In Praise of Whistleblowers

Whistleblowers are the brave people who risk employment, reputation, friends, freedom, and sometimes their lives, to provide citizens with information that those in power attempt to keep secret. Historically, whistleblower protections date all the way back to the American War for Independence (1778), when the Congress passed a law stating that “It is the duty of all persons in the service of the United States, as well as all other inhabitants thereof, to give the earliest information to Congress or any other proper authority of any misconduct, frauds or misdemeanors committed by any officers or persons in the service of these states, which may come to their knowledge.” Explicit protections for whistleblowers were enacted into law in 1989 through the Whistleblower Protection Act, and further expanded in 2012 through President Obama’s policy directive “Protecting Whistleblowers with Access to Classified Information.” However, despite these apparent protections, in actuality numerous whistleblowers have faced federal threats, or worse, including Barrett Brown, Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and Reality Winner. Under Barack Obama’s presidency, more whistleblowers were targeted, persecuted, and prosecuted than in all previous administrations combined. In order to strengthen our democracy, the public, policymakers, and courts must defend the freedom of individuals to blow the whistle.

Whistleblowers provide invaluable information to journalists, educators, and the American public by exposing unethical and corrupt practices that they believe the public has a right to know. For example, Daniel Ellsberg leaked classified documents to the press in order to challenge the U.S. government’s public portrayal of its military activities in the Vietnam War. Edward Snowden, a government-contracted employee for the National Security Agency, leaked documents in order to expose the fact that U.S. government was colluding with software companies to secretly collect private information from millions of U.S. citizens’ phones and computers.

The corporate press has largely attacked whistleblowers or questioned their motives rather than analyzing the relevance and meaning of the information they have released. For example, in response to Snowden’s leak, NBC’s popular Sunday morning program Meet the Press hosted a panel titled, “Why shouldn’t you be charged with a crime?”; Michael Grunwald of Time tweeted that he “can’t wait to write a defense of the drone strike that takes out” Julian Assange of WikiLeaks for helping Snowden; and the editorial board of The Washington Post published an op-ed suggesting Snowden surrender himself.

Among the few who supported Snowden were two reporters—Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras—who were working for The Guardian of London at the time, and whose investigative reporting helped break the story at a time when the U.S. press showed little interest in exposing government lies about surveillance. In 2014, they won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their reporting on the matter, recognition that shows there is hope for a vibrant and free press, one that is willing to publish controversial information to keep the public informed and hold those in power accountable.

Whistleblowers help keep governments and corporations in check. Media outlets—and the population as a whole—need to help cultivate a climate where whistleblowers feel they can safely expose corruption in high places. This will likely require more independent media outlets to provide space and safety for whistleblowers to share data and communicate. While many media outlets accept anonymous news tips, operations such as The Intercept, Freedom of the Press Foundation, WikiLeaks, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Government Accountability Project, as well as filmmakers like Michael Moore, Robert Greenwald, and Oliver Stone, have specifically encouraged and supported whistleblowers and have created platforms for them to send large amounts of data securely. This is a much-needed development in our current culture of media consolidation, censorship, and increased attacks on both whistleblowers and journalists.

The Information War

Renée DiResta, research director at the firm New Knowledge, co-authored a major report on disinformation for the Senate Intelligence Committee in late fall of 2018. Several months prior to the release of the report, DiResta independently wrote an influential essay titled “The Digital Maginot Line,” examining the implications of living in an era of intense information manipulation. “There is a war happening,” wrote DiResta. “We are immersed in an evolving, ongoing conflict: an Information World War in which state actors, terrorists, and ideological extremists leverage the social infrastructure underpinning everyday life to sow discord and erode shared reality.”

For DiResta, consciousness itself is the terrain in which disinformation operations are waged. “The human mind is the territory,” she writes. “If you aren’t a combatant, you are the territory. And once a combatant wins over a sufficient number of minds, they have the power to influence culture and society, policy and politics.” According to DiResta, “Influence operations exploit divisions in our society using vulnerabilities in our information ecosystem. We have to move away from treating this as a problem of giving people better facts … and move towards thinking about it as an ongoing battle for the integrity of our information infrastructure.”

In her essay, she echoes the ethos and instruction of early 20th century public relations guru Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, who wrote in his 1928 book, Propaganda:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. Our invisible governors are, in many cases, unaware of the identity of their fellow members in the inner cabinet. They govern us by their qualities of natural leadership, their ability to supply needed ideas and by their key positions in the social structure. Whatever attitude one chooses toward this condition, it remains a fact that in almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons … who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.”

Indeed, we are in the midst of a complex set of battles between those who value democratic principles and those who seek to exploit them, on whatever side, and our circumstances have only become more complicated since the time of Bernays, though the battlefield for the public mind remains much the way he outlined it. Seen in the context of information war, inaction is a tacit form of support for the forces seeking to undermine our information systems and manipulate society. Action is needed by everyone who values truth, transparency, and participatory democracy. As historian Howard Zinn argued, “You cannot be neutral on a moving train.”

We clearly should not expect any of the many actors—domestic, foreign, corporate—to self-regulate in the public interest. Indications are that the deliberate propagation of disinformation is proliferating, and the American public is being targeted by an increasing number of forces. Simply asking politicians and tech giants like Facebook or Twitter to address and fix the challenges we face is not enough. History has shown that such entities will not respond without significant and sustained public pressure.

Changing the system is possible. Doing so will require people to organize, agitate, and insist on policy—and a way of life—that prioritizes the interests of the public over those of corporations. Successful public-interest shifts, particularly in media and education, can provide the population with the tools needed to sustain democratic sovereignty and subordinate corporate interests to the priorities of social justice, environmental sustainability, and the common good.

Without widespread organizing, resistance, and pressure, the information war against public consciousness, truth, and sovereignty will intensify. While characters like Donald Trump and Steve Bannon were able to acquire power, in part, by weaponizing disinformation and exploiting public vulnerabilities, they did not invent the tactics. The very possibility that they could get so far was the result of decadeslong corporate influence over the U.S. political economy and democratic culture.

What happens next is up to us, but time is of the essence. We still have the ability to make a difference by acting together, but act we must. In this new millennium, it’s long past time for renewed and revelatory directions that favor the public sphere and restoration of the commons, or else we may find ourselves living in the ecologically unsustainable, corporate-dominated, authoritarian surveillance state toward which we’ve been heading for a long time.

A better future is possible. To help change direction toward a more just and robust civil society, we need to build a non-commercial public media system, and increase media literacy and critical pedagogy in schools. Doing so will help us better arm ourselves with the power that knowledge gives, and enable us to live with greater deliberation, democracy, and dignity.

This excerpt from United States of Distraction: Media Manipulation in Post-Truth America (And What We Can Do About It) by Nolan Higdon and Mickey Huff, with a foreword by Ralph Nader (City Lights Books, 2019) appears by permission of the authors.

Dr. Nolan Higdon is professor of History and Communication at California State University, East Bay. His academic work primarily focuses on news media, propaganda, critical media literacy, and social justice pedagogies, and he has been a guest commentator for multiple news media outlets. He is a board member for the Media Freedom Foundation, a frequent contributor to Project Censored’s annual “Censored” books series, and a co-founder of the Global Critical Media Literacy Project.
Mickey Huff is director of Project Censored and the president of the Media Freedom Foundation. He has edited or coedited ten volumes of in the “Censored” book series and contributed numerous chapters to these annuals since 2008. He has also co-authored essays on media and propaganda for other scholarly publications. He is professor of social science and history at Diablo Valley College and a lecturer in the Communications Department at California State University, East Bay.

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