Cablegate: Lessons on tech for transparency

Cablegate is everywhere. You can read about it in virtually any digital or print newspaper around the world; you can see it through the links shared on social media sites; you can follow the tag #cablegate on Twitter; you can browse dozens of blogs; you can hear about it on the radio. Wikileaks’ release of over 250,000 United States embassy cables is one of the hottest subjects in media and government right now: technology reduced the gap between citizens and complex government information, and people are actively discussing the release throughout the world.

As Geert Lovink and Patrice Riemens point out in their article “Ten Theses about Wikileaks,” the organization's release of sensitive government information used technology to capture the attention of millions:

Wikileaks manages to capture that attention by way of spectacular information hacks where other parties, especially civil society groups and human rights organizations, are desperately struggling to get their message across. Wikileaks genially puts to use the ‘escape velocity’ of IT — using IT to leave IT behind and irrupt into the realm of real-world politics.

But which tools are they using to capture and keep the attention of people and media, and ultimately change the government opaqueness they fight? More importantly, how can citizens collaborate in this innovative, real-time, diplomacy-focused call for accountability?

Traditional media partners

Wikileaks gave five major media outlets — the The Guardian, Le Monde [fr], El País, Der Spiegel, and New York Times — preliminary access to the cables. By combining a digital release with publication by traditional media, Wikileaks — and other online transparency organizations — are able to reach a broader audience and spread information in different formats and vehicles. Wikileaks’ constant updates on Twitter even made it to the U.S. Department of State press conference and several international media organizations who made references to them.

Visualization tools

The majority of Wikileaks’ media partners and the Cablegate site are using easy-to-understand graphics to communicate the data in a more comprehensive way. Information Aesthetics has a roundup of the different visualization techniques. Fast Company has taken a slightly different approach, constructing a Wordle based on the cables.

Cablegate Wordle

Cablegate Wordle, via Fast Company


Cablegate created a way where any user anywhere around the world can easily browse and locate any cable of interest for them and draw their own conclusions. Wikileaks is inviting users to search for events that happened in their own countries. They can, for example, check key dates of relevant events to see if they can find any references in any cable, then share their analyses and findings using Web 2.0 tools. This is essentially crowdsourced accountability by anyone, anywhere in the world. Other organizations are taking advantage of this, encouraging citizens to “get their hands dirty” and dig through the cables for relevant information: the National Security Archive blog “Unredacted” published a guide on how to read Department of State documents and a list of commonly used acronyms in the cables.

Wikileaks is encouraging citizens to share their findings:

Pick out interesting events and tell others about them. Use twitter, reddit, mail whatever suits your audience best. For twitter or other social networking services please use the #cablegate or unique reference ID (e.g. #66BUENOSAIRES2481) as hash tags.

Perhaps we are witnessing a change of era, where the voices of citizens will replace the whispering of secrets behind close doors and foreign relations will switch to a more open diplomacy. Perhaps not. Regardless, after this release the world will have a new model to follow.


  • jordan

    Renata Avila: Perhaps we are witnessing a change of era,where the voices of citizens will replace the whispering of secrets behind close doors and foreign relations will switch to a more open diplomacy.

    Jordan: The assumptions about diplomacy informing this post misunderstand what diplomacy is and should be. There is a disconnect here that is so obvious to those who know how things get done.

    Don’t exaggerate! Diplomacy is not orchestrated by the CIA and it is not about dark forces – this is iron-curtain Cold War mentality thinking. It is surprising that there is such a level of naivete about what Cablegate does show us about diplomacy.

    The secret is that there are no secrets, diplomacy is very much public and what goes on in private as we can now see does not contradict that fundamental point – it overwhelmingly confirms it.

    Recently, some GVers appear to be nothing but wannabe whistle-blowers — but in this case I am afraid it is just whistling in the wind.

  • The secret is that there are no secrets, diplomacy is very much public and what goes on in private as we can now see does not contradict that fundamental point – it overwhelmingly confirms it. Yes!

  • Renata

    We’ve been looking at the climate change aspects at Th!nk4: Climate Change – Climate Cablegate: Lowering Expectations at Copenhagen

    Unfortunately the links to the documents are currently blocked, as is the WikiLeaks website in Australia.

  • gj

    first we shared music, now we share top info, later we want to decide / vote :E government . Is E world better ? You can’t avoid. can’t shutdown whole 250 k cables in pieces are 16.384 bit blowfish coded in movie torrents. WL just can post unlimited links. Can the free world survive transparency ? Can china ?

  • Patrick Kamotho

    Tom morrow 7th-December.Thousands of Muthurwa residents are attending a constitutional court case on Right to Housing.A case that was instituted by among other Professor Yash Pal Ghai.
    A similarity case was presented to South Africa after the apartheid era,and South African citizens benefited from its deliberations on Right to Housing,after high court we plan to petition the Kenya Parliament on the same date.
    Patrick Kamotho.
    0723 033 334

  • sorry, renata, but i disagree with your perspective here; by resorting to such IT-based high dramatization and by partnering with major media outlets, WL actually embraced a typical top-down approach, an elitist (cyber)strategy aimed only at discrediting big power centers such US and western governments, diplomats, media, etc.; the cablegate affair did not employ transparent, open-to-all methods nor directly involved common citizens in producing and sharing their own information;

    on the contrary, it was a carefully planned operation managed by a tiny circle of the infamous cyber-elite attempting to “teach” the rest of us how to (supposedly) use current IT tools to support their own personal fight against conspiration theories, (alleged) military secrets, big powers, etc. — we, common people, were left with just one choice, to side with WL, the good guy, or all the others, the enemy….

    even those visualization & crowdsourcing tools you mention here in reality are supposed to “work” only within the context of that information “disclosed” by WL, therefore restricted to a specific logic and to a narrow pool, no matter how huge where the cablegates — something very different from the open and participatory model we use within GV, for example, where people with different background and cultures get together (literally and virtually) to provide bottom-up information and resources, to find collaborative ways to expose censorship, repression, problems, but also personal feelings, stories and so on;

    i firmly believe this strategy is the opposite of a “new model to follow”, but rather the old-fashioned hacker elite trying to steal common ground and strength (not to mention major media attention) from ordinary people struggling every day to positively change their life (and the world)…

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