Category Archives: whistleblowing

Academic dissidents: be prepared for reprisals — and more

Academics who dissent from orthodoxies or who challenge powerful groups need to be prepared for the tactics used against them.

When Ivor van Heerden worked as a hurricane researcher at Louisiana State University, he was good at predicting hurricane impacts. But he may not have anticipated all the methods his detractors would use.

During and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, van Heerden presented his views forcefully to the media. In particular, he blamed the collapse of the levees on the Army Corps of Engineers. Top figures at LSU were not pleased, and tried to gag him and then to dismiss him.

Because his views were unwelcome, he was a target for reprisals. Is there any way he could have known what was likely to come next?

Ivor van Heerden

When you speak out and offend those with power, you’re at risk of adverse actions. This is true for anyone, including academics. Scholarly dissent is supposed to be protected by academic freedom, and sometimes it is, but in too many cases it is not, as shown in numerous case studies in Australia, the US and elsewhere.

Suppression of dissent

There is a regular pattern in cases of academic dissent. A scholar does something threatening to others, for example criticising scientific orthodoxy, doing research that threatens groups with vested interests, or teaching in an unconventional way. The most common trigger for suppression of dissent is challenging senior management within one’s own institution.

Then come reprisals, for example ostracism, damaging rumours, reprimands, censorship and dismissal. Sometimes the reprisals are subtle and hard to prove. Petty harassment can involve delays in processing forms, inconvenient teaching times, failure to be notified of meetings, and denial of requests for funding or leave.

The question is what to do. Sometimes it’s better to leave or to put up with the bad treatment. However, if you want to resist, what’s the best strategy? To better understand options, it’s useful to look at what happens with other sorts of injustices.

Outrage management techniques

When powerful individuals or groups do something that might be perceived as unfair, there is a risk of triggering public outrage. To reduce this outrage, powerful perpetrators regularly use five sorts of methods: (1) cover up the action; (2) devalue the target; (3) reinterpret the events by lying, minimizing, blaming, and framing; (4) use official channels that give only an appearance of justice; and (5) intimidate or reward people involved.

For a stark example, consider torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. (1) The prison guards and the US government hid the torture. (2) The tortured prisoners were called criminals or terrorists. (3) The torture was labeled “abuse.” Prison guards were blamed, with no responsibility taken by senior US officials. (4) Legal action against prison guards involved took many months, led to limited penalties, and allowed higher level officials to avoid responsibility. (5) Whistleblowers suffered reprisals.

Abu Ghraib was the exception, in that the exposure of graphic photos forced the US government to respond. In other torture centers around the world, cover-up and official denials prevent information getting out and limit public awareness and concern.

It may seem a large jump from torture to suppression of academic dissent. The commonality lies in the methods of outrage management. The same five methods of reducing outrage are found in a wide range of injustices, including sexual harassment, bullying, police beatings, massacres and genocide.

This means that when administrators take reprisals against academic dissent, with the risk of generating outrage from their actions, it is predictable that they will cover up their actions, devalue the dissident academic, provide plausible-sounding explanations for their actions, rely on formal processes to give credibility, and use threats and promises to thwart critics. In some cases, only one or a few of these techniques are used; in others, all of them are involved.

Techniques used against van Heerden

In July 2011, the AAUP issued a report on the van Heerden case. The report documents the intent of LSU officials to gag and eliminate him, because his public statements threatened their aim of gaining funds from the Army Corps of Engineers. The AAUP report provides evidence of all five types of techniques. (See also  van Heerden and Mike Bryan’s 2006 book The Storm.)

When the dean made the decision not to reappoint van Heerden, he did not give any reasons. Similarly, no reason was given for removing him as deputy director of the Hurricane Center. This was a type of cover-up. If reasons had been given, they could have been countered.

To devalue van Heerden, LSU officials emphasised that he had no credentials in civil engineering (relevant to design of the levees). In 2006 and 2007, van Heerden’s supporters asked the Chancellor to endorse their nomination of van Heerden for the 2007 National Wetlands Award. The Chancellor received advice from the Vice Chancellor, who wrote, “We would not want this award to justify his potentially misguided view of science/service.” (p. 10 of the AAUP report). By preventing the nomination, they denied van Heerden the possibility of significant validation of his contribution. Meanwhile, “a concerted media campaign arose defending the Corps of Engineers and attacking its critics, notably Professor van Heerden, in the New Orleans press” (p. 11). What seemed to be letters from members of the public were traced to “government computers inside the Corps offices in New Orleans.”

Van Heerden’s ouster was enabled by a reinterpretation of his job description. He had been employed for over a decade as an associate professor–research. His supervisor insisted that, “The formal job description is 100 percent research” (p. 11). This claim helped justify dismissing him on the grounds of not publishing enough papers in scholarly journals. Actually, van Heerden’s job description did not specify 100% research.

To challenge the decisions made against him, van Heerden appealed to the Faculty Grievance Committee. However, the committee copped out of its responsibility, declining to carry out an investigation. This is an example of the failure of official channels. The Grievance Committee provided the appearance of providing justice, but in practice none was forthcoming.

Van Heerden sued the university over wrongful termination. This provided the administration a pretext not to respond to other initiatives on his behalf. After the AAUP became involved, authorising an investigation, lawyers for LSU said, “the pendency of litigation prevented the administration from cooperating with the investigation” (pp. 13–14). This is an example of how using an official channel — legal action — can stymie other types of action. The administration refused to cooperate with the AAUP’s investigation, another example of cover-up.

When senior academics in van Heerden’s department met to consider his case, the dean was present at the meeting. “His attendance was widely (and unsurprisingly) perceived as intimidating.” (p. 17) More generally, the administration’s actions against van Heerden sent a signal to other academics about the risks of running foul of the administration’s agendas generally, as well as in supporting van Heerden.

These examples give a taste of the many facets of the van Heerden case. They show that the administration used all five types of methods to reduce outrage: cover-up, devaluation, reinterpretation, official channels and intimidation.

The same patterns are found repeatedly in cases of suppression of academic dissent. The more prominent the case, the more likely it is that the full range of methods will be used. It is wise to be prepared.


Each of the five methods can be countered. The counter to cover-up is exposure. Van Heerden’s supporters publicized his case; thousands of members of the local community signed a petition in his support. When wider audiences become aware of an injustice, some of them may be willing to act.

However, many academic dissidents avoid publicity, out of embarrassment, unfamiliarity with campaigning, or a trust in official channels. Anyone thinking of questioning or challenging orthodoxy should consider taking the issue to wider audiences.

The counter to devaluation is validation. Van Heerden had his impressive record of warnings concerning hurricane preparation and had allies in the university and local community willing to speak on his behalf. Dissidents can collect statements about their good performance and find people with credibility willing to vouch for them. Administrations will go through a dissident’s record, going back many years, searching for some transgression as a means to discredit them. Dissidents need to be prepared.

The counter to reinterpretation is to emphasize the unfairness involved. Van Heerden’s supporters pointed out the administrative contradictions involved in dismissing him: they cut through the false statements by those who wanted to get rid of him.

Dissidents can expect lies, blaming, and framing. Their opponents will try to explain reprisals in all sorts of ways — except as reprisals. Dissidents and their supporters need to be able to counter misleading accounts and insist on the unfairness of targeting a scholar for expressing unwelcome viewpoints.

The alternative to official channels is mobilizing support. Van Heerden’s supporters did this on his behalf. However, he put considerable trust and energy into official channels such as the Faculty Grievance Committee, which took energy away from a mobilization strategy.

Academics often assume that official processes, like grievance committees and courts, are set up to fairly adjudicate issues. Unfortunately, more often they give only an appearance of justice. Typically they are slow, focus on procedures rather than the core issues at stake, and rely on experts such as lawyers. As such, they are perfect for sapping energy from a campaign. Sometimes it is necessary to use formal processes, but relying on them is risky, and usually reduces wider concern about taking action.

The counter to intimidation is resistance. Van Heerden did not give up and walk away quietly: he and his supporters put up a powerful resistance to the administration’s attack.

For some individuals and circumstances, acquiescence is the wisest strategy. But if administrations are to be prevented from exerting too much power, some dissidents need to resist. Those who take their case to wider audiences, expose the injustice and refuse to accept it provide an example to others.

In resisting attacks on dissent, there are no guarantees. Van Heerden and his supporters mounted a major campaign but could not save his career at LSU. Others can learn some lessons from his story, in particular not to put too much trust in official channels.

