• Dan Ray

The year of Whistleblowers and Social Media

Among other things, 2021 will go down in history as the year of whistle-blowers. There’s been a global surge in whistle-blowing claims - partly as a reaction to the pandemic and the emergence of a new, emboldened workforce. Employees spoke up against corporations like never before last year.

What is whistle-blowing?

Whistle-blowing refers to the practice of alerting others about unethical behavior. Recently, we’ve seen numerous cases where people have taken to social media, made videos, or spoken to the press to expose unlawful actions that go against the public interest.

Most whistle-blowers risk their jobs and lives in pursuit of the greater good. It’s not for the faint-hearted. Whistleblowing involves going up against global corporations, state institutions, or powerful individuals. In some cases, the government offers sizeable monetary rewards to encourage people to come forward with evidence of wrongdoing.

Whistle-blowing emerges as a new face of accountability

The pandemic was the biggest story in 2020. At the same time, whistle-blowers seemed to be in the news more than ever. Speaking truth to power, these individuals uncovered gross institutional mismanagement of the pandemic. They played a crucial role in disseminating unbiased reports around COVID-19.

Much before the world would learn of the virus, whistle-blowers in China were already issuing grave warnings about the dangers. Government officials retaliated by suspending their social media accounts. Some of them were arrested and never heard from again. In the US, whistleblower Rick Bright was a vocal critic of the government’s handling of the crisis.

Countless other whistle-blowers have risked their lives and jobs to expose illegal COVID-related issues - from inadequate safety measures to misappropriation of relief funds.

The pandemic highlighted the importance of whistle-blowers to a just society. It reinforced how tough it is to protect courageous individuals from retaliation or their claims to be taken seriously.

Other top stories of our times feature whistle-blowers as well. In a historical precedent, voices emerged from within the US police force to report on brutality, racial profiling, and other misconduct inside their ranks. Similarly, allegations of corruption against officials were made possible by whistle-blowers in the federal government.

Rumblings of a revolution

A revolution was also afoot in the hallowed portals of the corporate world. As work-from-home created new anxieties, it triggered a wave of whistle-blowing claims against employers.

In the US alone, the Securities and Exchange Commission received 6900 tips at the end of September 30. For perspective, that’s a 31% increase from the previous 12-month record. According to agency officials, the claims first gained traction in March when lockdowns compelled millions of people to transition from boardrooms to living rooms.

Work from home offers distance (both literal and otherwise) from office spaces. Researchers studying the motivation of whistle-blowers found that employees gained new perspectives when away from communal workplaces. More people began to critically examine employer practices. If found lacking, employees questioned whether staying dedicated to their workplace was worth it.

One of the first sectors to feel the impact was big tech. 2021 was a rude awakening to the sheer power that tech giants wield – more so, their indiscriminate abuse of power. The wake-up call the world needed was thanks to the actions of whistle-blowers.

As exposés go, few can compare in scale to what Frances Haugen managed to do. The ex-Facebook employee released the “Facebook Papers” - incriminating evidence showing how Facebook refused to act on criminal activity and false news on its platforms. Facebook allegedly allowed drug cartels free rein and ignored child trafficking on its platforms, among other allegations.

2021 was pivotal as a year of revelations where tech companies like Facebook underwent severe scrutiny. Thanks to whistle-blowers, the sheer scope of corporations’ questionable activities became clear as day. The impact of Haugen’s revelations will have far-reaching effects on accountability for corporates everywhere.