Whatever else you might say about WikiLeaks, it’s hard to think of an institution that squanders goodwill more efficiently. Even the people most sympathetic to its aims and ideals have had a hard time defending it recently. Just over the last couple of weeks, whoever ran its Twitter account posted tweets that are either anti-Semitic or deeply weird (the fact that WikiLeaks founder and head Julian Assange ranted about Jewish reporters to a British journalist in 2011 certainly makes it harder to view the posts in a charitable light). Then it was revealed that some of the Democratic National Committee documents it leaked last week — timed intentionally to do maximum damage to Hillary Clinton’s presidential chances, according to Assange — contained personal information, including credit card and Social Security numbers, of DNC donors.
In the past, WikiLeaks has tended to defend itself against (frequent) charges of recklessness, indiscretion, and negligence by citing an absolute commitment to free speech and transparency. But these defenses are increasingly less credible, as WikiLeaks seems unable (or unwilling) to rigorously process its leaks — or even fact-check its own claims. The recent fiasco of the “Erdogan emails” (which, as we’ll see, actually have very little to do with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in any meaningful sense) is a shocking demonstration.
Shortly after the attempted coup that rocked Turkey two weeks ago — in which a small subset of the Turkish military briefly and very unsuccessfully tried to seize power from President Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP — WikiLeaks started amping up the hype for an document dump. “Waiting for our new 100k+ doc release on the leadup to the #TurkeyCoup?” tweeted WikiLeaks on July 18. “Explore our past publications on #Erdogan https://search.WikiLeaks.org/?q=erdogan.” Then, later that day, “Coming Tuesday: The #ErdoganEmails: 300 thousand internal emails from Erdoğan’s AKP - through to July 7, 2016.”
As promised, the next day WikiLeaks published a page announcing the release of “part one of the AKP Emails.” “The material was obtained a week before the attempted coup,” the site explained. “However, WikiLeaks has moved forward its publication schedule in response to the government’s post-coup purges. We have verified the material and the source, who is not connected, in any way, to the elements behind the attempted coup, or to a rival political party or state.” In response, Turkey swiftly blocked access to wikileaks.org, which some took as proof that the leak’s contents were legit. “How to authenticate a leak,” tweeted Edward Snowden, linking to a Reuters article headlined “Turkey blocks access to WikiLeaks after ruling party email dump.” WikiLeaks offered the same interpretation of the government’s actions, tweeting, “Erdogan government officially orders WikiLeaks to be blocked after publishing 300k emails from his party, AKP.”
For people who don’t read Turkish, it was easy to leave it at that and take WikiLeaks’ claims at face value: The site had published a huge trove of emails from Turkey’s ruling party, and Turkey had then blocked WikiLeaks to prevent people from viewing this newly aired dirty laundry.
This wasn’t quite the case, however. Zeynep Tufekci, a Turkish sociologist with a focus on technology and censorship who is based at the University of North Carolina, was initially stranded in Turkey because of the coup, so, for the first day or so after the documents were posted, she didn’t have much time to look into them. But soon she noticed that her fellow Turkish and Turkey-focused activists and researchers were tweeting that the WikiLeaks emails weren’t actually from the AKP or the government at all — and, worse, they contained private citizens’ personal information.
When she checked into what journalists in Turkey were saying about the leak on Twitter, and looked into the emails herself, she found that indeed, WikiLeaks hadn’t actually released a trove of government emails. Rather, it had released what appears to be big chunks of archives from various far-from-top-secret online discussion groups. One such Google Group, called “All Together for Turkey” (Turkiyeemail@example.com), has 77,000 members and is dedicated to general political discussion, she said. Elsewhere in the document dumps are thousands of mentions of other, similar-sounding Google and Yahoo groups — there are many emails containing the address eTurkiyeyizBiz@googlegroups.com, for example, which Tufekci said translates roughly to “We are Turkey,” and which looks like a forum dedicated to sharing news stories. Overall, Tufekci said, she and other activists have now been poring over the archives for a week and there’s no sign anyone has found emails that weren’t taken from online discussion groups (though she was quick to add that she “can’t rule out” there are more meaningful emails buried somewhere in the huge stash).
