Independent journalist Will Potter’s work investigates how environmental whistleblowing is criminalized as domestic terrorism. Today, as Potter’s TED2014 talk is released on TED.com, Potter is launching a Kickstarter campaign to take his research to the air. He plans to acquire a drone in order to document agricultural abuses in states that are currently debating laws that would make it illegal to photograph or film their operations – begging the question, “What are they trying to hide?” We asked Potter to tell us more.
Why do you need a drone to investigate factory farms?
Factory farms are doing everything they can to stop consumers from seeing the reality of most food is produced. And they’ve been quite blunt about their motivations: a wave of new legislation in the United States explicitly criminalizes anyone who photographs or films animal cruelty on farms. These “ag-gag” laws are a direct response to a series of damning investigations by animal welfare groups. In Idaho, for instance, the new law came after investigators exposed workers beating cows and sexually abusing the animals.
Satellite photographs have already revealed shocking environmental pollution at industrial agriculture sites— will a drone allow us to see even more? As a journalist, I think the best way to confront attempts at secrecy is to shine a light on the abuses. Corporations are trying to shoot the messenger, and shut down anyone who exposes what they’re doing. But that just means we, as journalists, need to be more creative in our tactics. So for my next investigation, I am going to purchase a drone and photograph these farms from the sky.
What’s the goal of this Kickstarter campaign? And why now?
I have launched this Kickstarter campaign to purchase the drone, and I will share the results of my investigation in both a short documentary and an e-book. This investigation couldn’t come at a better time: multiple states (and countries) are considering ag-gag laws, while voters are considering efforts to eliminate some of the worst abuses on factory farms.
It’s my hope that this investigation will allow us to have a more informed debate. What are factory farms trying to hide? Let’s find out.
To learn more about Potter and his work, visit the TED Blog >>>
Session 2 of Fellows talks at TED2014 was just as unexpected as Session 1. Here, read a recap of each talk in the session.
Uldus Bakhtiozina. Photo: Ryan Lash
Somi, singer + cultural activist East African songstress Somi brings her smoky voice to the TED Fellows stage, with “Brown, RoundThings for Sale” from her album The Lagos Music Salon. Often called a modern-day Miriam Makeba, Somi recently signed a recording contract with Sony’s relaunch of historic jazz imprint Okeh Records.
Steve Boyes, conservation biologist “Wilderness cannot be restored or recreated, only destroyed,” says Steve Boyes. “We are about to lose our last glimpses into pre-history.” Every year, Boyes crosses Botswana’s vast Okovango Delta in an18-foot dugout canoe in a quest to preserve Africa’s last wetland wilderness. He undertakes this 220-mile research expedition to conduct a comprehensive biodiversity survey, benchmarking the wilderness against which to note future changes. Boyes and his colleagues are privileged visitors here: the only inhabitants of the Delta are the indigenous baYei people, who have accepted the researchers part of their tribe. The explorers enter baYei territory barefoot, unarmed, with minimal food — but with hundreds of pounds of high-tech equipment: the batteries, computers and solar panels required for research and to offer real-time data online with the public — “sharing the experience with people around the world to convince them to protect a place they’ll never visit.”
David Sengeh, biomechatronics engineer Born and raised in Sierra Leone, David Sengeh witnessed the devastation of a war in which entire villages were destroyed and an estimated 8,000 men, women and children lost their limbs to amputation. As the country recovered, Sengeh was troubled to see that many amputees were not using their prosthetics, because ill-fitting sockets made prosthetics too painful to wear. Even in the developed world, it can take weeks or even years to procure a custom-made, single-material socket made the traditional way, with molding and casting. At MIT, Sengeh began developing a comfortable socket that can be produced quickly and cheaply, using magnetic resource imaging to get precise scans of limbs and finite element analysis to analyze stress and pressure points. With this data, his custom sockets can be produced anywhere using multiple 3D-printed materials that relieve pressure where needed on the patient’s anatomy. The new sockets are a revolution in prosthetic design, and is set to transform the lives of amputees the world over.
Eric Berlow, ecological networks scientist Scientist Eric Berlow joined the TED Fellows specifically hoping to work with people outside of his own area of expertise. He was not disappointed: he worked with artist David Gurman on a project called We the Data about democratizing personal data, during which they reached out to experts on privacy and personal safety, including human rights activist Esra’a al Shafei and censorship activist Walid al Saqaf. Curious about other Fellows’ experiences with collaboration, Berlow recently polled the other Fellows about their collaborations, and mapped the answers. The resulting network map is startlingly dense and complex, especially given that the Fellows program is only five years old. Interestingly, 84% of the people involved had collaborated across disciplines, and many had not even met in person. Among tech, science and art projects, one collaboration stood out: in 2011, during the Libyan revolution, comics publisher Suleiman Bakhit worked with strategist Adrian Hong to evacuate tens of thousands of injured civilians to Jordan. The cloud-based interactive tool used to map these collaborations is itself a brand-new Fellows collaboration between Berlow, Gurman and Gaustav Biswas, available browse at MAPPR.io.
