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The Fifth Estate

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Bill Condon’s “anti-WikiLeaks” film, “The Fifth Estate,” is a long-anticipated movie based on accounts by WikiLeaks insider Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Even prior to its showing, controversies over the film abound.

Julian Assange himself gave the film an unintended publicity push by writing pre-production letters urging Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays Assange in the film) not to take part in what he calls “a reactionary snoozefest that only the U.S. government would love.” Doing what it does best (i.e., spilling the beans), WikiLeaks leaked the movie screenplay online and dubbed it “a work of fiction masquerading as fact.”

Given the online buzz, the film was expected to do decently well at the box-office. After all, this is a biopic of one of the most controversial figures of the 21st century. If it couldn’t win over the guys in Reddit chat rooms, it would at least have the support of more than 60,000 ‘Cumberbitches’ (his die-hard fans) who would pay to see Cumberbatch play the silver-haired, digital anarchist that is Assange.

Alas, the $30 million dollar production raked in a paltry $1.7 million in the U.S. box office, the worst opening weekend yet for any 2013 film release. It appears that Internet fame simply did not translate into real-world popularity.

The same, I think, can be said about WikiLeaks itself: just as Internet fandom doesn’t necessarily reap box office earnings, Internet leaks don’t always translate into real world political change.

The Internet, it must be said, has made information freer than it has ever been, enabling access and dissemination of a large scale. Whereas in the past exposés involved physically smuggling classified documents, today it is only a matter of dragging, dropping and clicking “Send.”

Seeing that technology has sounded the death knell for old-fashioned secrecy and ushered in a new age of radical transparency, Julian Assange took it upon himself to liberate secrets from the guarded wardrobes of the state. WikiLeaks, in his view, was performing a public service through the revelation of truths that the powerful seek to conceal.

The logic behind WikiLeaks is a simple one: give people information, and they will change the world. It is assumed that collecting and disseminating damning “state secrets” can easily upend structures that legitimize power.

“If we could find one moral man, one whistle-blower, someone willing to expose those secrets,” the on-screen Assange says with a gravity befitting a revolutionary at the cusp of change, “that man can topple the most powerful and most repressive of regimes.”

But, as it turns out, expecting political change to follow naturally from giving people access might be as a naive as banking on Cumberbitches to move the film up the box office charts.

Truth be told, the disclosures of classified cables was a massive public relations disaster that caused the State Department much embarrassment. But the damages have been limited, and they have not produced significant changes in policy and politics.

Even the most controversial footage, like the infamous Collateral Murder“, which brought home the brutality of U.S.’s military actions in Afghanistan, has inspired surprisingly little reaction against U.S. military engagements abroad. For all its disclosures, a politically apathetic public greeted WikiLeaks.

Worse yet, instead of gaining broad support from the masses, American public opinion has turned its back on WikiLeaks. According to a CNN poll, 77 percent of Americans disapproved of WikiLeaks’ release of U.S. diplomatic and military documents, believing that the disclosures damaged U.S foreign relations.

Public sentiment continues to err on the side of caution: Seventy-five percent believe that there are “some things the public does not have a right to know if it might affect national security”. Despite having taken the media by storm, WikiLeaks has had limited effects on public opinion.

Neither has there been any sign of a popular movement or youth rebellion against the gross power imbalance between state and citizens — not even after Edward Snowden’s leaks on Big Brother in the U.S. One would have expected Snowden’s PRISM and X-KEYSCORE exposés would make Americans more concerned about privacy, but that doesn’t seem to have happened.

The majority of Americans still have few qualms about the NSA spying on them. The most recent poll by Pew Research reveals that 56 percent of Americans choose security over privacy, a proportion that has surprisingly increased from the 2006 level of 51 percent.

Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance programs have done little to alter public views about the tradeoff between security and liberty, or public safety and personal privacy. This past summer, the US House of Representatives took an amendment to vote, which, if passed, would have ended the NSA’s mass collection of phone records. The amendment was defeated.

Like Cumberbatch’s melodramatic portrayal of Assange in “The Fifth Estate,” whistle-blowers like WikiLeaks and Snowden might have provided more drama than real political change. This is not to say that their exposés amounted to little. They have gone some way to promoting better political accountability around the world, reminding us that we cannot rely on anybody – not even the government – to tell us the truth.

But exposing secrets can only go so far. Real change takes more than freedom of information: information alone does not speak for itself, nor is it an agent of change — it is constrained by people’s willingness and ability to make sense of it, and more importantly, to act upon it online and off.

There should be no delusion that laptop-hogging hackers can change the world with the mere blow of a whistle. What comes after the sounding of the whistle will determine if the community of activists on the Internet deserves to be called “The Fifth Estate.” Cumberbitches didn’t save the movie from its box-office flop, and it is unlikely WikiLeaks can change the world — not in the way Assange imagined it will, and certainly not on its own.

Contact Chi Ling Chan at chiling ‘at’ stanford.edu

Chi Ling, Chan ('15) is a junior majoring in Political Science and Symbolic Systems. On campus, she presently runs The Stanford Roundtable where she facilitates conversations on science, technology, society and more broadly, the human condition. In her free time, she writes. Chi Ling can be contacted at chiling@stanford.edu.