As with the archives of any big, sprawling discussion groups, the emails contain “lots of nonsense,” Tufekci said — jokes and conspiracy theories and recipes and so on. But whatever is in there, “It’s so clearly not government emails,” she said. “As soon as you start looking, you can tell, absolutely.” Tufekci pointed out that just a tiny fraction of the emails contain an AKP address, “akparti.org.tr,” in the “From” field — she sent me a link to a search that revealed 683 such emails, a minuscule slice of the total stash of about 300,000. In some of these cases, she told me, people had simply posted to the discussion groups email responses they had gotten from AKP officials they were bugging about a job opening or whatever else. (When you put “akparti.org.tr” in both the “From” and “To” fields, the number dwindles yet further, to 275, with many of the results clearly spammy, even to a non-Turkish-speaker.) Once word of this spread among Turkish scholars and activists, some anti-censorship activists — the sorts of people who would have been excitedly lapping up a genuine link of AKP emails — began publicly expressing disgust at the document dump, which had no meaningful connection to the Erdogan or his ruling party.
After misleading people into believing it had leaked a giant cache of sensitive Turkish government emails, WikiLeaks dug itself deeper: “Here’s the full data for our Turkey AKP emails + more,” the organization tweeted on July 21, linking to a since-deleted page. That page hosted multiple databases containing Turkish citizens’ personal information. One included about 10 million rank-and-file AKP members, Tufekci said. Even more shocking, another contained what appears to be information for every female voter in 79 of Turkey’s 81 provinces — more than 20 million entries’ worth of addresses and cell-phone numbers. (Women who were AKP members appeared to have more information associated with them listed, Tufekci said.)
Disturbed by all of this, Tufekci took to Huffington Post to report her findings on Monday, highlighting both the misleading nature of WikiLeaks’ “Erdogan emails” claim and the mass doxing to which it had contributed: “According to the collective searching capacity of long-term activists and journalists in Turkey, none of the ‘Erdogan emails’ appear to be emails actually from Erdogan or his inner circle,” she wrote. “Nobody seems to be able to find a smoking gun exposing people in positions of power and responsibility.” She pointed out that the mass doxing of women was particularly harmful in light of the fact that “every year in Turkey, hundreds of women are murdered, most often by current or ex-husbands or boyfriends, and thousands of women leave their homes or go into hiding, seeking safety.”
WikiLeaks responded to Tufekci’s criticisms in a rather WikiLeaks-ian fashion: by accusing her, among other things, of shilling for a despot.
Tufekci found the claim that she was “running flak for Erdogan” particularly amusing given her reputation as an anti-censorship, pro-human-rights voice on Turkey, and that it fit what appears to be the organization’s overall aversion to fact-checking. “Apparently they can’t even Google,” she told me. “My New York Times article about censorship in Turkey is a week old.” (In that column, she writes that “Press and internet freedoms have taken an especially drastic turn” under Erdogan in recent years.) “I’m gonna print [that tweet] and put it on my wall the next time I’m in Turkey,” she said.
Mostly, WikiLeaks’ complaints about Tufekci hinged on a technicality: In her article and her tweeting, she initially used the term “dump” to describe WikiLeaks’ actions, referring to both the emails the site hosted and the databases it linked to on its social accounts. WikiLeaks has latched onto the fact that while it hosted the (not actually) “Erdogan emails,” it merely linked to the doxing databases, providing easy access to them to millions of people. (Tufekci said her vague wording was intentional — she didn’t want to make it too easy for her followers to find the databases.) The site tweeted out “WikiLeaks did not publish the databases in question at any time. Please correct” to Tufekci and various other various people. WikiLeaks blocked Tufekci on Twitter, she said, after she started tweeting into the organization’s feed tweets from anti-censorship activists who were openly wishing the dump had never happened.
