A mysterious, white-haired man casts a cautious glance over his shoulder and steps onto a train. Like a man on the lam, he has no fixed address and lives out of the rucksack that he carries. The man could be a character in a Hollywood film, maybe one of the Bourne series, but he isn’t. The man described is Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, an internet site for whistleblowers. And he’s right to be cautious.
Whistleblowing isn’t to be taken lightly. Mordechai Vanunu spent 18 years in prison, 11 of them in solitary confinement, for revealing details of Israel’s nuclear program to a UK newspaper. Amnesty International described Vanunu as a “prisoner of conscience” and he’s been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize a number of times. He’s paid a heavy price for his courageous actions.
Whistleblowers comprise an important and undervalued genre of hero. Just as traditional heroes, they demonstrate courage and bravery, and accept personal risks in the interests of others.
On a recent Veteran’s Day, I was struck by the extent to which we use the term “hero” to describe soldiers. I don’t disagree with this use, but it seems odd that the term is seldom qualified. What distinguishes our soldiers from the soldiers on the side that we’re fighting? How do we know that we’re the good guys?
“Serving one’s country” without any consideration of the ethical basis for its policies doesn’t seem an especially laudable undertaking. What we’re really doing when we offer blind support for our troops is offering blind support for our governments’ policies. Blind obedience to anything is dangerous. This is what makes huge armies of bad guys possible. This is how genocide happens.
There aren’t enough truly evil psychopathic types to build an entire army of bad guys to carry out atrocities. Could it be that the majority of people who join an army, regardless of the conflict or the side they take, think they’re doing something noble – fighting for freedom, for instance? It seems that if we were to put an army together to carry out unethical acts, we’d have to use ordinary people and convince them that the unethical acts are actually noble.
Which brings me back to whistleblowers and the noble things they represent, like freedom of information and integrity. Heroes and bad guys are distinguished by facts. Both may think they’re doing something noble and both may be lauded as heroes by their fellow countrymen and their family members, but invariably one side is wrong. We can only know which side that is if we have access to complete and reliable information.
Access to information is one of the most important freedoms that people can have. Without it, we can’t know what side of any conflict we should be on. And we can be easily manipulated. We can be led to believe that we have freedoms that we lack. We can be led to believe that ordinary people are “bad guys”. And we can become the “bad guys” ourselves.
In terms of loss of life, the 9/11 attacks stand out as the worst terrorist attack in history. For each hijacker, 157 civilians were killed. In January, Pakistani authorities reported that American drone attacks in 2009 killed 140 civilians for every targeted al-Qaeda or Taliban member. If there had been 2 or 3 more hijackers on the planes that hit the World Trade Center, the ratios would be the same. If these figures are accurate, then the US is committing horrific acts of terrorism, framed as part of a “war on terror”. Americans can’t know if they should be outraged or proud, since the figures vary widely. Other sources claim that only a third of those killed were civilians.
Courage and bravery on their own aren’t worth celebrating. It takes courage and bravery to poke a mean dog with a stick – that doesn’t mean it’s laudable. We can’t be sure that our soldiers are heroes unless we have accurate information. The Wikileaks video, Collateral Murder, revealed a sharp discrepancy between events as they happened and as they were reported. The video shows a number of people being fired upon from a US apache helicopter. Initially, it was reported that those killed in the attack were militants, but the video revealed that the dead included civilians and Reuters staff, and the injured included a couple of children. The most chilling part of the video, of course, was the alacrity with which they killed and congratulated each other on their nice hits. The take home message, however, is that the mainstream media cannot be trusted to provide an accurate account of events.
Governments simply can’t be trusted to provide us with accurate information. A 2008 study by Charles Lewis and Mark Reading-Smith of the Center for Public Integrity revealed that Bush and seven of his top officials “waged a carefully orchestrated campaign of misinformation about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq”. According to the report, in the two years following 9/11, they made 935 false statements. Americans went to war for bogus reasons. Perhaps the war was justified, but whatever valid justification there might have been, it wasn’t the one that was served up to the public. How confident should we be that our soldiers are heroes if we don’t know why the war is being fought?
It should be clear to everyone that governments and international agencies can’t be trusted to dispense accurate and complete information. I think we can safely say now that the threat from swine flu was exaggerated. We can also say that the World Health Organization wasn’t as transparent about potential conflicts of interest as it should have been. If there is any doubt about the inappropriateness of the relationship between the WHO and the pharmaceutical industry, documents leaked through Wikileaks should clear it up.
