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On the Impact of the Internet on Whistleblowing

Sunday, 31 May 2015 Manolo Palao Posted in iTTi Views

Some people act according to their ethical / social / political beliefs and they act that way in spite of the costs and risks that such an attitude might entail. 

The behavior of many of them deviates often from their declared ideals, but in other cases it is pretty consistent. 

Occasionally, the price they pay is high and sometimes so high that —if publicly known— they are considered heroes, prophets or martyrs. 

If their sets of beliefs and their actions collide with the interests of the establishment, they are often proscribed as revolutionaries or criminals. 

But public opinion (except in non-democratic societies) is not monolithic and –for this reason­– individuals considered criminals by certain groups may be considered saints by others. 

The Internet (in those societies where it has already become a commodity) grants a powerful tool easy to use, with low-entry barriers, to propagate activism and hacktivism and is a field of operations for black and white hats.  

The ease of use and relative anonymity / impunity of the Internet may be a new mean for whistleblowers (who previously used the post or the newspapers) but it is hard to accept that it fosters the disclosure of wrongdoings. 

A different story is the strong pull effect of cases like WikiLeaks or Snowden.

The media (and in particular the group of syndicated newspapers that covered the WikiLeaks case) played a significant role, providing / increasing WikiLeaks’ legitimacy and meant an awakening for millions of citizens. 

And this cooperative relationship / reinforcement media-whistleblowers is apparently frequent, with its ups and downs. 

Prof. Gabriella Coleman [i] from McGill University, who has researched for years the cultures of hacking and digital activism, covers that issue —among many others— in an interesting book [ii], reporting a visit to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the Canadian equivalent of the CIA, emphasized the role of the press. 

Mr. Ben Wizner [iii], Director of the Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project at American Civil Liberties Union, takes a similar stance [iv].

The current amplifying effect of the media and social networks is amazing. 

Bruce Schneier [v] has estimated [vi] that 700 million people modified their behavior as a result of Snowden’s disclosures, even if the mainstream media coverage was limited and biased by sorting out and publishing only the less technical issues.

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[ii] “The joke opened the door to further conversation concerning the media's central role in amplifying the power of Anonymous. One CSIS agent shared his anger at the media for making this collective of collectives more powerful than they ought to have been. I was, I have to admit, relishing the fact that the G-men and Anons, mutually opposed at one level, were nevertheless (very loosely) allied in holding an ambivalent attitude toward the mass media. We all agreed that the media had helped to make Anonymous what it was today” [emphasis, mine].  Coleman, G. (2014). Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous ISBN 9781781685839. Introduction. “I did it for the lulz”. 


[iv] “So I think the journalists play a very, very vital role. Now I think that they have played that role extremely responsibly. I haven't heard of a single case where a journalist reporting on the Snowden documents has done so without first consulting with the governments that are most relevant and would be most affected.” Retrieved 20150531  from 


[vi] “And running the numbers, I calculated that 700 million people on this planet have changed their behavior because of the Snowden documents of the NSA's activities. Now, maybe they didn't really change their behaviour very much, maybe it wasn't effective, but I can't think of another issue that changed the behaviour of 700 million people on this planet”. Retrieved 20150531  from 


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