As bad as WikiLeaks’ mistakes were, they were only compounded by the respected outlets that uncritically echoed the organization’s claims — or, worse, unwittingly distorted the emails’ contents with context-free selections. Take this tweet from Lee Fang, an accomplished, respected investigative journalist:
As Tufekci noted at the Huffington Post, “Even a cursory Google search of a phrase from that particular email would have revealed that it was actually a copied-and-pasted 2014 news article speculating about a Turkish businessman visiting the U.S.” I’m not singling out Fang, an acquaintance, as a particularly bad actor, either: The Christian Science Monitor fell for WikiLeaks’ claims in a particularly amusing manner.
This kind of misreporting was widespread. Parroting WikiLeaks’ claim, the Christian Science Monitor reported that 1,400 of the emails were allegedly related to Fethullah Gulen, a cleric who leads a secretive global network and who the government blames for the coup. This batch of 1,400 emails was actually merely a keyword search for the phrase “Gulen,” which also means “smiles” or “smiling” in Turkey, so ads for vacations by the Mediterranean (“Çeşme’s smiling face!”) were included in these allegedly incriminating “1,400 emails” along with pasted public news articles mentioning the name of the embattled cleric.
This sort of thing happened over and over as the rumors swirled out across Twitter, with journalists, cranks, conspiracy theorists, and other people who don’t read Turkish holding up utterly pedestrian content from online discussion forums as proof of … something. Tufekci compared the English-language response to a hypothetical foreign group gaining access to an archive of MetaFilter threads, publishing them online, and a sleuth — non-English-speaking — then plucking out a few that contained a 9/11 truther’s pasted emails to the government and presenting them as new evidence about the attacks’ true perpetrators.
Ultimately, Tufekci said, WikiLeaks’ apparent recklessness won’t just impact the individuals who have been doxed. The leaks could also directly benefit Turkey’s pro-censorship forces in their long-term goal to gain a tighter control over the information flow in and into the country. Especially relative to other Western, developed countries, Turkey has an abysmal reputation and record when it comes to press freedom and censorship, and in this case the censors can point to WikiLeaks and its philosophy of radical, heedless transparency doing very real harm to Turks — and it’s hard for the Zeynep Tufekcis of the world to argue with them.
If there is a bright side, it’s only that the cache of documents provided a prompt for gallows humor on Turkish Twitter during a stressful, uncertain time: For example, one of the “leaked” emails was a recipe for the tasty Turkish treat semolina halva, so Tufekci said that “Turkish Twitter took to debating whether the recipe that WikiLeaks exposed had too much sugar.”
WikiLeaks didn’t respond to a Twitter request for comment, and an email to the organization’s press address bounced back with a “delayed delivery” note (I’ll update this story if WikiLeaks does eventually comment). It’s impossible not to wonder what the hell happened here: WikiLeaks clearly thought it had on its hands a giant trove of AKP emails. Who told them that? Why? And what was the thinking behind spreading the links to the doxing documents? Did WikiLeaks even know what it was linking to and have a sense of why it was doing so? Whatever the motives of the people who leaked all of this material to WikiLeaks, this is a striking example of what can happen when a powerful and unaccountable organization operates with impulsivity and little due diligence.
The weirdest, most Orwellian aspect of all this, of course, is that there are a lot of people — maybe millions, given the size of WikiLeaks’ social-media footprint — who continue to think WikiLeaks graced the world with a trove of documents connected to Erdogan and his AKP inner circle. This belief has been reinforced by endlessly overhyped and undercooked reporting and social-media activity, with the net result being that WikiLeaks has been able to present itself — as always — as a brave force for transparency and democracy. It appears that hardly any of the people who think WikiLeaks has exposed malfeasance on the part of the Turkish government know that what it has actually exposed is millions of Turkish people’s private information, for no reason it has yet been willing to explain. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, WikiLeaks has not deigned to clarify the actual contents of the “Erdogan emails,” nor explain the pro-democratic, anti-authoritarian benefits of helping to dox tens of millions of people. But at least the site’s fans have access to a new dessert recipe.