Modern-Day Whistleblowers: Davids or Goliaths?

Frances Haugen is Battling Facebook with a Very Powerful Sling 

11/01/21 – – We typically think of “whistleblowers” as courageous guardians of truth; regular folks willing to risk their careers and even their lives to bring hidden wrongdoing into the light. They’re underdogs, praised by the public and cursed by vengeful corporate or government chieftains. Davids battling Goliaths.

At least that’s the way things used to be.

This Washington Post account of a very unusual Zoom meeting may challenge your perceptions of the people we call whistleblowers:      

On one side was a former Facebook product manager turned whistleblower named Frances Haugen and her legal representatives. On the other were journalists from a dozen or so news organizations — normally professional rivals but in this case joined by a common interest.

The purpose of the virtual meetup on Oct. 9 was to discuss the terms under which Haugen would leak company records showing how Facebook ignored or barely addressed harmful practices documented by its employees.

The journalists were part of an exclusive club, handpicked by Haugen and her team as the would-be recipients of the damning data in her possession.

The journalists participating in the Zoom meeting had agreed to follow guidelines established by whistleblower Haugen’s communication team, headed by the PR firm Bryson Gillette and its senior partner Bill Burton, former deputy White House press secretary in the Obama administration. There could be no public disclosure of the meeting, and an embargo was set for a certain release date to coordinate the avalanche of bad press headed Facebook’s way.

I think we can all agree that compliance, parallelism, collusion and obedience are not what we expect from an independent Fourth Estate.  

In an October 24 article titled “Inside the Big Facebook Leak,”  The New York Times (while they were a participant in the meeting, they ended up violating both the embargo and the confidentiality agreement) articulated just how much things have changed:  

We live in a time of mega-leaks, enabled by the same digital technology that allows us to surveil one another and document our lives as never before. These leaks have given the leakers and their brokers a new kind of power over the news media, raising tricky questions about how their revelations should enter the public sphere. There are questions, in particular, on the balance of power between the sources of vital information and the reporters who benefit from them.

Also on the Zoom call that day were members of Haugen’s legal team. Legal and travel expenses are being provided by Whistleblower Aid, which describes itself as, “a pioneering, non-profit legal organization that helps patriotic government employees and brave, private-sector workers report and publicize their concerns — safely, lawfully, and responsibly.”

Whistleblower Aid is partially funded by billionaire co-founder of eBay Pierre Omidyr, a sworn enemy of big tech. Its leadership includes attorneys John Tye, Mark Zaid and Andrew Bakaj. These names may sound familiar if you followed the first impeachment of Donald Trump, which was prompted by a whistleblower’s account of a phone call between Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky, president of Ukraine. Tye, Zaid and Bakaj represented the anonymous whistleblower.

Haugen’s legal team has also filed complaints against Facebook with the Securities and Exchange Commission, qualifying her for protections and rewards set forth in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. This legal action makes it very difficult for Facebook to retaliate against her for leaking confidential internal documents to the media and gives her the opportunity to share up to 30 percent of any monetary sanctions collected by the SEC from Facebook. Under these provisions, individual whistleblowers have received as much as $200 million.       

Let me be clear: I don’t feel sorry for Facebook (soon to be called Meta), nor am I questioning Haugen’s motives or the validity of her complaints. But I do think corporate leaders would be well served to recognize that today’s whistleblower actions are far more sophisticated and orchestrated than they were in the past. And even exposing the armies of consultants and financial resources that support them will not sully the reputations of these intrepid warriors. As Senator Ed Markey said to Haugen during her testimony before Congress: “You are a twenty-first century American hero. Our nation owes you a huge debt of gratitude for the courage you’re showing here today.”

Author Malcolm Gladwell points out in “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants” that the shepherd David walked onto the battlefield against the nine-foot-tall, heavily armed Goliath with a number of not so obvious but very real advantages. Most important of all, he carried “an incredibly devastating weapon”:

If you do the calculations on the ballistics, on the stopping power of the rock fired from David’s sling, it’s roughly equal to the stopping power of a .45 caliber handgun . . . When David lines up he has every intention and every expectation of being able to hit Goliath at his most vulnerable spot between his eyes.

This might be a good time for Mark Zuckerberg to duck.

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