What do we tell our students about WikiLeaks?

WikiLeaks' impact on foreign policy is considerable, even as we struggle to fully understand the magnitude of their latest disclosures. However, for our students, the questions of ethics and digital citizenship will need to be addressed right now.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

Depending on who you ask, WikiLeaks is either the best thing to happen to journalism and the First Amendment since Woodward and Bernstein or a terrorist organization bent on starting World War III. Well, OK, we all know that WWIII isn't terribly likely, but there are some particularly strong feelings about WikiLeaks and their latest round of disclosures no matter where you go in the world.

So what does this mean to the students who we are teaching to be good digital citizens, critical thinkers, and sharp consumers of information? What does it mean for the students who have finally realized that they shouldn't post videos of that monster bong hit on YouTube when an organization posts documents that could arguably have major impacts on US foreign relations and military operations? And what does it mean when it takes an organization like WikiLeaks to force some transparency in our government?

So many teachers don't let their students use Wikipedia or even Google for in-class research. All too often, we send the message that the Internet is unreliable and filled with garbage when a savvy student can unlock incredible amounts of information online. Where does the information posted by WikiLeaks fall? Official government reactions certainly suggest a pretty high degree of credibility. Launching criminal probes and calling WikiLeaks a terrorist organization does not make the American public think that the thousands of documents they've posted are anything but real.

Is WikiLeaks then, a credible news source? Perhaps more importantly, how credible is our government in what it chooses to share around our military and foreign policy efforts?

As ZDNet's David Gewirtz points out,

Wikileaks hasn’t redacted the information about confidential informants, and it’s likely that these informants — in large numbers — will be executed by their factions over the coming weeks and months. That’s bad enough. But...here is where the Wikileaks risk is extreme. Manning [the military informant who leaked the cables to WikiLeaks] and Assange [WikiLeaks founder and frontman] “outed” confidential negotiations (and, yes, pressure) about nuclear defense issues. They “outed” defensive tactics America was taking against cyberwarfare advances by certain other nations. They “outed” the procedures we’re going through to find “homes” for Guantanamo prisoners. They “outed” discussions about protecting Americans from terrorists.

Where does that leave our students who both need to understand modern politics and must carry on responsible use of the vast resources of the Internet?

There are far more questions here than answers. However, make no mistake: WikiLeaks' latest disclosures affect our students and alter their view of the world, the US government, and the Internet. It's up to us as educators to help them navigate some very murky waters and some largely uncharted territory in US history.

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