The Fifth Estate: How Much Information Is Too Much?

Two weeks ago, movie goers everywhere warily made their way to their local cinema to view the latest drama to grace the big screen, a true-to-life thriller and Wikileaks exposé titled The Fifth Estate. Less than 12 hours after the premier, reviews were pouring in, posted on the internet, circulated via social media, filed noisily onto private blogs and chattered about around the water cooler. “Notable performances” by British actor Benedict Cumberbatch (whose Australian drawl and egotistical mannerisms were absurdly believable) as Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, heart-thumping sequences of high-tech mayhem, exquisite cinematography, these were all up for discussion. Yet the most direct, and arguably most important topic sparked into conversation as a result of the film was the dire reality of our current social situation: in today’s technology driven world, how much information is too much?

Anyone aware of the present state of affairs in the U.S. government (and around the world) knows the history. That Wikileaks began in 2006 as a site for whistle-blowers to dump confidential materials and top-secret information packs, horrible truths and universal injustices that were not being covered by the media. That Julian Assange, an Australian native, and his colleagues Kristinn Hrafnsson, Joseph Farrell, and Sarah Harrison, ripped up centuries of following the rule-book to lead an internet-wide revolution on common apathetic mentality. That things got out of hand and spiraled downward quickly in a hailstorm of dropped names, classified informants and overbearing bureaucracy. That punches were thrown and threats were levied. Still— how much did the public really know?

What we knew was this: that after the blow of the Afghan War Diary and Collateral Murder (a video depicting a Baghdad air assault and the deaths of multiple Iraqi journalists by an Apache helicopter) in 2010, worldwide governing bodies were in uproar. To make matters worse, later that year Wikileaks additionally posted nearly 400,000 documents citing the deaths of roughly 81,000 Iraqi civilians, bringing the full body count to over 150,000. The documents became known as the “Iraq War Logs” and the incident has widely been acknowledged as the largest military leak in the history of the United States.

In late 2010, Assange and his associates began posting gigabyte after gigabyte of submitted materials highlighting international diplomatic cables; thousands of emails from state department employee to fellow state department employee were up for grabs, including especially embarrassing exchanges regarding foreign diplomats, as highlighted in the film. In one cringe-worthy scene, State Department official Sarah Shaw (portrayed by Laura Linney) exasperatedly buries her head in mountains of documents and proclaims,

But how far did it go? How many names of innocent informants, men and women with children and homes and livelihoods, were exposed as a result of the leaks? We can safely assume that the Tunisian uprising and unseating of longtime blood-stained President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Syrian campaigns and dozens of other citizen insurrections have been attributed partly to Wikileaks publications, but a larger part of the Middle East now hovers on the edge of self-destruction. Families around the world wait with baited breath each day for news that their loved one has made it back to base or to their home safe from harm. Military and Intelligence officials quietly cross their fingers and hope that operations run smoothly and that mission objectives remain intact. From time to time, the public hears of another dozen casualties in Damascus, a freedom-fighter shot in the street, another name leaked and a U.S. operative silently taken hostage. We wonder how much good can come of our exposing the details of someone else’s life.

The question we ask ourselves each day must be this: How far do we go? How deep do we dig? What things do we bury away or leave untouched? Should we, the public, have open access to the information cables clogged with constantly streaming incident reports, counterinsurgency details or the latest nasty comments about the president of some estranged country?

Or do we deserve to know these things? To know of the hundreds of deaths due to unwieldy operational challenges that go overlooked or the horrific scenes playing out in small villages around the world at the hands of “friendly” or “celebratory” fire? Have we earned the right to uncover the injustices of our fellow human beings in the furthest reaches of the globe and, in so doing, make reparations in our own fashion? Do we push even harder?

In short, if it is at all plausible… how much information is too much?

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