Whistleblowing is a contentious subject. Some would say that whistleblowing is akin to being a “traitor,” or even in some cases equivalent to being a “spy,” while others will say that whistleblowers are heroes who make sacrifices for the common good. I believe the question is more nuanced than that, because we have to weigh the potential dangers of whistleblowing and the potential benefits.
First, to highlight the benefits, and why whistleblowing is often an important thing to do. Whistleblowing is sometimes the only way important information can come to light and helps us keep groups accountable for actions that are not reviewable by the public. In fact, whistleblowers are important for that reason, as the act of whistleblowing sparks discussions about what is really going on in an organization. Even if the organization is not sanctioned in any way, there is at least pressure to change for the better, which is inherently a good thing.
On the other hand, whistleblowing has its dangers. For example, the leaking of government secrets is often a a dangerous act due to the complicated nature of politics. Additionally, it is possible that revealing dangerous facts might be misleading, or that people may draw incorrect conclusions due to not knowing the full story. Thus, a whistleblower also has the responsibility of making sure the information revealed will lead to more benefit than harm, especially as the whistleblower is in a better position than the general public is to interpret the released data.
The latter point still has its dangers however. Consider the question: should a whistleblower have an agenda, or should the released facts stand for itself? There is some appeal to the objective idea of “facts stand for themselves,” but in reality it is often impractical. On the other hand, whistleblowing with a strong agenda may cause a strong bias towards inaccurate representations, which may cause unjust harm to the reputation of the organization, or perhaps harm to other groups.
Another point that should be made on the subject of whistleblowing is the way information is released. I am of the opinion that it is never proper to go directly to the media, and that the media is a source of last resort. There are proper channels for which whistleblowing can go through, and by going through these channels first, we may be able to reduce the harm that whistleblowing may cause, as well as provide better context for the interpretation of information. Going straight to the media opens up the information to the general public, and the general public is not always the best group to interpret information, especially in an objective manner.
As can be seen, there are many many nuances to what justifies “proper” whistleblowing. To provide an example of how these nuances may play out, let us consider the subject of Chelsea Manning. First, let’s weigh the benefits and negatives of the case. First, Chelsea released a video allegedly showing an Apache Helicopter opening fire on and killing potentially innocent citizens, which sparked debate on what our military is doing in the Middle East and how the military makes decisions. This can be considered a benefit, as the debate sparked could help educate citizens, while also putting pressure on the military to review decisions made. On the other hand, the video was very shocking to citizens who are unused to seeing combat, and so the reaction may have been more emotionally charged than objective, which may have caused more harm than good.
Additionally, what is less known perhaps is that Chelsea had also released a bulk of other information, including some diplomatic cables, and the manner in which she released information was haphazard at best: she simply released as much info as she could. This is an extremely irresponsible way of whistleblowing, as the information released could potentially endanger political relationships without having a positive benefit as the released cables did not spark any meaningful discussion as the attention was focused on the video.
As another consideration, Chelsea did not seem to have a good reason to release the files she did, judging from her haphazard nature. In fact, from a documentary on Chelsea, it appeared she may in fact have released the files out of spite, which is certainly not a good reason. All in all, while her whistleblowing did create some solid discussions, her haphazard methodology and lack of a clear intent would make me question whether or not the action was justified, and to me Chelsea Manning is not the hero that others may think.