When Chicago Tribune reporter Will Potter went to pass out animal rights leaflets, he had no idea the FBI would single him out and pressure him to become an anti-activism informant, threatening his future if he refused. Here, we talk to the TED Fellow and author of Green is the New Red about this experience, which sent him into a whole new area of research. The crux of what he found: environmental and animal-rights activists are now considered the United States’ number-one domestic terrorism threat, and they are being prosecuted as criminals.
Do you think of yourself as an activist?
I don’t consider myself an activist, but there’s certainly an advocacy component when I’m talking about civil rights issues. My background’s in newspaper and magazine reporting. For a long time I tried to pursue the traditional newsroom path, and I was on it for quite a while. Then, when I was working at the Chicago Tribune, I had some experiences with the FBI that put me in a different direction in terms of the issues I was focused on. Then some good friends of mine were wrapped up in different terrorism prosecutions. These experiences immersed me in the issues unexpectedly, and that definitely changed the path that I was on.
What happened with the FBI?
At the Tribune, I was covering breaking news, shootings, murders and local government, and it was all horribly depressing. It was not the type of thing I went into journalism to do. I had a background in college in environmental activism, and protesting the World Trade Organization and the economic sanctions on Iraq, and I wanted to be involved in something positive like that again. So I went out leafletting with a group of people. We just passed out pieces of paper in a residential neighborhood about animal testing. I thought that was the most I could do as a working journalist — something so benign. And of course, since I have the worst luck ever, we were all arrested and charged. It was the only time I’ve been arrested. Those charges were later thrown out, of course. It was a frivolous arrest. And it’s still lawful to pass out handbills.
A couple weeks later, I was visited by two FBI agents at my home, who told me that unless I helped them by becoming an informant and investigating protest groups, they would put me on a domestic terrorist list. They also made some threats about making sure I wouldn’t receive a Fulbright I had applied for, and making sure my girlfriend at the time wouldn’t receive her PhD funding. I really want to think that I wouldn’t be affected by something like that, especially given my activist background, but it just scared the daylights out of me. It really did. That fear eventually turned into an obsession with finding out how this happened, how nonviolent protestors are being labeled as terrorists.
Did they not realize that you were a journalist?
They did, and they obviously didn’t think of the potential of me writing or talking about it. They specifically said, “You are the one of this group that has everything going for you.” They knew everywhere I worked, they knew my editors at the Tribune, they knew different journalism awards I received — and their message was, “Help us or we’re going to put you on a different path.” And they kept saying, “Don’t throw all this away.”
And so at one point, I just said, “What are you going to make go away? This is a class C misdemeanor for leafletting, there’s no way it’s going to hold up in court, and you’re talking about ruining my life.” I of course never became an informant, and never thought about doing anything like that, but — it changed the focus of my work, without a doubt.
Did they bother you after that?
Well, you know, it’s one of those things. It made me realize the power of fear. Because in a situation like that, you don’t know what actually is happening or will happen. There’s no way to find out. Certainly just a few months after 9/11 when this happened, but even today, with the extent of the government’s counterterrorism powers and how they’re being used. So when they talk about making sure I don’t receive a Fulbright, I didn’t receive it, but is that just because I’m not smart enough? Was it because my application wasn’t good enough? I don’t know. It’s impossible to know these things.
Years later, after my book came out, we did a Freedom of Information Act request. I found out that the counterterrorism unit has been monitoring my speeches and book and website. But in terms of day-to-day problems, I really haven’t had any.
How did environmental activism come to be treated as a terrorist crime?
I think the most important thing I found out in my research is that all of this was actually created by the industries that are being protested. In the mid-1980s, these corporations got together and created a new word called “eco-terrorist” — because at the time, these protest movements were growing very quickly and effectively, and they had widespread public support. There clearly was a concern that unless public opinion shifted, there’d be a really big problem on their hands.
So they made up this new word, and then started using public relations campaigns, lobbying, and held congressional hearings. Eventually, that language changed the popular discourse of how we talk about protest. And it was incredibly effective, to the point that now not only does the FBI label animal rights and environmentalists as the number-one domestic terrorism threat — even though they’ve never harmed a single human being — but we have new legislation that singles these protesters out for felonies and as terrorists for what are, in some cases, nonviolent protests.