The wider lesson is to be prepared for the likely tactics taken by administrations or by outside attackers. The methods of cover-up, devaluation, reinterpretation, official channels and intimidation are predictable. By being prepared to counter each of these methods, dissidents can better defend. It is wise to be prepared for hurricanes — and for reprisals against dissent.

Ivor van Heerden


In early 2013, van Heerden settled his case against LSU, receiving a payout of $435,000. Even considering that his career was destroyed, compared to other dissidents he was one of the lucky ones.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Nicola Marks and Ken Westhues for helpful comments on drafts.

Assassination, Inc.


The US government uses drones to murder its opponents. Drones are an ideal tool to minimise public outrage from military operations.

In Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, there is an ever-present danger of death from missiles in the sky. US military drones fly high over these countries, controlled from bunkers thousands of kilometres away. Some drones are for surveillance; some are for killing.

A new book, The Assassination Complex, documents the US drone warfare programme. A great deal of information about this programme became available via a major leak, and this has been supplemented by comments from former employees. Much of the information was published by The Intercept, an online magazine set up in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s revelations about US government surveillance. For those who like hard copy, The Assassination Complex provides a convenient package of material. The authors include Jeremy Scahill, author of books about the shady side of US military operations, Glenn Greenwald, one of the journalists who initially reported on Snowden’s material, and several staff members for The Intercept.


The drone warfare programme operates like this. Data is collected about possible targets: men considered dangerous enemies. Some information is gathered on the ground, but most is from electronic surveillance, for example metadata about phone calls. When a key figure is identified, drones track them continuously, often via sim cards in mobile phones. Authorisation for attack is obtained through a chain of command in the US, after which the CIA or military has 60 days to act. When a suitable occasion presents itself, attack drones launch missiles against the target.

Regular drone killings began after 9/11 under the presidency of George W. Bush and then greatly expanded under the Obama administration. Thousands of people have been killed by strikes.


Double standards

From the point of view of those behind the programme, it is an effective way of eliminating terrorists with minimal risk to US personnel. Proponents believe the drone attacks are surgical, namely highly selective, with only enemies killed. The authorisation protocol, combined with US laws, provides justification for the programme.

Critics offer a completely different picture. According to information in The Assassination Complex, the strikes are not nearly as surgical as claimed: as well as the target, many others are killed: non-combatants including women and children. Furthermore, potential targets are becoming sophisticated in evading attacks, especially in Yemen and Somalia. Knowing that their sim cards are used to track them, groups can mix up the cards. Someone may be killed, but not necessarily the primary target.

The drone strikes do not provide targets with an opportunity to defend themselves in court. Killing is carried out on the basis of suspicion. No charges are laid, no trial is held and no judge or jury is allowed to see the evidence against those killed.

Finally, when strikes kill non-combatants, as so often occurs, this alienates the population, generating greater opposition. Drone killings radicalise a fraction of the population; rather than repressing the insurgency, they add fuel to resistance. In this way, drone killings perpetuate the very thing they are supposed to stop. They are part of a cycle of mutual provocation that fosters perpetual war.


Imagine that a small group in one of the target countries, let’s say Pakistan, manages to obtain its own fleet of drones, or perhaps commandeers US drones through a sophisticated hacking operation. The group designates portions of US territory as a warzone and commences a surveillance and attack operation targeting leading US politicians and military figures, especially those who run the US drone programme. The operation is successful: strikes kill several US leaders, with some collateral damage (family members). Imagine the outrage in the US. “Murderous thugs! This is an outrage. This means war. We must strike back. They cannot be allowed to get away with this.”

Yet this scenario is an exact parallel of the US drone programme, except with the perpetrators and targets reversed. This example shows the incredible arrogance underlying the US programme, an assumption that “we” are righteous and can take action to kill “them” who are a dangerous threat (as judged by “us”). A reversal of “we” and “them” is unthinkable. Because it is unthinkable, the implicit double standard is invisible to US perpetrators.

Outrage management

Think of an injustice in which the perpetrator is more powerful than the target, for example torture, massacre of peaceful protesters, or genocide. Such injustices have the potential to generate outrage among those who witness or learn about it. Therefore, perpetrators regularly use five sorts of techniques to reduce public outrage: cover-up of the action, devaluation of the target, reinterpretation of the events (by lying, minimising consequences, blaming others or reframing), official channels that give an appearance of justice, and intimidation of people involved. Each of these techniques is readily apparent in the US drone programme.


Cover-up is a key feature of drone killings. The programme operates largely in secret, and little would be known about it except for leaks and exposes such as The Assassination Complex. Of course survivors of strikes know about them, as do family members, but the US population is left in the dark. Video footage of strikes is kept secret, as indeed are the names of most of the victims. The US government does everything possible to keep the programme secret. Indeed, the choice to use drones for military purposes may reflect the relative ease by which the human costs are hidden.

Devaluation is a powerful technique for reducing outrage: when victims are lower in status, there is less concern about what is done to them. The targets of drone strikes are labelled terrorists and portrayed as serious threats.

Reinterpretation means explaining what happens in a way that reduces outrage. It can involve several methods, including lying, minimising consequences, blaming others, and reframing. According to White House guidelines released in 2003, drone strikes are only undertaken when there is “near certainty” that the target is present and “near certainty” that no one else, namely non-combatants, will be injured or killed. However, the part about non-combatants is not applied in practice: strikes are regularly carried out without satisfying this criterion, which means the guidelines are a public lie.

The harmful consequences of drone strikes are routinely minimised. Anyone killed in addition to the target is labelled an “enemy killed in action.” This includes women and children. In this way civilian injuries and deaths are reframed, namely looked at from a different perspective. Another aspect of reframing is the designation of target areas as “warzones.” However, setting aside that the US Congress never declared war, this is a unilaterally declared war, with the so-called warzones being designated by the US government.

Official channels include courts, expert committees, grievance committees and any other agency or process that ostensibly provides fairness and justice. The problem is that when powerful groups like the government commit crimes, official channels may give only an illusion of justice. In the case of the US drone programme, the closest thing to an official channel is the policy guidelines released in 2003, already mentioned. These give the illusion of justice – only terrorists are supposed to be targeted – when in practice many civilians are killed.

Intimidation is the use of threats, reprisals and attacks to deter people from expressing outrage. Drone strikes themselves are a potent tool of intimidation. Indeed, they are a form of terrorism, terrorism by the US government. As well, whistleblowers and journalists are subject to intimidation. Those working in the US national security system who speak out about abuses are potentially subject to dismissal and prosecution, and some go to prison.


Although the drone programme is in many ways an ideal way to run a killing operation while minimizing the possibility of domestic protest, nevertheless there has been opposition. Each of the five techniques for reducing outrage can be countered.

Exposure of the programme is the counter to cover-up, and is crucial. This has been achieved through the combined efforts of insiders who speak out or leak information, investigative journalists who collect and analyse features of the programme, and editors who publish exposes. The Assassination Complex is a significant outcome of these efforts.


Validation of targets is the counter to devaluation. Validation can occur by showing that many targets are innocent victims and by giving them names, faces and life histories. When targets are seen as real people rather than nameless “terrorists,” assassination seems less justified. The following quote illustrates devaluation and lying by the US government, and validation of the target by providing his name and some personal details.

The third – and most controversial – killing of a U.S. citizen was that of Awlaki’s son, sixteen-year-old Abdulrahman Awlaki. He was killed two weeks after his father, while having dinner with his cousin and some friends. Immediately after the strike anonymous U.S. officials asserted that the younger Awlaki was connected to al Qaeda and was in fact twenty-one. After the family produced his birth certificate, the United States changed its position, with an anonymous official calling the killing of the teenager an “outrageous mistake.” (p. 47)

Abdulrahman al-Awlaki

Interpretation of the events as an injustice is the counter to the reinterpretation. Lies and minimising of consequences can be challenged with facts; reframing can be challenged by the frame of injustice. The labels “assassination,” “murder” and “killing” starkly articulate the realities of drone warfare.

Mobilisation of support is the counter to official channels. So far, there has been relatively little popular protest in the US against drone killings. Protest is the most potent challenge to the drone programme.


Finally, resistance is the counter to intimidation. Everyone involved in producing the Assassination Complex and related outputs has to stand up to the possibility of coming under surveillance, being put on watchlists and jeopardising their jobs.

On an optimistic note, the escalation of drone warfare by the US government might be considered a sign that it is more difficult today to muster support for open warfare, hence the need for killing to be covert. The drone programme has an added bonus for the military-security establishment: fostering the very problem it is supposed to solve, namely radicalisation of populations (though of course this is not how establishment figures think about the programme). How to undermine the drone programme and foster alternatives such as nonviolent action remains a major challenge.

