Exclusive: WikiLeaks's ex-spokesman on Julian Assange

Daniel Domscheit-Berg on his fears for the site -- and why Assange was nicknamed "the Disco King".

Want to know what's odd about Julian Assange's trousers? What his dancing style is like? Or how he treats cats?

All these questions are addressed in Inside WikiLeaks: My Time With Julian Assange at the World's Most Dangerous Website, the new book from former WikiLeaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg.

Now, I should be fair here. The book is not the hatchet job on Assange it will inevitably be made out to be and Domscheit-Berg is still committed to the idea of a whistleblowing website (he launched his own, OpenLeaks, at the end of last year). But its author does give some insight into why WikiLeaks -- and particularly its controversial founder -- has received so much criticism in the past few months.

The portrait of Assange that emerges is of an uncompromising man who doesn't want to live by social norms. He rarely carries cash, can sleep pretty much anywhere and often wears two pairs of trousers (presumably because he lives a nomadic existence and carries all his clothes in a small backpack).

The New Statesman will have an exclusive interview with Domscheit-Berg in next week's magazine but here are some of the key revelations from the book in the meantime. Perhaps the biggest is that when Domscheit-Berg left WikiLeaks in the autumn of 2010, he and "the architect" -- the programmer who built the website -- removed the secure submission system and Assange's access to the existing documents. "Children shouldn't play with guns," writes Domscheit-Berg. "That was our argument for removing the submission platform from Julian's control."

On Wednesday, WikiLeaks hit back with claims that they had begun legal proceedings against Domscheit-Berg for this act of "sabotage". Domscheit-Berg claims: "We just took away these dangerous toys so that Julian could not do harm to anyone else."

When we spoke, he reiterated this. "We had a three-week hand-over period and we had no idea where to put these documents safely. No one [at WikiLeaks] bothered." He added: "We've just made sure that these documents are stored away safely and we're now still waiting for a handover to happen. Those documents have been sent to WikiLeaks. I wouldn't ever want to doubt that they are in WikiLeaks' possession."

The other surprise is that, in its early days, Assange often overstated the scale of the WikiLeaks operation. Domscheit-Berg wrote emails as "Thomas Bellman" or "Leon from the tech department" and he suspects that several other team members he knew only online -- such as "Jay Lim" from the legal department -- were, in reality, pseudonyms used by Assange.

Then there are the questions he raises about WikiLeaks's finances. How much of the donations given by the public have been spent on the site itself and how much has been used by Julian personally? (The WikiLeaks website currently solicits cash for the "Julian Assange and WikiLeaks Defence Fund")

There's also the niggling question of the involvement of Israel Shamir, a Holocaust denier who's often been accused of anti-Semitism. He currently appears to be brokering deals for WikiLeaks material in Russia and Scandinavia.

In all, it's a fascinating book. The impression I was left with was that Domscheit-Berg has, as he claims, not written it out of spite, but rather a sense that the "project" is too important to be left to an increasingly isolated Assange.

"But what about the dancing?" I hear you cry. Well, here you go:

I remember one evening at a club in a former slaughterhouse in Wiesbaden. The others we were with nicknamed Julian "Disco King" or something like that for his unusual way of dancing. Julian took up quite a lot of space when he danced -- almost like a tribesman performing some ritual. He'd spread his arms and gallop across the dance floor, taking huge steps. He didn't look very rhythmic or co-ordinated and he didn't seem to have that much feeling for the music but he did possess a certain cool. He didn't care anyway what other people thought of him. You need space, he once told me, if you want your ego to flow. That statement fit well with his dance style.

As for the cat, well . . . Domscheit-Berg tells of how he let Assange stay in his flat in Wiesbaden:

Julian was engaged in a constant battle for dominance -- even with my cat, Mr Schmitt . . . Julian was always attacking the poor animal. He would spread his fingers into a fork shape and pounce on the cat's neck. It was a game to see who was quicker. Either Julian would succeed in getting his fingers around the cat and pinning it to the floor, or the cat would drive Julian off with a swipe of its claws. It must have been a nightmare for the poor thing. No sooner would Mr Schmitt lie down to relax than the crazy Australian would be upon him. Julian preferred to attack at times when Mr Schmitt was tired. "It's about training vigilance," Julian explained. "A man must never forget he has to be the master of the situation."

At the end of our interview, I couldn't resist asking Domscheit-Berg if Mr Schmitt had now recovered from this treatment. He laughed, and said: "He is doing good. He is recovering from the trauma. He is now with my parents where he can go out and hunt for mice and birds and stuff. Sometimes he is still a bit weird . . . but doing well other than that."

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile