing sensation. They are packaging up the information into a series of fireworks which they then launch across their front pages – simply because this is the way they operate and they don’t know how (or have the ability) to behave differently. They can’t deal with this information in the way in which this information needs to be dealt.
The real role for Wikileaks and all other forms of crowd-based information processors is simply To Be not To Splash. These processes need to sit in the background, constantly churning through the minutiae of detail, exposing, amending, checking, in a totally transparent – and therefore trustworthy – way the whole business of government. The simple existence of this process will be what drives real change and creates the social benefit. It is not a ‘Shock Horror’ thing, it is an audit thing – and auditors are not there to expose malfeasance, the process of the audit is there to stop malfeasance in the first place.
When such processes are in place, people that feel they have information that needs to be exposed can submit their contribution to ‘the crowd’ and if it is deemed to be important it will be adopted and if not sufficiently credible, it will drop out of sight. This is how process based trust works and it is not about creating splashes and sensations.
However, we are not there yet and in all probability are some years off, having established effective process based trust models. But in the meantime there are some important steps which can be taken. For a start, Wikileaks and its ilk need to wean themselves off an attachment to the traditional media and sensational news splashes. They need to recognise that they are about managing a process, they are not about being a news institution. At the same time, governments need to shift away from a denial of what is happening and a position that states that reality needs to change to fit the rules, and recognise instead that the rules need to change to fit the new reality.