The enthusiasm with which much of the media and political establishment have characterised Frances Haugen as a “Facebook whistleblower” requires that we pause to consider what exactly we think the term “whistleblower” means.
Haugen has brought to the surface a fuzziness in what many of us understand by the idea of whistleblowing.
Even Russell Brand, a comedian turned soothsayer whose critical and compassionate thinking has been invaluable in clarifying our present moment, joined in the cheerleading of Haugen, calling her a “brave whistleblower”.
But what do Brand and other commentators mean when they use that term in relation to Haugen?
There are clues that Haugen’s “whistleblowing” may not be quite what we assume it is, and that two different kinds of activities are being confused because we use the same word for both.
That might not matter, except that using the term in this all-encompassing manner degrades the status and meaning of whistleblowing in ways that are likely to be harmful both to those doing real whistleblowing and to us, the potential recipients of the secrets they wish to expose.
The first clue is that there seems to be little Haugen is telling us that we do not already know – either based on our own personal experiences of using social media (does anyone really not understand yet that Facebook manipulates our feeds through algorithms?) or from documentaries like The Social Dilemma, where various refugees from Silicon Valley offer dire warnings of where social media is leading society.
We did not call that movie’s many talking heads “whistleblowers”, so why has Haugen suddenly earnt a status none of them deserved? (You can read my critique of The Social Dilemma here.)
But the real problem with calling Haugen a “whistleblower” is indicated by the fact that she has been immediately propelled to the centre of a partisan political row – yet another example of tribal politics that have become such a feature of the post-Trump era.
Democrats see Haugen as a hero, blowing the whistle not only on overweening tech corporations that are taking possession of our children’s minds and subverting social solidarity but that are also fuelling dangerous Trumpian delusions that paved the way to January’s riot at the Capitol building.
Republicans, by contrast, view Haugen as a Democrat partisan, trying to breathe life into a liberal conspiracy theory – about Republicans. In their view, she is bolstering a leftwing “cancel culture” that will see wholesome conservative values driven from the online public square.
Deep, dark dungeon
Let’s set aside this tribalism for the moment (we will return to it soon) and consider first what we imagine whistleblowing involves.
Haugen has indeed used her position as a former employee in a hyper-powerful corporation – the globe-spanning tech firm Facebook – to bring to light things that were supposed to be hidden from us.
That meets most people’s basic definition of a whistleblower.
But it is significant that whistleblowers are taking on institutions far more powerful than they are. Those institutions will try to fight back, and do so in the dirtiest ways possible when their core interests are under threat. Whistleblowers typically face a cost for what they do precisely because of the position they hold in relation to the institutions they are trying to hold to account.
That is all too evident in the treatment of the bravest whistleblowers and those who assist them. Some are prosecuted, jailed and near-bankrupted (Chelsea Manning, John Kiriakou, Craig Murray), others are driven into exile (Edward Snowden), while the unluckiest are vilified and disappeared into the modern equivalent of a deep, dark dungeon (Julian Assange).
It is by virtue of their treatment that there can be little doubt all these people are whistleblowers. It is because they are telling us secrets those in power are determined to keep concealed that they are forced to go through such terrible ordeals.
We might go so far as to argue that, as a rule of thumb, the more severe the penalty faced by a whistleblower, the greater threat they pose in bringing to light what is supposed to remain forever in the dark.
One problem with thinking of Haugen as a whistleblower is that it is far from clear that she has paid – or will pay – any kind of price for her disclosures.
And maybe more to the point, it seems that when she turned to 60 Minutes to help her “blow the whistle” on Facebook she knew she would have powerful allies – right up to those occupying the White House – offering her protection from any meaningful fallout from Facebook.