The Challenges and Opportunities of Whistleblowing on Social Media
Whistleblowing in the UK is typically split into three categories – disclosures made internally to your employer, externally to prescribed persons such as regulators, and externally to anyone else. The latter are known as “wider disclosures” and include raising concerns with non-prescribed regulators, going to the media, and sharing your concerns on social media platforms.
On top of having to satisfy the tests required for disclosures made internally a wider disclosure must satisfy additional stringent tests to qualify for protection under UK whistleblowing legislation. These include that it was reasonable to make a wider disclosure, that it was not for personal gain, and believing that the disclosure is substantially true.
As a result, whistleblowing on social media rarely overcomes the hurdles set by the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 – hence why social media whistleblowers often struggle to bring successful whistleblowing claims in the employment tribunal. Arguably, the law ought to better reflect how ingrained social media is in many people’s everyday lives.
Why raise concerns on social media?
Whistleblowing on social media can sometimes be an attractive option. A whistleblower might want to voice their concerns on social media if they have reason to believe that their employer will not address the concerns unless there is proper public backlash forcing them to. This was seen during the pandemic, when hundreds of NHS staff resorted to social media to raise concerns about a lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). This was a vital issue and one which couldn’t be addressed by their individual employer – it needed quick government action.
Speaking up on social media also gives whistleblowers absolute freedom over how to formulate their concern, while working with a journalist on a press disclosure may constrain the whistleblower in shaping their whistleblowing story.
Further, social media allows concerns to be shared much quicker than through the press – and when there are major public interest concerns, time can be of the essence to get the news out.
The pitfalls of whistleblowing on social media
Nevertheless, the decision to whistleblow on social media should not be taken lightly. The purpose of raising concerns is to get them investigated and resolved. Therefore, escalating concerns internally or to (prescribed) regulators will often be the most efficient route to addressing your concerns.
When considering whistleblowing on social media, you should ask yourself how doing so will help address the concerns. If publicising the concerns on social media could affect how the public or other businesses interact with the organisation committing the wrongdoing, there might be a benefit in notifying a broader audience on social media. However, very few concerns will be of this sort. A concern would likely have to be well-evidenced and extremely serious in nature to galvanise a boycott (or other) movement.
Once the disclosure is on the internet – it’s there forever. It’s been reported that the recent Pentagon leaks, where classified US military documents were leaked on social media, are still being shared through screenshots across Twitter, Telegram and Reddit.
The risk of grave and lasting victimisation is real. A well-advertised wider disclosure could jeopardise a whistleblower’s ability to secure jobs in the future due to the stigma attached to whistleblowing. This is especially true if it turns out that the concerns are factually unfounded. The Law allows for a whistleblower to raise the alarm, even if they aren’t 100% certain that wrongdoing has occurred or is likely to occur, but the public might not be anywhere near as forgiving.
The disclosure could also expose the whistleblower to legal action by the employer for falsely accusing someone of wrongdoing (defamation) or sharing confidential documents (breach of confidentiality).
Lastly, whistleblowing on social media might draw unwanted negative attention, such as online abuse and doxxing – where an individual’s private and identifying details such as their address will be shared online.
While social media provides whistleblowers with certain advantages, such as the ability to quickly disseminate concerns and maintain control over their message, it also presents notable pitfalls. Whistleblowers must carefully consider the potential consequences before choosing to disclose on social media, including limited effectiveness in resolving issues, the risk of long-lasting repercussions, legal liabilities, and exposure to online abuse.
Because of these risks, should online whistleblowers be afforded better protection from victimisation? Perhaps the Government’s upcoming review of whistleblowing legislation could acknowledge that social media is a core part of many workers lives and could be viewed as a viable platform to share their concerns on.
If you are considering whistleblowing on social media, please get in touch with our advice line for free and confidential advice.
By Imogen Cowper (They/them), Protect Legal Adviser