The New Fourth Branch: The Rise of the Hackers

Julian Assange, Founder of WikiLeaks

Walter Lippmann, an American writer and journalist, once said, “There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and to shame the devil.” In the United States, the newspapers and journalistic media have often been referred to as the “Fourth Branch” of government. The term refers to the idea that the press serves as another “check and balance” on the other branches by keeping citizens informed.

This is especially true in election years.

In any election cycle, there is extensive media coverage of the candidates, as journalists endeavor to dig up facts on the people seeking office and report them to the public. The light in which this media coverage portrays a given candidate can have an enormous, even decisive impact on their political fate. If candidates have skeletons in their closet that could influence the vote, the popular feeling is that America has a right to know.

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But, what happens when America doesn’t trust the media?

In January, Pew Research released results of a study that found that Millennials’ views of news media are very critical, with 27% saying that it has a positive impact, down from 40% in 2010.

In September, Gallup released poll results on the level of trust that Americans have in the media. According to the poll, only 32% of Americans said they have “a great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in Mass Media. The report notes that this number has fallen 8 points from last year.

This is in sharp contrast to a poll conducted by YouGov, that found 41% of Americans had a favorable opinion of WikiLeaks, while only 29% held unfavorable opinions.

Since its founding, WikiLeaks has been responsible for a number of high-profile revelations concerning the US war in Afghanistan, conditions for detainees in Guantanamo Bay, and most recently, candidates running for political office. Because most of WikiLeaks’ information is obtained illicitly, this last point has brought the impact of hacking on modern American elections and politics to the forefront of public attention.

WikiLeaks is a non-profit organization that was founded in 2006 by Julian Assange, an online activist from Australia. Only three people aside from Assange – Kristinn Hrafnsson, Joseph Farrell, and Sarah Harrison – are known to be affiliated with WikiLeaks. The rest of its network shrouded in secrecy. Assange himself currently resides in London, United Kingdom, but he is stranded – indefinitely – in the Embassy of Ecuador in the UK, with London police under orders to arrest him if he ever emerges onto English soil.

This year, WikiLeaks released a virtual treasure-trove of e-mails hacked from the server of the Democratic National Committee, as well as from Democratic primary front-runner and eventual nominee Hillary Clinton. The e-mails appeared to show a coordinated effort between DNC officials and the Clinton campaign to support Clinton in the primaries and undermine rival Bernie Sanders. This had an enormous, but unquantifiable impact, on the presidential race, as Republican nominee Donald Trump responded with a bid to win over Democratic Sanders supporters who felt their candidate had been slighted. DNC chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned her position in the aftermath of the e-mail leak. Meanwhile, e-mails revealed from Clinton’s private server during her term as Secretary of State made public information that painted an unflattering picture, such as details about speeches she had given to wealthy donors in which she spoke of having different political opinions for different – “public and private” – groups. Waiting until mere weeks before the election to put these e-mails out, WikiLeaks appears to have coordinated its effort for maximum political impact. The leaks are sometimes implicated as a major contributing factor to Clinton’s electoral loss, and the unprecedented victory of President-elect Donald Trump.

These leaks led to the government of Ecuador severing Assange’s internet access in their London embassy to prevent him from trying to “interfere in electoral processes.”

Somewhat alarmingly, and with admittedly limited evidence, the Russian government has been implicated in helping WikiLeaks to procure these 11th-hour e-mails, raising fears of a foreign government – with an obvious geopolitical interest in the outcome of an American election – decisively impacting an electoral result.

US intelligence agencies and US President Barack Obama seem to be convinced of Russia’s involvement, and of the authorization of the operations by Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, but have elaborated little on their reasoning. For his part, Donald Trump has dismissed allegations of decisive Russian influence on the election with a degree of impatience. The allegations are made all the more troubling for some by the fact that Trump has expressed admiration of Putin and is alleged to have personal and business connections in Russia.

In response, WikiLeaks tweeted, “Obama should submit any Putin documents to WikiLeaks to be authenticated to our standards if he wants them to be seen as credible.”

WikiLeaks, albeit through questionable means, has pulled together and released more relevant information on our government and officials in the last year (not to mention the last decade) than most news reporters will produce in a lifetime of reporting. Nothing is sacred, and while there may be alleged bias in what gets released and when it gets released, there is no disputing the validity of the actual information. The content released this year has already had a far-reaching geopolitical impact. The implications for the future of American (and international) politics are enormous.
There is a new “Fourth Branch,” and this branch doesn’t have traditional limitations like borders, human networks, and security clearances; the new Fourth Branch lives in cyberspace. It appears to have pure (if sometimes misguided) intentions, but what happens when the best intentions lead to catastrophe? What happens when the power of “checks and balances” can’t be checked or balanced? What if we find that groups like WikiLeaks truly can be bought or influenced by governments like Russia and China?The new Fourth Branch begs the question, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?“ Who will guard the guards themselves?