On December 29, 2014, the moderators of the League of Legends subreddit created a thread to discuss the topic of leaks and rumors. In response, DailyDot writer Richard Lewis posts a video on his YouTube channel to defend leaks on three premises: freedom of speech, public right to information, and objectifying the narrative. This piece will critique each argument in order to show that leaks can be good or bad, depending on the context in which they are presented.
The majority of this piece will revolve around quotes from each of these sources: Richard Lewis’s video discussing leaks, the preamble from the Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ) and the work of Kirk O. Hanson, the executive director of the Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. The tags below contain links to the relevant sources.
What is a leak?
A leak is defined as the intentional disclosure of secret information.
This information can be personal. Consider a man who just proposed to his girlfriend and hasn't broken the news to his friends or family. A colleague who overhears the conversation and shares it publicly without the consent of the couple, despite the intention, has leaked the information. A couple who wanted to broach the sensitive topic with their parents, or have a quiet wedding with close friends, now have the awkward task of handling a narrative they didn't perpetuate.
Similarly, all organizations hold a wide array of information that’s secret due to its financial value, marketing potential, research and development specifications and more. Corporations seek to protect information due to the economic value from not having this information widely known. This concept is relevant in professional e-sports from team strategies to recruitment methods. For example, a player or organization with multiple options can leverage their options and dictate terms. But, a leak regarding their internal discussions mitigates this negotiating power.
Value and ownership of information
Similarly, marketing players and sponsors is a relevant part of the e-sports ecosystem. In the video, Richard Lewis goes into further detail:
In alignment with the discussion surrounding value in information, Lewis lists several sources of marketing revenue for organizations, and also points out that the original source of the news garners the most web traffic for that particular piece of information. Therefore, by leaking the information, Lewis diverts most of the web traffic and attention away from the organization and to his publishers like DailyDot. Naturally, there’s a long list of organizations frustrated with Lewis’s reports either because they undermine some strategic plan or diffuse the value of their information. In response to this Lewis comments:
Business regards information as a commodity and the possession of it as an asset. Economists would like to treat and account for information in the same way as physical assets; however, no discipline has provided an accepted model for such treatment although analogies abound.
As inventory, information goes through the value-added stages of raw material (events or processes to be measured), work-in-progress (information in development), and finished goods (marketable information). Information gathering and presentation require capital investment and human labor. Besides being costly to acquire, information incurs management costs. Like physical assets, information faces quality control inspection before it can be distributed. (source)
Along the same lines, e-sports organizations have information that they want to protect from proliferation until they can redeem it for its value, such as roster changes, management decisions etc. for variety of reasons. But, Lewis claims that information within this context cannot be owned and implies that while he sympathizes with the frustrations of abused trust within their organization, he has the right to publish the information if he can obtain it and confirm its accuracy.
The problem with Lewis’s defense is that there is a lot of ethical and legal precedent to support that information of value can be owned and protected. From the personal privacy rights to corporate ethics surrounding proprietary information and more, the leaking of protected information is a serious issue. Even the SPJ declares as part of their core principles that:
This principle implies that just because you can obtain private information legally, you must also have an relevant reason for then sharing it with the public. Regarding the acquisition of information itself, Lewis himself quotes the SPJ to maintain the anonymity of his sources and goes on to posture his sources’ contractual obligation to conceal information does not concern him:
Lewis elevates his sources to some sort of undercover-hero status, with a tone implying that his sources innocently found themselves embroiled in a conspiracy or danger, and that they are now willing to risk their careers and livelihood to expose some deep-rooted corruption. But when we consider leaks in the e-sports community, only some of them actually expose malicious behavior or intent. Most of the leaks that have sources "close to the subject or team" should not be revealing the information they do. They’re breaching the trust of their friends and colleagues and should not be considered role models in the community.
Hanson elaborates on the ethics of confidential information and sources:
Hanson points out that any protected information that is obtained by a source that violates an obligation to keep it a secret is morally dubious to leak without a valid reason for doing so.
Public Interest vs. Public Right to Know
Lewis next weighs in on his reasons for revealing protected information, claiming that he weighs the discomfort to organizations against the benefit of the public and justifies it so:
While the argument may sound reasonable, there is a clear philosophical distinction between what the public is interested in knowing and what it has a right to know. People, even famous public figures and elected officials have the right to privacy despite the details of their private lives being the 'public interest'. Similarly, organizations retain the right to share or withhold information pertinent to their competitive advantage.
Referring back to the SPJ, the code of ethics state that:
Leaks, by definition, imply that the information should not have been accessible by proper channels, and preys on the curiosity of the community (excited to learn forbidden or secret information) to generate revenue for the website, at the expense of the involved parties.
For example, during the off-season, Martin ‘Rekkles’ Larsson, considered by some to be the best western AD carry, moved from the veteran Fnatic team to the new European powerhouse, Alliance. A fan favorite, the spark of a rumor in mid-October regarding this possibility resulted in many speculation threads and self-proclaimed Reddit detectives to search for evidence supporting this claim.
