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Born this way? Becoming Bradley Manning in a digital world

In truth, whistleblower Bradley Manning’s experiences with online media are not so far removed from other ‘digital natives’. EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo

As US Army private Bradley Manning stares down 90 years in jail, his lawyers are fighting the weight of history. Prosecutors want us to see a soldier who shamefully turned his back on a sacred oath. To others, he is a heroic whistleblower who sacrificed his own liberty for the greater good. His lawyers want the court to see neither.

Manning’s team are playing for leniency by building, as lawyers do, another way of seeing things. Their client’s crime, so the argument goes, was caused by a disastrous command decision. A private soldier with a litany of personal problems should never have been given the chance to wreak such chaos.

Seeking the smallest possible tariff, his lawyers portray Manning as an imbroglio of personality disorders. Take a young man plagued by gender uncertainty, narcissism and political immaturity. Add social isolation and war. Stir.

Sadly, we know that this unappealing psychological sketch is really quite normal. It fits with the growing recognition that young men are especially prone to anxieties that are desperately difficult to talk about.

We are aware of this now, because Manning’s dreams and dilemmas coalesced into his media habits. In this, he is a victim of a culture that colonises and exploits the desires and talents of its young users. He really is as ordinary as his brief would have us believe, as an icon of the commonplace hazards in everyday media life.

Bradley Mannning is a harsh reminder that young media users are enmeshed in deeply political “webs of significance”, even when they’re on their lonesome. By some accounts, his crimes were less “Spooks” and more teenage pre-party. The friendless soldier reportedly “listened and lip-synced to Lady Gaga’s Telephone while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history”.

The tale is insightful. It tells how a landmark crime was committed by a forsaken youth who just wanted to have fun, in a moment of musical ecstasy where he might have imagined he was home, safe in his bedroom. We know all about Bradley Manning because his private pleasures got caught up in the interests of nation states and media businesses. For the young, it has ever been so.

Manning’s case presents a potted history of media research that can be summarised in four sentences. Young audiences have always been remarkably creative, when it comes to using media to make the best of crappy social circumstances that they can’t change. More often than not, the motive is about becoming the person you want to be. But these desires have origins and consequences that aren’t about individual choice. And many of the young people who make media thrive still end up as isolated as they were in the first place.

Manning also represents an ongoing tension between those who see young people as “digital natives”, versus others who caution that, for the majority, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Critics warn that we place too much faith in teenage media literacy. And it’s increasingly common to find stories about young people who have been turned into examples because they don’t understand the public nature of social media.

In April this year, 17-year-old Paris Brown was forced to resign as one of Britain’s first Teen Police Commissioners because of allegedly racist, homophobic and pro-drug tweets she had posted some years earlier. Interestingly enough, Brown quickly accepted that her ill-considered messages meant she had to stand down.

This is significant as a recognition that identity and media go hand-in-hand. Anthropologist Erving Goffman famously defined life as a series of acts, where we tailor our performance according to the impression we wish to make on spectators. Social media and the like have amplified the “performative” aspects of daily living by increasing our audience, and the number of “masks” we must wear to win their favour. Many of us seek virtual validation: as if to have no digital life is to have no life at all.

This adds another dimension to the Manning case. His defence has argued that psychological problems made him incapable of seeing the difference between being a political activist, a spy, and a person who just wanted to be accepted. If this is true, it surely matters that the blurring of identities is a characteristic of on line communication for everyone.

It’s perfectly clear that the need for social interaction was a significant motivation for Manning’s actions. This counts more than the lapses in technical judgments that led to his downfall. The scale of his misdemeanour is unprecedented. But its mechanics, the disclosure of information in the pursuit of kudos companionship, and all of the vulnerability that ensues, is the very stuff of digital culture.

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