What I learned about business ethics by reading ‘An Ugly Truth’  

I am very interested in decision-making in organizations as well as in social media. This means a book like ‘An Ugly Truth – Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination’, by Frenkel and Kang is a double whammy for me.

The book describes the different scandals Facebook has been involved in in the past couple of years (e.g the Russian interference in US presidential elections, Cambridge Analytica, and the mass murder of Rohingya people in Myanmar). These scandals are well known and well documented in other books. The added value of this book is that it describes the decision-making process of the top leadership of Facebook with regard to these scandals.

What is even more interesting is the link the book makes between the motivation and ethics of the key decision-makers on the one hand and their decisions on the other.

The motivation of Facebook’s key decision-makers

CEO Mark Zuckerberg seems to have adopted the notion of ‘Big is beautiful’. He comes across as singularly focused on growing the number of Facebook users. His strategy for doing this seems to be built on three pillars:

  • Embracing everything that ensures users stay on Facebook as long as possible (quantity over quality). Hence his enthusiasm for algorithms that keep on showing items in one’s newsfeed which should trigger the strongest emotions to continue to keep them engaged
  • Taking out the competition (the Instagram and Whatsapp acquisitions)
  • Protecting Facebook from a breakup as a result of anti-competition measures by the US government. In order to make this happen, Facebook employs the biggest lobbying operation in Washington, bigger than any other Tech giant, and also than any Big Oil or Big Pharma company

COO Sheryl Sandberg seems primarily interested in combining two things a number of people might find incompatible:

  • Being a highly paid executive in a company that permanently seems to struggle to find its moral compass 
  • Wishing to come across as a politically enlightened individual, by favoring the cause of women empowerment and sympathizing with the Democratic party

Facebook’s key decision-makers do not seem to have a clear sense of ethics

It is both interesting, and sad, to see that the leaders of an organization of the size and impact of Facebook do not seem to have a clear sense of ethics.

The ethics of Mark Zuckerberg seem to be limited to a primitive belief in the absolute freedom of speech. ‘Limited’, because, no matter how important freedom of speech may be, it should never be the only value leaders use in their decision-making process. Preserving human life for instance, might be a good runner-up.

The reason is that unlimited freedom of speech can lead to people being killed. That was the case in Nazi Germany between 1933-1945, Myanmar in 2017, and also in Washington DC in 2020. 

The sense of ethics of Sheryl Sandberg seems to be slightly better developed than the one of Mark Zuckerberg. Unfortunately, her sense of ethics gives way to her fears of being fired by him.

‘Doing the right thing’

Having once worked in an environment where the operational definition of ethics was ‘everything we legally can get away with, I always found the relationship between organizations and their proclaimed ethics an uneasy one. The idea that a small group of people (often in staff roles close to the corporate center) could define an ethical framework and expected the rest of the organization to comply with this, seems to me naive at best. Rarely have I seen codes of ethics of organizations leading to decisions that would not have been taken without these codes of ethics.

For me, the value of ‘codes of ethics’ can only be proven in practice. To quote former German general von Moltke “no plan survives contact with the enemy”, or to use the more eloquent language of heavy boxer Mike Tyson “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”.

In this context, I will never forget one formative event during my career. 

I had only recently joined a company when I had to weigh in on a difficult decision. Essentially we had to choose between two options.

Option A was legally correct, would save the company a significant amount of money and not cause any reputational damage. However, it did not feel right from a moral perspective. 

Option B would cost the company a significant amount of money but felt morally much better. 

Over time, we discussed the issue in a number of meetings, However, we could not land on a final decision. That is, until the moment one of my colleagues said: ‘We are <company X>, and we need to do the right thing’. Suddenly we all unanimously agreed: ‘Yes. we are <company X>, and therefore we need to do the right thing’.

I cannot tell you how relieved I was after we had taken this decision and how proud I was to work for company X.

Does Facebook’s top management even know what the right thing to do is?

Controlling the information on a social media platform like Facebook is incredibly complex, and, due to the sheer volume of facebook posts (54,977 per second), errors and oversights are inevitable. At the same time one should also acknowledge that Facebook engages at least 15.000 people to check the content of the messages, and recently installed a (sceptially received) ‘Oversight board’.

Reading ‘An Ugly Truth’ however, one gets the impression that the top leaders of Facebook are only driven by growth and revenue. Privacy concerns, foreign interference in elections, hate speech and fake news seem to be primarily treated as annoying public relations issues that need to be managed, not as topics where the company needs to take ownership of.  

A chilling question

After reading ‘An Ugly Truth’, one starts to wonder if top leaders in Facebook even know what ‘doing the right thing’ would be. And that is scary, not only for a company taking the 34th position on the Fortune Top 500, but in Facebook’s case for the world in general.

“Ethics must begin at the top of an organization. It is a leadership issue and the chief executive must set the example.”

Edward Hennessy

© Dirk Verburg 2021

Disclaimer: Views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author

Picture credit: Cover ‘An Ugly Truth – Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination’, by Frenkel and Kang

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