Lewis, aware of the public interest surrounding the issue, published a series of articles in the span of a few days like "Rekkles in talks with Alliance" to "Rekkles has had enough, buyout option is 15k", garnering front page status multiple times and yielding tens of thousands of hits. There’s however a difference between excited members of the community speculating about rumors and leaked articles posted by journalists claiming to have inside sources:
Lewis acknowledges that when he publishes a leak, the information transforms from a speculation into a state of quasi-confirmation. When two organizations are re-negotiating sponsorship details and contracts, transitioning players in and out of their teams, the process is time and information sensitive. Leaks force all involved parties to scramble and shift their plans to work around the loss of what they previously believed was privileged knowledge.
Speculation is an expected by-product of the community, to be taken somewhat lightly, but leaks that feed on the public interest by sacrificing the ability for teams, players, and organizations to conduct their private businesses are a serious matter, especially when their only purpose is to convert this community interest into clicks and revenue.
Lewis offers another reason to support leaks, by claiming that organizations tend to spin the information to suit their selfish narratives.
There are two sides to the spin issue, first of which is marketing. For the sake of self-promotion, you replace an individual, organization, or identity with a persona that offers a limited or incomplete picture of the real thing. Individuals spin themselves during interviews; advertising spins their companies and products. E-sports personalities and players are no different. One team may explain a roster move as a skill-based change or a personality-shift to support different narratives like competitive edge or dedication to their fans. However, there may be a series of complex underpinnings behind the decision such as salary, appearance, marketing, and more.
As Lewis rightly points out, the other side of the issue is perception. The audience needs additional information to assess if the conclusions offered or perpetrated by the source are valid or accurate. Independent reporters have the opportunity to provide a different perspective on the same issues. They can challenge assumptions, talk to experts, and present their own conclusions regarding the issues. However, Lewis then goes on to explain the mechanics of independent reporting:
Lewis implies that independent reporters are not motivated by the need or desire to spin the information…and then in the same thought, explains how readers that support them helps build reputation and generate revenue…the same reasons why most organizations or parties choose to control the narrative of information in the first place. In order to further contest this point, let’s consider the primary thrust of this video where Lewis leaks information regarding a secret Riot meeting regarding content creation:
In his diatribe, Lewis uses the knowledge of an internal Riot meeting a few weeks before the video to perpetuate the narrative of Riot as a greedy and manipulative organization trying to quash community content in order to have full marketing control over their product and infrastructure…while the evidence he offers to support his claims is tenuous at best.
But let’s delve into some of the issues: While Riot has assumed broadcasting control over the Chinese and Korean scenes, it is far more likely that the reason for doing so is to offer better produced free, content for the viewers. Also the content from in the new Riot talk show barely overlaps that of shows like Summoning Insight and First Blood. It even some promotes (albeit Riot-filtered) community content. From this perspective, these aren't particularly sinister in nature, but rather fairly logical and straightforward decisions from a company standpoint, and while their methods may be inexperienced or vary in efficacy, Riot’s dedication to their players and fans has never been in question.
This perfectly valid conjecture highlights some of the good resulting from Riot’s recent moves. Yes, a discussion perhaps needs to take place regarding the advantages of organic growth by promoting 3rd party content versus in-house investment in production value and marketing control. But clearly, there is more to the conversation than Lewis presents in his editorial.
It is common knowledge that Lewis and Riot have a poor working relationship, the Deman-IEM incident as the most recent conflict. Furthermore, he disagrees with a majority of Riot’s business policies regarding control of their product and surrounding infrastructure. According to many journalists in the community, if Riot begins to publish and promote their own content, it diverts business away from independent sources, Lewis being among them.
So, while Lewis offers a new perspective on Riot’s recent string of announcements, it is certainly not an objective one. He has both personal and professional reasons to perpetuate the negative narrative about Riot, spinning the information and evidence to support his claims, and disregarding the positive effects of Riot’s new initiatives.
In his assessment comparing good leaks to bad ones, Hanson points out that:
It is a misconception that journalists are unbiased or that they have no vested interest in how they present the news. Cable news networks like Fox News have been constantly accused of promoting conservative political positions and criticized for biased reporting. Web-based articles utilize click-bait headers and skew their reporting toward sensationalism to grab readers’ attention at the expense of honest, objective perspectives.
To summarize, as Lewis rightly points out, independent journalism should exist to offer new and different views. But it does not justify leaking information to prevent organizations from establishing their own narratives. Journalists are still subject to personal biases and financial motivations in their reporting and players/organizations have the right to market themselves in the manner that they choose.
Leaks can help provide alternative perspectives and reveal malfeasance, but not all leaks are created equal. Players, teams, and organizations have a right to privacy to conduct their business. If these rights have to be infringed upon, through furtive methods or asking confidential sources to break their NDAs and/or trust of their friends and colleagues, there should be a good reason for it. Leaks that are self-interested and financially motivated and use dubious methods to acquire the information, simply to reveal things before organizations can, should be seen as ethically immoral. The community approval of leaks will not wane. It is human nature to be curious and want access to private information on topics that interest them. The responsibility falls on the journalists to assess what good and harm leaks can do, and act accordingly.