Dishonesty and lack of transparency are serious problems. They fuel conspiracy theories and generate controversy where there should be none. Given the state of affairs, it’s not entirely irrational to doubt authorities. Industry is enormously powerful and bias in research and reporting is a real phenomenon. The mainstream media is corporate-owned and even government-sponsored media is non-democratic and subject to bias. When a group can benefit by manipulating public opinion and it is has the power to do so, it will.
It’s no secret that public opinion can be manipulated and people’s behaviors influenced. Political campaigns can influence the way we vote, commercials can influence what we buy and what we’d like to have. The information that we take in through other people, and through movies and forms of entertainment, shapes the way we see the world. Huge amounts of money are spent on marketing research and strategies. Those who would benefit from controlling public opinion and attitudes would be foolish not to make use of this knowledge.
The power of marketing can be harnessed for our good or to our detriment. Public health campaigns employ such strategies to improve people’s lives. Marketing of fast food may contribute to obesity, which has led some to call for a ban on the marketing of such foods to children. Some argue that the ban should be implemented for children since they're unable to understand the intent of the advertising. But, while adults can understand the intent of advertising, they are not immune to its influence. Any age can be targeted. In a sense, marketing fast foods, or any unhealthy product, amounts to a public unhealth campaign of questionable ethics.
The information we receive also shapes our attitudes toward violence. Societies can be groomed for war or for peace. In the 1980s, the US spent millions on textbooks for Afghan school children in an attempt to nurture violent fundamentalism to fight Soviet communism. The books were laden with militant Islamic teachings and violent imagery.
In the West, the glorification of violence and militarism is accomplished largely by entertainment media. Hollywood tells us who our heroes are. Jason Bourne is cool and he’s an assassin; it’s cool to be an assassin. The glorification of the military in Hollywood films is no accident. Liaison officers from the Pentagon work with Hollywood producers to generate what amounts to feature length advertisements for the military.
The public stands to benefit immensely by controlling the information it receives. The information to which we are exposed is like the curriculum of an academic program in which we never willfully enrolled. Given the power that information has over us, it’s reasonable to suppose that we should have democratic control over our media.
Controlling information is as important as government itself. Power is not held just by the people who make decisions, but by people who can garner the support needed for the implementation of their plans. You can’t lead if you can’t get people to follow. And you can’t get people to follow if you can’t influence the information they receive. When an elected government acts in a manner that's inconsistent with the wishes of the people it represents, there is no greater threat than transparency and free-flowing information. An informed public is a force to be reckoned with.
Unfortunately, we the people are not in charge of the information we receive. Our governments decide what they want to do and then manipulate public opinion to suit their purposes. This was made clear by a CIA document leaked through Wikileaks this past March. The document outlines PR strategies for manipulating public opinion in France and Germany, with the intention of bolstering support for increased troop deployment in Afghanistan. The report says: “The Afghanistan mission’s low public salience has allowed French and German leaders to disregard popular opposition and steadily increase their troop contributions to the International Security Assistance Force.” This is not democratic leadership.
With greater reliance on electronic media and electronic forms of information storage, there comes greater ability to manipulate information and to distort reality. People are less willing to seek out hard copies to confirm facts, and in some cases printed copies may not be available. When multiple versions of a story surface on the internet and attempts to check facts yield “file not found” the truth has been effectively obscured.
The power to control information is being wielded in more sophisticated ways than ever before. The Israeli foreign ministry coordinates vounteer efforts to spread propaganda on the internet. They recognize that public opinion is not determined by the facts, but by which version of reality gets more favorable media exposure.
Thanks to the internet, a wide variety of information sources is easily available to us. However, some countries have already taken steps to restrict this information. China and Iran already have internet censorship, and Australia has recently followed suit. This has been served to Australians under the guise of managing obscenities like child pornography and sites that advocate terrorism. While this may sound reasonable, the blacklist, leaked through Wikileaks, proved to be inexplicably broad and included many sites that had absolutely nothing to do with pornography or terror, like Wikileaks.
We can’t afford to ignore the power that information has over us. If we value democracy and freedom, we need to have democratic control over our media. If we don’t have control over the information we receive, we can’t know when our leaders behave undemocratically. There’s a war being waged over our most important freedoms, and whistleblowers are on the front line. They are the heroes of free societies.