Jeremy Scahill and the staff of The Intercept, The Assassination Complex: Inside the US Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Programme (London: Serpent’s Tale, 2016)

Brian Martin

Online and objectionable?

The Internet enables people to operate online, anonymously. When this capacity is used for damaging activities, what should be done?


I’m a fan of being able to communicate online without revealing your identity. This is because I’ve known so many whistleblowers who are subject to serious reprisals. As soon as they go public, they are cut off from further information, and the reprisals divert attention from the issue they spoke out about. Leaking anonymously is usually a better option, reducing or eliminating reprisals, while the leaker can remain on the job and, if necessary, leak again.

Leaking can be done in various ways. The Internet makes it easier. Setting up a Yahoo email account at a public library is one option. Another is using encryption, including the Tor browser to hide web activity.

Then there are dissidents in countries where speaking out against the government can lead to dismissal, arrest, imprisonment and torture. Encrypted communication can be a vital tool for campaigners who are up against a repressive regime.

However, online anonymity can be used for other, less noble purposes. I was reminded of this by reading Jamie Bartlett’s book The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld. Bartlett, a researcher at the think tank Demos, knew about nefarious activities on the Internet and decided to investigate further. He pursued unfamiliar corners online, tracked down individuals who are involved, met them face-to-face and learned about how they operate.


The Dark Net is a fascinating account. It is engagingly written and addresses a series of important topics, including trolling, racist organising, child pornography and illegal drug sales. Bartlett doesn’t try to force his views on the reader, but rather encourages thinking about the pros and cons of online anonymity.


Trolling involves entering online discussions and seeking to cause trouble, upsetting people by making rude comments or trying to disrupt an entire discussion. Trolls may see success, from their viewpoint, as provoking an angry response.

Bartlett, as well as telling about cases of trolls who were exposed and prosecuted, was able to meet with a self-identified troll and discuss his motives and methods. Trolls may be quite ordinary people offline, but online they morph into nasty personas, sometimes taking numerous identities. They may pretend to adopt views contrary to their own and infiltrate forums in order to discredit them, for example pretending to be a racist making really objectionable comments.

Internet troll

Trolling has been around ever since the early days of computer-to-computer interaction, the precursors of the Internet. It is fostered by what’s called the online disinhibition effect, which means that when you are separated from people in time and space, you are more likely to behave without the usual restraints that apply when talking to someone face-to-face.

Bartlett entered the notorious /b/ board of the image-sharing website 4chan, where participants, almost all anonymous, vie with each other in making ingenious insults and outrageous statements. When a teenage girl entered for the first time, she was seen as a legitimate target. She was encouraged to post revealing photos of herself. Board regulars managed to determine her offline identity (“dox” her) by using cues in the background of her photos, and proceeded to send her photos to her parents, her classmates and friends.

This was what /b/ calls a “life ruin”: cyberbullying intended, as its name suggests, to result in long-term, sustained distress. It’s not the first time that /b/ has doxed camgirls. One elated participant celebrated the victory by creating another thread to share stories and screen grabs of dozens of other “classic” life ruins, posting photographs of a girl whose Facebook account had been hacked, her password changed, and the explicit pictures she’d posted on /b/ shared on her timeline. (p. 20)

Alarmingly, these trolls see nothing wrong with harming people. She deserved it, they think, because she was so foolish. But, as Bartlett notes, trolls can cause severe damage to a person’s life, even causing them to commit suicide. And it’s all done anonymously. Only very seldom is a troll held to account.


Another use of the Internet is for circulating pornography, for which there seems to be an unending demand, with porn sites constituting a good proportion of what’s on the web. However, the traditional porn industry is not thriving. The reason is the availability of webcams, enabling a huge increase in self-made sex displays.

Bartlett made contact with a successful online performer, Vex, met her in real life and attended one of her shows, watching her (and, on this occasion, two other women) perform using the site Chaturbate. Watchers can sign in for the show and express their appreciation through payment of Chaturbate tokens. Bartlett watched a particularly lucrative show.

I ask Vex why she thinks she is so popular. “Traditional porn tends to be standardized and unrealistic,” she replies. “I guess I’m a real person in a real room.” This view is one put forward by Feona Attwood, professor of cultural studies at Middlesex University: “It’s a better kind of porn: somehow more real, raw, and innovative than the products of the mainstream porn industry.” (p. 171)


Something more disturbing is the availability of child porn on the Internet. It is hidden well, using encryption, but there is lots of it. Bartlett tells how child porn was in decline in the 1980s, seen by law enforcement as a low priority. The Internet provided a huge boost to the availability of child porn, with interest piqued by “gateway” images of older teenagers, gradually leading to interest in images of younger children. This in turn stimulated greater supply, itself made easier for dark-side entrepreneurs.

Bartlett met “Michael”, a seemingly ordinary middle-class man, who started watching more pornography in his 40s, with an interest in youthful bodies, and gradually moved from legal to illegal pornography. Then he was caught, and his life upended.

Bartlett provides a lot of context, quoting various sources and authorities, for example noting that the perpetrators of most sexual abuse continue to be family members and that evidence about the connection between watching child porn and becoming an offender is “inconclusive”. He also met with British police who specialise in tracking down online child porn so it can be shut down and the producers and users prosecuted. The British teams have been fairly successful in closing down British operations, but there are numerous offenders in other countries, and in many of them the police don’t care or are bribed not to interfere.

Anonymous commerce

It is now possible to buy and sell goods using anonymous digital currency, of which the best known is bitcoin. Libertarian-oriented programmers pour enormous energy into designing digital currencies that enable anonymity for sellers and purchasers, at the same time providing records of transactions.


Bartlett purchased some marijuana online using a prominent drug-sale site, Silk Road 2.0, that offers a wide variety of pharmaceutical and illegal drugs. He didn’t use his credit card, of course, but rather bitcoin. He did use his home address, but he could have used some other address. Only after receiving his gram of marijuana through the post did he go online to note this, so the seller could receive the payment, which had been put in escrow. Sellers are rated by buyers, just like on Amazon, providing a trust-based system in which everyone is anonymous. The site takes a small commission, but no taxes are paid. Indeed, as Bartlett discovered, avoidance of taxes or any other government control is a key motivation of the programmers designing anonymous currencies.


Bartlett also delved into the disturbing world of websites providing support for anorexics. Many of these provide assistance and encouragement to overcome this illness, but some, the so-called “pro-ana” sites, provide a different sort of support: to become ever thinner. The Internet has enabled anorexics to interact with each other, to share pictures of their emaciated physiques (and say how attractive they are), to tell about their diets (how little they eat in a day) and their struggles against eating, and to encourage each other to maintain dietary discipline for the goal of thinness. Although anorexia predated the Internet, the pro-ana sites provide a new source of encouragement for dangerous weight loss and thus a continuation or accentuation of the illness.



Bartlett, through his tour through dark parts of the net, highlights negative aspects of online anonymity. He entered this world recognising the positives, especially the capacity to organise against repressive governments. However, even when examining the less positive areas, such as child porn and pro-ana sites, he maintains an admirable suspension of judgement, in part because he is genuinely impressed by the complexity of the issues. None of the areas turned out to be as one-dimensional as he anticipated.

Jamie Bartlett

Spy agencies do not like online anonymity. In the US and Britain, they have been pushing for encryption systems to have backdoors so the agencies can read anyone’s email. They argue this is necessary for tackling terrorism, with child porn offering a useful supplementary argument. However, the case for backdoors is fundamentally flawed, because terrorists are not going to use an insecure system. What the agencies really want is to maintain surveillance over citizens.

An underlying assumption in the contest between spy agency agendas and their opponents who defend civil liberties is that online anonymity is a key to enabling abuses. However, while it might seem on the surface that online anonymity is central to trolling, racist organising, child porn and the sale of illegal drugs, perhaps this attributes too much to the communications medium. After all, the postal system and the telephone are used by terrorists, criminals and paedophiles, but this does not mean governments should have the capacity to open all letters or listen to all calls, especially because such a capacity will enable more crimes, by the government itself, than it would prevent.

For each questionable use of the Internet, it is worth exploring a range of options for challenging the underlying social problem. Concerning the sale of illegal drugs: instead of trying to shut down online operations, a different approach is to decriminalise drug use and to introduce a range of measures to reduce the harmful effects of drugs. Specialists on challenging racism, anorexia and child pornography also can offer alternative pathways. The problems are in the “real world”, not just online. It is easy to point the finger at the Internet, the medium of communication, but more challenging to go to the roots of the problems.

Brian Martin

Ted Mitew comments:

There is a noticeable stratification in access to real anonymity both in terms of the carrying layer and the destination:

[1] most people access the net through a layer of zero anonymity or pseudo anonymity at best, and their destination is not anonymous either;

[2] a small percentage access the net through a layer of high anonymity [VPN] and their destination may be somewhat anonymous (for example, members-only forums);

[3] an even smaller percentage access a completely different and highly anonymous network (for example, I2P) through an anonymous layer (VPN).

Groups 2 and 3 are not going to be affected by any government efforts to regulate anonymity, but ironically it is those two groups who have the know-how and will to defend anonymity.

The story-editing solution

The way people think about their lives can have profound effects on the way they behave. Timothy Wilson explains how to reap the benefits of story-editing.


Two groups of US students sit down to take a maths test. The groups are similar and the questions they are asked are identical, but there is one difference between the groups. At the top of the test, students in one group are asked to indicate their sex, male or female; the students in the other group are not.

It seems like a trivial difference, but it’s not. Boys aren’t affected, but girls are: the girls who are asked to indicate their sex before the test do worse. This is an example of a stereotype threat: bringing to consciousness a stereotype, in this case that girls aren’t good at maths, harms their performance.

What is going on? Being reminded of being female stimulates mental effort to deal with the stereotype, and this is mental energy that can’t be used to focus on the maths problems.

This is one of numerous examples of how beliefs about ourselves can affect how we behave and perform. There’s a large amount of social and psychological research about this phenomenon. A really valuable overview of the research and its implications for policy and practice is Timothy D. Wilson’s book Redirect.


Wilson makes two main points. The first is that social interventions need to be carefully tested, preferably with a design in which individuals are randomly assigned to a control group and an experimental group. It is not good enough to undertake interventions that seem like they should work because they are obvious and sensible.

Wilson’s second main point is that the story-editing approach, namely getting people to change the narratives they use to understand themselves, can be far more powerful than other methods.

Scaring kids

There is a popular programme in the US to discourage teenage delinquency. At-risk youngsters are brought together to hear lectures from prisoners, who tell them about what is in store for them should they make the wrong decisions about their lives. This programme is well-meaning and seems plausible: scare these kids with warnings about their possible fate and they’ll be more likely to go straight. There’s one major problem: it doesn’t work.


Wilson uses this example as one of many in which a well-meaning intervention was rolled out across the US before it had been adequately tested. When controlled trials were finally undertaken, it turned out that the lectures intended to scare the kids out of trouble were actually making things worse. These kids were more likely to drop out of school, be arrested and go to prison. Wilson provides example after example of plausible interventions that have no benefit or even make things worse. He assigns the “bloodletting” award to counterproductive interventions: doctors used to treat many illnesses by drawing blood, thereby making the patient more likely to die.

What was wrong with the scaring-kids intervention? Thinking in terms of stories people tell about themselves, an explanation goes like this. Some supposedly at-risk kids previously thought of themselves as regular, honest and well-intentioned. They did the right thing because that is how they thought of themselves. But then they were put into a group labelled “at risk” and given lectures about the dangers of crime. Some of them started thinking their reason for avoiding crime was to avoid the consequences: their motivation, previously internal, became external, and this is not as effective a deterrent when the circumstances are less favourable. Furthermore, these kids were put in a group of others considered at risk, and this is truly a risk, because they are influenced by peers setting a bad example.

Timothy D Wilson

            Wilson’s main attention is on interventions to address social problems in the US including poverty, low education, crime, sexism and racism. The bottom line is that all interventions should be tested before being used on a wide scale, and that story-editing approaches are often extremely effective.

It’s possible to use the insights from the story-editing approach to look at some other sorts of issues, including ones where interventions cannot be readily tested.


When a worker speaks out about a problem in their workplace, such as corruption or hazards to the public, they often suffer reprisals such as ostracism, petty harassment, reprimands, referral to psychiatrists, demotion and dismissal. This seems a harsh response to someone who is concerned about problems. What are the stories told about this common scenario?

From the employer’s point of view, the worker is out of line, challenging management and threatening the viability of the enterprise (not to mention seeking to expose management involvement in unethical and criminal activities). The worker is labelled a traitor, malcontent, snitch or dobber. The story provided is that the worker is in the wrong, due to personal failings. Rumours may be spread that the worker is a poor performer, has a mental illness or is involved in unsavoury sexual practices. Quite separately from the labels applied, the actions taken against the worker suggest their own meanings. Being referred to a psychiatrist is demeaning and signals to others that the worker is mentally unstable.

In some cases, the worker starts believing what is said about them, thinking “There must be something wrong with me.” The late Jean Lennane, former president of Whistleblowers Australia, worked as a psychiatrist, and treated quite a few such workers. After hearing their stories, she would say, “You’re not insane. You’re a whistleblower.” This is a story-editing intervention. Jean changed her patient’s script from “There’s something wrong with me” to “There’s something wrong with the organisation.” She changed the label from “dobber” to “whistleblower.”

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden: hero or traitor?

Back in the 1990s, the NSW branch of Whistleblowers Australia held weekly meetings. Some people who attended for the first time said, “I’m not a whistleblower, but …” and went on to describe experiences that perfectly fitted the usual idea of a whistleblower. At that time, the term “whistleblower” had a negative connotation and many workers were reluctant to accept the label.

In the following years, the label “whistleblower” gained in status in Australia, in part through media stories that used the term in stories portraying gallant individuals challenging abuses of power. Workers were less likely to acquiesce in labels applied by bosses and more likely to take pride in calling themselves whistleblowers. Employers are more often losing the story-editing struggle, though reprisals against whistleblowers remain all too common.


Another arena for story-editing struggles is war. A familiar example is what to call a fighter challenging a repressive government: a terrorist or a freedom fighter. Governments have far more power to label than do their opponents, as shown by the ubiquity of the label “terrorism” applied solely to challengers, not to governments themselves, even though many government actions fit standard definitions of terrorism.


By labelling opponents as terrorists, governments might in some cases actually be assisting their enemies in recruitment, especially when entire groups are stigmatised. It is useful to remember that the South African apartheid government called its armed opponents “terrorists,” that the US government, during the Vietnam war, called the National Liberation Front “terrorists,” and the Philippines government calls armed opponents “terrorists.” Commentators in the US have called some environmentalists “eco-terrorists.” The aim in such labelling is to stigmatise, but is this effective? It is possible that it may cause some activists — even ones who had not considered the use of violence in resistance — to identify with the government’s opponents.

A related story-editing struggle concerns what to call those who refuse to fight, by refusing conscription or by deserting from the army. Military leaders typically call them “traitors” or “cowards.” Within the peace movement, they might be called conscientious objectors or war resisters and be seen courageous or even as true patriots.


What should a parent be called who has reservations about vaccination, or who declines some or all vaccinations for their children? They can be called conscientious objectors or, more pejoratively, vaccination refusers or deniers. Some campaigners who raise concerns about vaccination are called baby-killers.

Does this sort of labelling help promote vaccination? From a story-editing perspective, derogatory labelling of people with concerns about vaccination could be ineffective or even counterproductive, by alienating some parents who had cautiously expressed concerns and found themselves grouped with more vociferous critics. In addition, hostile labelling may drive some parents towards vaccine-critical groups as a source of identity.


A different approach to vaccination critics is to label them concerned parents and to provide information about how their concerns relate to vaccination. The story promoted with this sort of intervention is that it is legitimate for parents to have concerns about their children’s health and that choosing to vaccinate is one possible resolution for their concerns.

In this case, the story-editing struggle occurs mainly between advocates of vaccination, namely between those who stigmatise parents reluctant to vaccinate and those who respond to their concerns with sensitivity and sympathy. From a story-editing perspective, the latter approach is more likely to be effective, though designing a way to rigorously compare the two approaches would be extremely difficult.


Redirect provides a powerful summary of a body of research showing that the way people think about themselves makes an enormous difference to their behaviour. Seemingly trivial interventions that change self-perspectives can have long-lasting impacts.

Wilson has two main aims in Redirect. The first is to show the power of story-editing and the second is to emphasise the importance of careful studies of social interventions. Research shows that all too many well-intentioned interventions appear to be ineffective or, even worse, counterproductive.

Yet in some areas it can be difficult or almost impossible to carry out controlled tests. I’ve outlined three areas where story-editing struggles take place: whistleblowing, war and vaccination. Based on the evidence provided in Redirect, the preliminary hypothesis in each case is that a key in such struggles is changing the way people think about themselves. It might even be possible that derogatory labelling is ineffective or counterproductive. Read Redirect and decide for yourself.


Timothy D. Wilson, Redirect: changing the stories we live by (Penguin, 2013)

Brian Martin

Thanks to Jørgen Johansen and Cynthia Kardell for useful comments on a draft.

Military research dilemmas

Should peace activists care about corruption and exploitation in military research?

military censorship

In May 2015, a new law will take effect in Australia concerning military-related research and development. The law has many critics, including leaders of Australian universities. Among the law’s opponents is Brendan Jones, a high-tech entrepreneur. In a strongly argued article in the December issue of  Australasian Science, he lays out the case against the new law. The article begins:

From 17 May 2015, when the Defence Trade Controls Act (DTCA) comes into effect, the federal Department of Defence will gain control over a very large share of high-tech and science research in Australia. Under the Act, publication, discussion or communication of research without a Defence permit will be punishable by up to 10 years jail, a $425,000 fine and forfeiture of research to the government. This includes scientists, academics, librarians, engineers, high-tech workers and companies that have never had a prior relationship with the Department of Defence.

Jones has been passionate in raising the alarm about the DTCA. He claims his business was the victim of depredations by the Australian Department of Defence, which took over his intellectual property without any compensation, causing his business to fail. If it had just been him, he might not have tried to expose it, but after he found out about several other similar cases, he decided he had to act.

It appears the Defence Department has its own favoured business partners. The department seeks out promising research and uses the ideas for its own purposes, without permission or compensation. The DTCA will legalise this sort of extractive process, backing it with punitive penalties for resistance.

Jones quotes several organisations and high-tech entrepreneurs who are critical of the DTCA. And not just critical — some of the entrepreneurs are planning to leave Australia. Jones is one of them, but not without a fight.

For months, Jones has been writing the most amazingly comprehensive treatments of the problems facing whistleblowers in Australia, typically in the form of open letters to politicians. It’s because of his interest in whistleblowing that I have been in touch with him. I’ve commented on drafts of several of his open letters, and posted a couple of them on my website.


Jones wrote a highly informative treatment of how whistleblowers should interact with journalists. In preparing his article, he contacted numerous journalists for feedback and advice. His article, “A whistleblower’s guide to journalists,” is the best available treatment on this topic. One of his recommendations for whistleblowers is to always remain anonymous if possible.

Several of Jones’ open letters are impressive pieces of research, with dozens or even hundreds of footnotes with references, quotes and examples. If you want a compendium of serious cases of corruption in Australia, Jones’ “Royal petition concerning federal government corruption” is the best available. Likewise, for a powerful indictment of the state of free speech in Australia, it is hard to go past his “Debunking Dreyfus on free speech and freedom.

Corruption in the military

Military expenditures are huge and highly subject to corruption. In many countries, the government runs a monopoly. In others, notably the US, the government buys from favoured suppliers. Because of secrecy and the pretext of national security, shonky operations prosper. In the US, where the processes are best documented, there is a revolving door for top-level military personnel, who join companies and lobby to obtain lucrative contracts.

One of the most famous early whistleblowers in the US was A. Ernest Fitzgerald, who in the 1980s exposed a $2 billion cost overrun in a military aircraft project. Taking inflation into account, this would be more like $20 billion in today’s dollars. For his efforts, Fitzgerald was subject to the usual methods of discrediting, harassment and sidelining. He wrote two books exposing corruption in US military contracting: The High Priests of Waste and The Pentagonists.


Over the years I’ve talked with quite a few military whistleblowers. They seldom have an easy time. Corruption is as common in the military as in any other part of society, perhaps more common; speaking out about it is quite a bit riskier, because reprisals can be severe, and sometimes whistleblowers are physically attacked. Few areas pose this level of danger to whistleblowers.

There’s a fascinating connection between military corruption and whistleblower laws. During the US civil war, President Abraham Lincoln was disgusted by companies cheating the government when providing military supplies, because their shoddy goods were undermining the war effort.


The government passed the False Claims Act, allowing whistleblowers who exposed companies defrauding the government to take legal action on behalf of the government, sometimes with the backing of the Department of Justice. The act provides financial rewards to these whistleblowers when prosecutions of corrupt companies are successful. The False Claims Act was revived in 1986 in response to corruption during a massive expansion in military expenditures, and is now widely seen as one of the most powerful pieces of whistleblower legislation. In Australia, the government has long resisted introduction of a similar law.

A dilemma for peace activists?

I’ve been involved with peace issues since the 1970s, and occasionally pondered the question of military corruption and waste. Should a peace activist care? Perhaps military waste is better than military efficiency!

In 1982, Mary Kaldor, a prominent figure in the European peace movement, authored a book entitled The Baroque Arsenal. She argued that military technology was becoming ever more gigantic in scale, high-cost and elaborate, rather like baroque churches that took decades to build. The result was that many weapons systems were becoming almost irrelevant for actual war-fighting: they were not rational from the point of view of military efficiency.


After I read Kaldor’s book, not long after it was published, I wrote in my notes about it, “But all this has little direct relevance to how to move against war. It seems more useful for those military and civilian planners who would like to truly modernise their armaments towards new industries and simplicity.”

Another thought: perhaps it is better for money to be wasted on inefficient, pointless technological monstrosities, especially if they don’t work. Billions of dollars spent on fighters or bombers that were never deployed might be better than less money spent on lean, efficient tools for killing.

On the other hand, when a military force has more than enough firepower for its purposes, additional expenditures may be pure waste and a drag on society. Furthermore, military corruption and waste may lead to lobbying for more funding: beneficiaries of boondoggles will seek to find ways to continue and increase their income streams. And even if some projects for new fighters or submarines are dropped after the expenditure of billions of dollars, this doesn’t mean other weapons disappear. Whatever the level of waste, rifles keep being produced.

Recently I read Paul Koistinen’s book State of War. His analysis of US military systems supports Kaldor’s analysis. Koistinen writes:

As a form of state capitalism, the defense sector was freed from practically all competitive market pressures. Under those circumstances, the industry became characterized by inefficiency, waste, and corruption; defense contractors too often turned out defective or failed weapons and equipment. Over time, massive expenditures for defense have had a very deleterious effect on the economy. These outlays have led to the hoarding of capital and human resources, especially among scientists and engineers, and to the diverting of public assistance from civilian enterprises. Of crucial significance, according to numerous critics, DOD [Department of Defense] budgets have distorted public priorities and spending, denying adequate attention and resources to infrastructure, education, medical care, and other public services and interests. (p. 235)


Activists have long stated that military spending would be more beneficial if redirected to human needs. However, making the military more efficient does not guarantee that savings will be redeployed for clean water, housing, education or health. Military efficiency might simply mean more money is available for weapons systems.

The DTCA brought back memories of these issues. The DTCA can be thought of as a straitjacket for Australian military-related research. Arguably, it will hinder research and development, with the additional side effect of undermining related civilian research, especially concerning so-called dual-use technologies, which can be adapted for military or civilian purposes.

Another possibility is that military systems that are fair and honest might be more open to switching to nonmilitary production. For decades, there has been a small but dedicated push for what is called “economic conversion” or “peace conversion,” which means switching from military production to production for civilian needs, for example from military vehicles to public transport. After the end of the cold war in 1989, there were great hopes that much such conversion would take place, as it did after the end of World Wars I and II. But these hopes were dashed: the military-industrial complex continued pretty much as before while searching for a new rationale. (Terrorism turned out to be the prime justification.)


It does seem plausible that military research and development that is riddled with corrupt and exploitative practices will be resistant to change, because corrupt operators are less subject to rational argument and planning. On the other hand, corrupt systems are less likely to lead to efficient killing machines. Perhaps the world is a safer place if nuclear weapons contractors cut corners in manufacturing, design and maintenance, so that weapons, if ever used, miss their targets or simply won’t work. In this scenario, the baroque arsenal that Mary Kaldor warned about is not such a bad thing: incredibly wasteful but less deadly than it might otherwise be.


An alternative research agenda

There is an alternative to military defence based on civilian methods of nonviolent action such as rallies, strikes, boycotts and occupations. Many people, because they believe violence always triumphs over nonviolence, see this as totally implausible, but there is good evidence that nonviolent methods can be more effective than armed struggle in challenging repressive regimes, because the goal is to win over the opponent, including the opponent’s troops.

The arguments about nonviolent defence – also called civilian-based defence, social defence and defence by civil resistance – have been canvassed elsewhere. Their relevance here is that if this alternative is taken seriously, it leads to an entirely different agenda for research, development and infrastructure. For example, decentralised renewable energy systems are much more suited for surviving an occupation, a blockade or a terrorist attack than centralised energy systems based on fossil fuels or nuclear power. Analogous considerations apply to communications, transport, agriculture and construction. A nonviolence-driven research agenda would give far more attention to social sciences and would change priorities in nearly every field of study.

From this point of view, the DTCA and problems of corruption in the military seem almost irrelevant. Research continues to be driven by military priorities, whether done efficiently or not.

Back to practicalities

A reorientation of military expenditures towards nonviolent alternatives is almost completely off the agenda. It proceeds only to the extent that developments, for example in energy and communications, increase the capacity of citizens to take action. As seen in the Arab spring and other nonviolent movements, network communication systems help citizens organise and coordinate actions.

For now, I will continue to support two seemingly disparate agendas: one is nonviolent defence and the other is dissent, including those who challenge the DTCA and other such legislation.

Image: Igor Saktor, The Australian

I’ve talked to a number of people in the military about nonviolent defence. Although most are sceptical about whether it could work, they recognise a common interest in thinking strategically about defending against aggression. Indeed, many officers would prefer to never have to fire a weapon in anger, seeing deterrence and prevention as superior to fighting.

In the same way, there can be a worthwhile dialogue and sharing of concerns when it comes to supporting integrity and free speech in the military. I will continue to support military whistleblowers and hope others will too.

Brian Martin

I thank Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford, Jørgen Johansen, Brendan Jones, Anne Melano, Brian Rappert and Kim Sawyer for valuable comments on drafts.

Jørgen Johansen comments

There are several discussions running in parallel here: one about the waste in military spending, one on the corruption in the military-industrial complex, one on defending a country without violent means, and one on the morality of having an inefficient military system compared to an efficient one. Even if they are related I think these should be held separate. One reason is that addressing topics separately makes it easier to understand, analyse, and act.

More importantly, for anyone who wants to oppose military/violent/corrupt systems, it is strategically important to confront them one at a time. To lump them together makes it almost impossible to “sell the arguments” and/or build alliances with those who are engaged in only one of these topics.

Too many activists are trapped in a fundamentalist attitude; “If you don’t agree with us on veganism, feminism, pacifism, sustainable energy, bi- and trans-sexuality, … we cannot have you in our group.” Almost all successful movements have focused on more limited questions, such as universal voting rights, anti-slavery, civil rights (anti-segregation), anti-personnel mines and anti-whaling.

If you don’t plan to write a huge book, there is no way you can properly describe all the complexities of the issues you mention in a single blog. This is of course not an argument against your topic for the blog, but advice for those who want to take up any of the issues you present and to run a campaign.

A final thought: it should not be on the peace movement’s agenda to discuss what sort of military means we want to see. Leave that to others.

Whistleblowing and loyalty

Whistleblowers can gain insights from Jonathan Haidt’s studies of the foundations for morality.

Whistleblowers are people who speak out in the public interest, for example to expose corruption, abuse or dangers to the public. Surely this should be seen as a valuable service. Yet whistleblowers are frequently treated as traitors, as guilty of something worse than the abuses and crimes they reveal.


National security whistleblowers, such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, have been called traitors. Whistleblowers who are teachers, police officers, public servants or corporate executives may be called traitors, dobbers, snitches or other epithets.

Just as important as words are the reprisals that whistleblowers experience, including ostracism, petty harassment, demotions, referral to psychiatrists and dismissal. To be targeted with such hostile actions signifies condemnation, even contempt. Where does this vitriol and hostility come from?

Also important is the role of bystanders, in particular the co-workers who might personally support the whistleblower but are unwilling to take a stand. Many of them are afraid they will become targets themselves; others always support management, sometimes in the hope of rewards. It is reasonable to ask, where does the incredible power of the organisation come from?

The Righteous Mind

Insights can be gained from Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind. Haidt, a psychologist, set out to discover the biological bases of human morality. But first it is useful to explain Haidt’s picture of the mind.


Imagine that your mind has two main components. The first is a rational, calculating operator that can examine courses of action and logically consider principles of behaviour. This is how most people think of themselves. Haidt calls this component the “rider.”

The second part of the mind is an intuitive operator that makes judgements on the basis of gut instinct, without consideration for facts or logic. This part is filled with passions and commitments, which the rider might consider biased and impulsive. Haidt calls this second part of the mind the “elephant.” The elephant makes day-to-day life possible; its quick responses are often sensible — but not always.

Haidt uses the metaphors of the rider and the elephant to highlight a key insight from studies of the mind: for many purposes, rational evaluation is unable to restrain instinctive responses. The elephant is too large and powerful to be controlled by the rider.

Haidt, through careful assessment of psychological research, concludes that in most cases the primary role of the rider is to figure out ways to justify what the elephant does. In other words, people reach their views about the world on the basis of gut instinct, and then their rational minds figure out reasons to justify these views.

Elephant and Rider

This is not a pretty picture, especially for those who believe in the primacy of rationality, or believe that they personally follow reason rather than emotion.

The next step in Haidt’s analysis is discovering the foundations of morality. Through a variety of means, he arrived at six main foundations that shape people’s senses of right and wrong: care, liberty, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Haidt used various tests to work out which of these values influence judgements in US people. He found that “liberals” (who might be called progressives in Australia) rely especially on care, liberty and fairness, whereas conservatives rely more equally on all of the foundations. This helps explain some of the political differences in the US.

Most of these foundations are relevant to whistleblowers. One key foundation, care, means looking after those in need, for example children and people suffering misfortune. When whistleblowers speak out about abuse of children or shortcomings in health services, they are implicitly appealing to the care foundation for morality. Another foundation, fairness, is relevant for those who speak out about corruption, including bribery, theft and nepotism. These are all violations of fairness.

So far so good. But whistleblowers come up against some of the other foundations. They are seen to be disloyal (to their employers), undermining authority (of their bosses) and sometimes transgressing on things considered sacred (such as when revealing confidential information). Haidt’s framework suggests that whistleblowers can gain support from some foundations of morality but are up against instinctive responses based on others.

At this point it is worth remembering the rider-elephant metaphor. Few people sit around scrutinising the bases of their own morality. Rather, their ideas of right and wrong are intuitive: they react with their gut and then search for rational justifications for their feelings. So if someone’s morality is strongly shaped by respect for authority, they may react emotionally against a co-worker who breaks ranks and then find reasons for their antagonism.

Sometimes there are multiple sources of authority. For example, a person can accept the authority of church leaders or seek a higher authority in the teachings of spiritual leaders such as Buddha, Jesus or Mohammed. However, the rider-elephant factor enters in here: because most teachings can be interpreted in various ways, the rider can find ways of justifying the elephant’s actions. For example, even when religious texts oppose killing, most religious leaders allow participation in war, using various rationalisations.

However, it seems too simple to say that whistleblowers put a priority on care, fairness and liberty (moral priorities for liberals) whereas bosses put a priority on loyalty and authority (which influence conservatives more than liberals). Whistleblowers vary greatly in their beliefs; many are the epitome of the loyal employee. Furthermore, what about all the bystanders, who by their inaction support bosses and let whistleblowers cop it? They are bound to include people driven by a variety of moral precepts.


Various researchers have tried to figure out what, psychologically, makes whistleblowers different from others. Employers would love to know, so they could avoid hiring potential whistleblowers or, having hired one, keep them away from sensitive information. Given the lack of any reliable psychological tests to detect potential whistleblowers, it is safe to assume that psychology is not the key to understanding whistleblowing. This is especially the case for inadvertent whistleblowers, the workers who report a problem, are totally surprised when they experience reprisals, and afterwards say “I was just doing my job.” There are psychological factors involved in this, for example honesty and conscientiousness, but no obvious connection to the foundations of morality traced by Haidt. Or is there?

Care versus loyalty?

Sexual abuse is a violation of the morality of care: those who are vulnerable need to be protected. Speaking out about the abuse, on the other hand, challenges authority and loyalty.

Consider, for example, sexual abuse by clergy. The disturbing reality is that many people in churches knew about it but took little or no action. This can be interpreted as loyalty and authority taking precedence over care. On the other hand, the response of many members of the public, when they learned about the abuse, was completely different: many were horrified and disgusted. As outsiders, their conceptions of loyalty were potentially quite different. They may have had no particular connection to the church, or perhaps had their own loyalty, for example to their children.

But what about authority? Those who are not directly subject to a particular authority may not think deference to it is so important. This observation is compatible with the advice that whistleblowers can gain greatest support from other whistleblowers and from members of the public, for example through media stories.

So morality based on authority seems, at least when it applies to whistleblowers, to be quite specific: deference to authority takes precedence mainly when people are directly subject to the authority, as in the case of bosses or church leaders. This deference can also be explained a different way: people are afraid of the consequences of bucking authority. They might lose their job or, just as worrying, be subject to reprisals such as reprimands, harassment and ostracism. It might seem that fear is a fundamental factor in this dimension of morality.

Loyalty to what?

For me, this raises another question. Why should the two factors of loyalty and authority be tied to the organisation where a person works? In terms of evolution, humans lived in groups whose very survival often depended on banding together. Dissent was potentially dangerous, so it could have been advantageous to attack or expel those who challenged the group’s leaders or threatened its cohesion.

However, many groups today are a far cry from the groups in human prehistory, which were often quite small and probably never much more than a few hundred people in size. Working for a government or corporation with thousands of employees is not the same, neither in scale nor in the danger to the organisation of a bit of dissent.

This suggests to me that although loyalty is a key factor in morality, how loyalty is assigned remains open. Inside a school, for example, a pupil might be loyal to a peer group, a sporting team, a teacher or the school as a whole. In a corporation, a worker might be loyal to a work team, a union, professional peers in the field, a particular boss or the company as a whole. The possibility that loyalty is not automatic suggests that it is worth looking at the methods by which organisations foster it.

Changing gut reactions to whistleblowers

It’s worth considering each of Haidt’s six foundations for morality and asking, what can be done, by whistleblowers and their supporters, to change gut reactions to whistleblowing so it is more valued? The foundations of care, fairness and liberty are ones that should create favourable attitudes towards whistleblowers. The message is to continually emphasise care for others when speaking out about hazards to the public, emphasise fairness when speaking out about corruption, and emphasise liberty — resistance to domination — when speaking out about threats from government or corporate power.

Those three foundations are the easy ones for whistleblowers, namely ones where they have a natural advantage. The other three foundations are more challenging: loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Loyalty to the employer is commonly expected. Whistleblowers violate this sense of loyalty: they are seen as traitors. Are there other ways to assign loyalty to which whistleblowers could appeal? One possibility is loyalty to the mission of the organisation, not to the organisation itself. Of course organisational leaders say they are pursuing the mission, so distinguishing between the mission and the organisation is hard to sell.


Another possibility of an alternative loyalty is to other workers, especially when they are supportive of each other, as in work teams or unions. Instead of speaking out as an individual, a worker concerned about abuses could instead build networks and alliances first, gaining support in order to promote collective action. This is not easy, but does have a prospect of fostering a different assignment of loyalties.

Then there is authority, a moral foundation that whistleblowers almost inevitably challenge. Questioning the boss’s authority is difficult, whether by direct confrontation or by reporting problems to the boss’s boss, higher officials or watchdog bodies. Is there any different line of authority that can be an alternative source of legitimacy? One possibility is the authority of laws. If bosses are violating the law, they are violating legal authority. The trouble is that by the time legal sanctions are applied — if they ever are — it is too late for the whistleblower. After all, corrupt operators do not declare they are breaking the law. Indeed, they commonly allege that whistleblowers are criminals, by violating terms of employment, confidentiality agreements and the like.

One of the advantages of whistleblower laws is that they give legitimacy to whistleblowers. Even though the laws may give little protection in practice and, even worse, give a false sense of security, their very existence may help undermine the assumption that authority is always right.


Finally there is sanctity, a moral foundation of special significance to many political conservatives. If corruption is stigmatised, then whistleblowers can draw on this moral foundation. This is suggested by the expressions “clean hands” and “dirty hands,” referring to honest and dishonest individuals. Whistleblowers can assist their cause by avoiding any activity that can be easily stigmatised as dishonest or unsavoury. By the same token, employers regularly manipulate the sanctity foundation by trying to stigmatise the whistleblower, by spreading rumours (sexual misbehaviour is a favourite allegation) and by treating the whistleblower as tainted, not to be trusted or even spoken to. Ostracism — cutting off personal relationships — is in essence to treat a person as dangerous and even contagious.

When whistleblowers join together with others, and obtain support from bystanders, it is far more difficult to stigmatise them. There is protection in numbers.

Considering the various foundations of morality thus provides some direction for whistleblowers and their supporters.

  • When appropriate, emphasise violations of care, fairness, and liberty.
  • Search for alternative bases for loyalty and authority.
  • Try to assign stigma to wrongdoers.
  • Be prepared for the tactics used to turn these moral foundations against whistleblowers.

Brian Martin

More information

I haven’t tried to provide sources for many of the generalisations I’ve made about whistleblowers. For more information see my book Whistleblowing and my site on suppression of dissent.


Thanks to Paula Arvela, Don Eldridge, Kathy Flynn, Xiaoping Gao, Steven Howard, Nicola Marks and Tshering Yangden for helpful feedback on drafts.

I am vice president of Whistleblowers Australia but my views here do not necessarily represent those of others in the organisation.

Comments from Kim Sawyer

[Kim was a whistleblower at two Australian universities, and has been active on whistleblowing issues for many years.]

Excellent analysis – corresponds to the thoughts I’ve had over a long period of time. Haidt’s prescription of the rider-elephant dichotomy and the six foundations of morality are insightful. Your application of those foundations to whistleblowing is spot on. Two general comments, and then some specific comments from my experience.

First, whistleblowing acts to elevate the conflict between the foundations. It brings morality into focus for everyone; the whistleblower, the respondent, the bystanders. The foundations are like latent characteristics, and whistleblowing becomes the realization of those characteristics so that an individual has to now make a choice. It’s like going to the ballot box, you have to now choose between fairness and loyalty to the institution.

Secondly, one aspect which could be highlighted more is risk. Everyone, whistleblower, respondent and bystander, assesses their risks. Risk minimization takes over – that is, self-interest. The bystander may see the same unfairness as the whistleblower, but they also see the risk to themselves. You could say that these six foundations are a portfolio, and the whistleblower and bystander assign different weights to different foundations. My sense is that the bystander will always converge to the less risky portfolio which is loyalty to authority.

Some specific comments from my own experience

  1. For me, fairness was always the important factor. In both whistleblowing cases, I chose fairness over loyalty to an unfair authority. And it correlates with my political leanings which are progressive. Of course, there was also a sense of professional responsibility, that a professor should act in the long-term interests of the institution and of higher education in general. Obviously, I took my professional responsibilities too seriously.
  2. The two cases I was involved with highlighted the singularity of whistleblowing, but from vastly different starting points. In both cases though, the institution tried to replace the loyalty of colleagues to me by loyalty to the institution. This strategy emphasises the whistleblower and not the whistleblowing; the weaknesses of the whistleblower and not the foundational issues were highlighted.
  3. Another issue is the conflicting loyalties within the whistleblower. I had loyalty to both universities, but the loyalty was principally to the long-term, not to the short-term management. Whistleblowing involves a lot of internal conflict for a whistleblower between fairness and loyalty to authority. Fairness won out for me.

Learning from Snowden

A review and commentary on Luke Harding’s book The Snowden Files, with special attention to implications for leaking and whistleblowing

Snowden I want you cropped
In June 2013, spectacular revelations were reported in the news. A secretive US organisation, the National Security Agency, was carrying out extensive spying on people’s electronic communications. This spying was massive. The NSA, according to reports, was collecting just about everything imaginable: emails, phone calls, texts, you name it – from everyone around the world.

The revelations continued for weeks and months. The NSA was spying on US citizens in the US, apparently in violation of the law. It was also spying on foreign leaders. For example, there were reports that the NSA had monitored the personal mobile phone of Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, and the phones of many other political leaders.

The stories were broken by the Guardian, a well-known British newspaper and media group. The Guardian‘sinformation came from an NSA insider who had leaked vast amounts of NSA top-secret material. This was unheard of. The NSA did not have leaks.

Several days later, the leaker went public. He was Edward Snowden, a 29-year old NSA contractor who looked even younger than his age, and he was in Hong Kong.

Snowden said he had released the material because it showed the US government was carrying out massive surveillance, and that this needed to be exposed. He seemed to be sincere.

US government officials were furious. Snowden became a wanted man, and the full power of the US government was deployed in an attempt to arrest him.

