On Wednesday, Oct. 18, Time magazine investigative reporter Billy Perrigo, Uber Files whistleblower Mark MacGann and Facebook content moderator whistleblower Daniel Motaung sat down to talk about whistleblowing, investigative journalism and the tech industry at the Frontline Club in London.
The event was organized by TSN and their partners Protect and Whistleblowing International Network (WIN) to mark the recent publication of “A Tech Workers Guide to Whistleblowing: UK & Ireland Editions.” Based on a similar guide for U.S. tech workers, they are part of a series of resources intended to help workers who are considering speaking out. The guides provide legal and practical tips for speaking out safely based on the relevant whistleblowing protection frameworks in each country.
Motaung of South Africa and MacGann of Ireland have a lot in common: They both blew the whistle against powerful global tech companies, revealed their stories to the world via investigative journalists, and have since become passionate advocates for more ethical working conditions in the tech industry. They both also receive ongoing support from TSN.
Their hour and a half talk with Perrigo, who moderated the conversation, showed their experiences holding power to account also had had key differences, highlighting how each whistleblower’s journey and needs are unique.
Couldn’t make it to the event? You can listen to the audio recording of the conversation here. In the meantime, here’s five key takeaways:
1. Motaung knew very little about content moderation before becoming a content moderator for Sama, an outsourcing company for Facebook in Kenya. The $2-per-hour job required watching hours of graphic content each day from across Sub-Saharan Africa including videos of beheadings and abuse.
He developed severe depression and PTSD from the job, and has since sued the companies for their exploitation and union-busting of content moderators.
Motaung: “I didn’t even know that I was actually going to be working for a social media company, Facebook. I only knew that I was going to do content moderation. What was that? Well, I connected the dots: moderate content. What kind of content? Well, maybe you open a book, or tests, exams or whatever. You moderate that. Turns out I was wrong. I get there, I get a contract, which really didn’t explain anything still. I signed. … I [was] running away from poverty. I’m trying to make money, to make sure that I actually build a life for myself.”
2. Motaung has mixed feelings about identifying as a whistleblower, and explained that the journey was “a matter of life and death.”
Motaung: “The word ‘whistleblower’ … I’m actually struggling to actually accept or see myself as one. And for me, it wasn’t even a question of a decision. I just found myself in a very difficult situation which I could not stand anymore. It was a matter of life and death for me. So it was either I choose to live or die.”
Perrigo: “So when you made that decision, did you know what was out there in terms of whistleblower support, in terms of the facilities available to you?”
Motaung: “No, I didn’t. … I became a whistleblower because life happened to me. The support I received, I received because life happened to me.”
Note: TSN provided legal and psychosocial support to Motaung, which allowed him to safely share major public interest revelations with Perrigo, who subsequently published the front-cover February 2022 issue story, “Inside Facebook’s African Sweatshop.”
3. MacGann, former head of public policy at Uber and the whistleblower behind the Uber Files, said investigative journalists were concerned for his safety from the start.
MacGann: “I had a Zoom call between Christmas and New Year 2021 with Nick Hopkins, who used to be the head of investigations at The Guardian. And he’d done Snowden with Glenn Greenwald, and he really knew what he was talking about.
“For about 45 minutes, he didn’t ask me what I had, what was the skinny, what was the scoop. He talked about me about: Did I know what I was doing? Was I in a good place mentally? Did I have family? Was I putting anyone else’s livelihood on the line by basically throwing away an entire career? And for the first six months of 2022, I worked almost on a daily basis with the investigations team at The Guardian.”
4. MacGann said he doesn’t know “how I would have survived” without The Signals Network. He told prospective whistleblowers, “There’s a whole family out there.”
MacGann: “They [TSN] were so calm, collected, structured. And I don’t know how I would have survived without them since July of last year. …
“If I were to speak to a potential whistleblower, in the tech industry or anywhere else, if I had one message for them, I would tell them that you’re not alone. …
“There’s a whole family out there that you didn’t know existed: really amazing lawyers, human rights activists. And I’m not recommending it as a career or career move. But there are really brilliant people who are there to advise you, to guide you, to help you and to help protect you.”
5. Motaung and MacGann stressed the need for more awareness about whistleblowing, calling for greater collaboration beyond funding to whistleblower support.
MacGann: “The Signals Network is very huge in my life, but it’s actually a very small organization that that desperately needs good people to fund it. … Funding the likes of The Signals Network and other whistleblower organizations is one step.
“But actually drawing the work that they do with the individuals together into some corpus that actually can have impact on people in the House of Parliament, people in government, I think that’s — I’m not seeing that. And I think that’s perhaps something that we can all be a part of.”
TSN is a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to supporting whistleblowers who risk their livelihoods to share public interest information with the press. Founded in 2017 by journalists, whistleblowers and lawyers, TSN operates internationally to hold powerful interests accountable. TSN provides customized support to a selected group of whistleblowers who have contributed to published reports of significant wrongdoing. This support may include legal, psychological, physical safety, temporary safe-housing, online safety, career support and communication support.
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