White House

Julian Assange Joins Trump's War on CNN

The advocate for accountability at all costs is suddenly concerned with privacy.

Convenient timing for Assange to care about privacy.

Photographer: Jack Taylor

Julian Assange has had it with CNN. Since July 4, the founder of WikiLeaks has tweeted 14 times in support of Donald Trump's latest battle with the media: Gif-Gate.

Like many controversies in Washington these days, this one involves a tweet. Last week Trump tweeted a gif that portrayed him putting fake wrestling moves on a body with the CNN logo for its head.

Assange's interest in this is all about CNN's response. On July 5, the network's master internet sleuth, Andrew Kaczynski, tracked down the Reddit user who came up with the Trump-CNN wrestling video. But because the maker apologized on the forum, CNN decided not to name him. That said, "CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change."

That last sentence has inspired some pearl clutching among Trump's supporters. The alt-right has accused CNN of blackmailing some poor Reddit user who just likes trolling the media.

Now it should go without saying that this is a very thin reed. According to CNN, the Reddit user voluntarily apologized for the gif and other memes that were racist and anti-Semitic. Also, CNN never threatened to disclose reams of private information on the Reddit user, just his name. But such is the nature of these social media kerfuffles in the age of Trump. Both sides try to maximize grievance. CNN accuses the president of inciting violence. Trump's supporters accuse CNN of mafia tactics.   

What's interesting here is how Assange responded. "When Trump goes low CNN goes lower: threatens to dox artist behind ‘CNN head’ video if he makes fun of them again," he tweeted, referring to the online tactic of posting someone's personal details on the web. For two days, Assange continued along these lines, speculating that CNN may have even violated the law in "censoring" this "artist."

Doxxing, as it's known, usually applies to an online persona who wishes to remain anonymous. But the concept is closely related to the kind of thing Assange himself has been doing since he founded WikiLeaks, publishing the private communications of public figures.

Methinks the WikiLeaker doth protest too much. After all, Assange's organization posted the personal emails of John Podesta, Neera Tanden and other Democrats. And while some of those emails had legitimate news value, most of them didn't. Did the public really have a right to know Podesta's risotto recipe?

The hacked emails WikiLeaks disclosed last year are different from the State Department cables provided to the organization by Chelsea Manning. While some of those cables endangered U.S. government sources in dangerous places, government documents in our republic belong to the people. The same cannot be said for the personal emails of Democratic operatives, who are exercising their right to political participation.

Assange is hardly alone as a participant in this new threat to online privacy. I wrote articles based on the hacked emails WikiLeaks published, as have many other journalists. Anonymous, the online hacker group, has doxxed people before as well. But Assange, as an advocate for radical transparency, has done much to usher in this new era.

And this new era should trouble us. In the 20th century, the state was the greatest threat to the individual's privacy. But in the internet era, where so much of our lives is online, this threat has democratized. Individuals today pose a threat to privacy in a way we used to think was the sole province of the NSA and FBI. At any moment, an email, text or browsing history could be hacked and posted on the web for all to see. In an instant, our private lives can become public.

More recently, foreign governments have become threats to our privacy. Four U.S. intelligence agencies assess that Russia orchestrated a campaign to advantage Trump in the election through hacking and leaking the emails of leading Democrats. The Russians used this tactic in 2014 in combination with their special forces, when RT, the Kremlin-funded network, would post audio recordings of U.S. diplomats.

We are already starting to see imitators. Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon lost his job because emails and texts were leaked to the Associated Press that made it appear that he sought a business relationship with one of his sources. Solomon has said he never entered into such a relationship. On the eve of the Gulf crisis over Qatar, the Emirati ambassador to Washington had his Hotmail account hacked and his emails posted on the web.

None of this is to say that there is not news value to some of these disclosures. It's always a balance. The problem is that people like Assange never cared about this balance until now. For years he believed the public's right to know outweighed the privacy rights of his victims. Today he argues the privacy of an online troll outweighs the public's right to know who exactly is making the memes the president tweets in his war against CNN.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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