If you’ve read Robert Ludlum’s novels about Jason Bourne, or seen the films based on them, starting with The Bourne Identity, you’ll have an idea of how surveillance capacities might be used to track down a rogue agent. Something similar happened in Snowden’s case, but this time in reality rather than fiction. The US government pulled out all stops, not to assassinate Snowden, but to arrest him.

The Snowden files

If you followed the Snowden revelations via news reports, like me, some of the basic points will be clear but how it all hangs together may not be so obvious. For a broader perspective, I recommend Luke Harding’s new book The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man (London: Guardian Books, 2014). Harding is a journalist for the Guardian and has obtained first-hand information on key events. Just as importantly, Harding writes in an engaging fashion. Parts of the book read like a thriller.

Snowden Files

The Snowden Files covers Snowden’s early online presence, his patriotism, his work for the NSA, his gradual disillusionment due to observing dubious activities carried out in secret, his collection of NSA files and leaking of them to the Guardian, and his experiences as a fugitive. In between the Snowden narrative, Harding tells about the massive spying operations carried out by the NSA and its partners, especially its British equivalent GCHQ. He also tells how the media – especially the Guardian – handled the biggest leak in history in the face of implacable hostility from intelligence agencies and top politicians. Snowden was incredibly brave and shrewd, but so were quite a few others in the story.

Lessons for whistleblowers

Here I offer a few lessons for whistleblowers based on Snowden’s experiences. Although few whistleblowers reveal information warranting international headlines, every effort at speaking out in the public interest is important and hence worth doing as well as possible.

Leaking is revealing inside information, typically to media or sometimes to interested groups. A lot of leaks are from top politicians and bureaucrats. These leaks are everyday operations intended to manipulate public opinion for political or personal purposes.

However, when someone leaks information in the public interest, for example exposing corruption or dangers to the public, top managers typically treat this as a serious breach of trust. Leakers are often called traitors. The double standard is stark: it’s okay for bosses to leak but not for employees.

Whistleblowers are people, typically employees, who speak out in the public interest, and most of the time they reveal their identity immediately, such as when they report a problem to the boss or some internal body. Unfortunately, this is disastrous much of the time: the whistleblowers are attacked – for example ostracised, denigrated, reprimanded, sometimes dismissed – and furthermore their access to information is blocked. As soon as their identity becomes known, they have limited opportunities to collect more information about wrongdoing.

For these reasons, it is often advantageous for whistleblowers to remain anonymous, and to leak information to outside groups, especially to journalists or action groups. The leaking option reduces the risk of reprisals and enables the leaker to remain in the job, gathering information and potentially leaking again. Furthermore, stories based on leaks are more likely to focus on the information, not the leaker.

snowden wbs are heroes

Lesson 1: be incredibly careful

Snowden leaked the most top-secret information of anyone in history, but it wasn’t easy. The lesson from his experiences is that to be a successful leaker, you must be both knowledgeable and incredibly careful. Snowden had developed exceptional computer skills. He was leaking information about state surveillance, and he knew the potential for monitoring conversations and communication. He took extraordinary care in gathering NSA documents and in releasing them. When he contacted journalists, he used secure email. When meeting them, he went to extreme lengths to screen their equipment for surveillance devices. For example, before speaking to journalists, he had them put their phones in a freezer, because the phones might contain monitoring devices.

Few whistleblowers need to take precautions to the level that Snowden did: his enemies were far more determined and technically sophisticated than a typical whistleblower’s employer. Nevertheless, it is worth learning from Snowden’s caution: be incredibly careful.

Lesson 2: choose recipients carefully

Snowden considered potential recipients for his leaks very carefully. He wanted journalists and editors who would treat his disclosures seriously and have the determination to publish them in the face of displeasure by the US government. He decided not to approach US media, which usually are too acquiescent to the government. US media have broken some big stories, but sometimes only after fear of losing a scoop. The story of the My Lai massacre, when US troops killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians during the Indochina war, was offered to major newspapers and television networks, but they were not interested. In 2004, US television channel CBS initially held back the story about abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners by US prison guards at Abu Ghraib prison, at the request of the Pentagon, finally going to air because the story was about to be broken in print.

new-york-times-building-380x285Snowden didn’t approach the New York Times

Snowden decided instead to approach the Guardian, a British media group with a history of publishing stories in the public interest, despite government displeasure. It was a wise choice.

Lesson 3: be persistent

Snowden decided to approach the Guardian, and not just anyone: in late 2012 he contacted the Guardian‘s freelance columnist Glenn Greenwald, noted for his outspoken stands critical of US government abuses, especially surveillance. Snowden sent Greenwald an anonymous email, offering disclosures and asking Greenwald to install encryption software. However, Greenwald – resident in Brazil – was busy with other projects and didn’t get around to it. So Snowden created a video primer for installing the software just to encourage Greenwald to use it. However, even this wasn’t enough to prod the busy Greenwald to act.

Snowden didn’t give up. In January 2013, he next contacted Greenwald’s friend and collaborator Laura Poitras – a fierce critic of the US security state, and a victim of it – who he thought would be interested herself and who would get Greenwald involved. It worked.


The lesson is to be persistent in seeking the right outlet for leaks – and to be careful and patient along the way.

Lesson 4: improve communication skills

Snowden is a quiet, unassuming sort of person. He might be called a nerd. Contrary to some of his detractors, it was not his desire to become a public figure. Despite his retiring nature, Snowden knew what he wanted to say. He refined his key ideas so he could be quite clear when speaking and writing, and he stuck to his message.

Most whistleblowers need good communication skills to be able to get their message across. (In a few cases, leaking documents without commentary might be sufficient.) My usual advice is to write a short summary of the issues, but this isn’t easy, especially when you are very close to the events. Being able to speak well can be just as important, if you have telephone or face-to-face contact with journalists or allies. Many people will judge your credibility by how convincing you sound in speech and writing. Practice is vital, as is feedback on how to improve.

Lesson 5: make contingency plans

Snowden thought carefully what he wanted to achieve and how he was going to go about it. Initially he leaked selected NSA files to journalists to pique their interest and demonstrate his bona fides. After all, who’s going to believe someone sending an email saying they can show the NSA is carrying out massive covert surveillance of citizens and political leaders? After establishing credibility, Snowden then arranged a face-to-face meeting, to hand over the NSA files and help explain them: many of the files were highly technical and not easy for non-specialists to understand.

After the initial stories in the Guardian and the ensuing media storm, Snowden knew that it would be impossible for him to remain in hiding. The US government would do everything possible, technically and politically, to find and arrest him. So Snowden decided to go public, namely to reveal his identity. This would help to add credibility to the revelations by attaching them to a human face.

He did not anticipate every subsequent development: it was not part of a plan to flee Hong Kong and end up in Russia. Even so, Snowden anticipated more of what happened than most whistleblowers, who are often caught unawares by reprisals and stunned by the failure of bosses to address their concerns and of watchdog agencies to be able to protect them.

The lesson from Snowden is to think through likely options, including worst case scenarios, and make plans accordingly.

Is this your escape plan?

Lesson 6: be prepared for the consequences

Snowden knew that leaking NSA documents would make him a wanted man. He was prepared for the worst scenario, arrest and lengthy imprisonment. He knew what he was sacrificing. Indeed, he had left his long-time girlfriend in Hawaii, knowing he might never see her again. He made his decision and followed it through.

So far, Snowden has avoided the worst outcomes, from his point of view. He might have ended up in prison, without access to computers (his greatest fear), perhaps even tortured like military whistleblower Chelsea Manning. Still, living in Russia – an authoritarian state, where free speech is precarious – is hardly paradise. Snowden is paying a huge price for his courageous actions. He knew he would, and he remains committed to his beliefs.

Whistleblowers seldom appreciate the venom with which their disclosures will be received. It is hard to grasp that your career might be destroyed, and perhaps also your finances, health and relationships. It is best to be prepared for the worst, just in case. Being prepared often makes the difference between collapsing under the strain and surviving or even thriving in new circumstances.


Reprisals are only partly directed at the whistleblower. The more important audience is other employees, who receive the message that speaking out leads to disastrous consequences.

Snowden has provided a different, somewhat more optimistic message. He has shown that the NSA is not invincible: its crimes can be exposed. He has shown that careful preparation and wise choices can maximise the impact of disclosures. He has stood up in the face of the US government, and continued unbowed. Although few whistleblowers will ever have an opportunity like Snowden, or take risks like he has, there is much to learn from his experiences.

Brian Martin,

This post is reproduced from the July issue of The Whistle.