Generation Z is the first demographic cohort to have grown up with access to the internet. How will those of us born between 1995 and 2010 impact the future of whistleblowing? Will “woke snowflakes” raise the alarm at the drop of a beanie or has unrelenting exposure to global tragedy desensitised ‘Zoomers’?
Whistleblowing is more public than ever before. Chelsea Manning was convicted for disclosing US army documents in 2013. The #metoo movement began its crusade in 2017. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 was making headlines as some Gen Zers started voting. Whistleblowers and their ensuing scandals can now expect to receive 24/7, HD coverage across both traditional and social media.
As a result, most of Gen Z can easily summon up as many historical whistleblowing incidents as they want in the palm of their hand. Now more than ever we have an awareness of coverups and the heroes that try to unmask them, so it makes sense that a new generation of workers would be ready and willing to call out injustice.
This does not guarantee smooth sailing for the future of whistleblowing. The Public Interest Disclosures Act 1998 (PIDA) protects workers who raise so-called “public interest” concerns. Caselaw suggests that a wrongdoing is more likely to engage the public interest if it significantly impacts several people and the wrongdoer is “important” in terms of the size of its relevant community. When everyone can access and disseminate information at hyper-optic rates, where does the public interest end?
People’s private lives are advertised and broadcasted on (social) media with increasingly public impacts on society, so PIDA must soon decide where it draws the line. Do concerns that (a) a politician advocating for sustainability put their recycling in general waste or that (b) an influencer routinely recommends plastic surgery procedures to a pre-dominantly underage audience meet PIDA’s “public interest” requirement?
As public image increasingly becomes something of a currency, employers will need to take care. A negative media disclosure can now bankrupt a company, or make a short seller very, very rich. This is not to say we’ll necessarily be seeing a wave of profiteering Gen Z whistleblowers, but that employers have an extra, monetary incentive to take internal speak-up procedures seriously lest their wrongdoing be forced out into the open. Gen Z know there is usually an audience out there ready to learn about the latest whistleblowing scandal, so their employers would do well to be first in line to listen. The power imbalance has swung ever so slightly back in the whistleblower’s favour.
Recent Gen Zers in the news include Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old US Air National Guardsman who leaked a trove of highly classified documents over Discord. While he wouldn’t be seen as a whistleblower under UK law, the case raises important questions as to what happens when social media takes the decision to privately disclose out of a whistleblower’s hands. If I share my fraud concerns in a supposedly private work group chat, which then leaks and becomes headline news, what protection am I entitled to? Especially if, as Mr Teixera’s lawyers argued, I never meant for it to be so widely seen. PIDA is unprepared for the leaky habits of so-called “private” forums that Gen Z populate.
The 13 to 28-year-old kids are alright. The future looks noisy for destigmatized, career-hopping whistleblowers who don’t want to stake their reputations on corporate ethics. But whistleblowing as we know it is likely to change. A stricter and more restrictive regime of protection under PIDA could be on the horizon as information becomes a weapon in the arsenal of employees and employers alike.
By Rebecca, Gen Z Protect Legal Adviser