Over the weekend, in a move many have said was preemptive in anticipation of damning stats coming in Edelman’s just-released Trust Barometer, Facebook admitted a startling truth: It can’t say its platform is good for democracy.
Edelman’s report shows that the negative press Facebook and Twitter have received in wake of investigations into Russian manipulation of those and other networks during the 2016 Presidential election have had an effect. Trust in platforms has fallen off a cliff while at the same time trust in media and journalists has risen, even as those in power prefer to label as “Fake News” anything that runs counter to the narrative they’re trying to create.
I’ve often taken Facebook to task for being willfully obtuse about its role in creating an informed and educated electorate, usually hiding behind the fictional “we’re not a media company” smokescreen. The company would prefer to remain unaccountable for whatever influence it has on society, putting the responsibility on its users, saying they’re the ones who determine what they and others see in their News Feeds.
I’m struggling to think of another example where a media company – or any other kind of company – has, or would even be in a position where it would need to, made this kind of statement. It’s not exactly the kind of thing that is going to inspire confidence in its audience/customer base, much less investors, employees or other stakeholders. If a third-party review had concluded “Facebook and other social networks may not be good for democracy” it would be subject to immediate scrutiny and result in corporate pushback as execs went on a charm offensive to convince people it was benign and beneficial.
More than anything, it raises the following question: If Facebook isn’t good for democracy, what company is?
Imagine where that’s the benchmark. “Is this company good for democracy?”
Right now we’re told that “job creation” is the primary responsibility of Corporate America and that is certainly important. It’s also a fig leaf used to cover all sorts of sins, even used by government officials as a rationale to strip away regulations meant to keep them from harming the environment or mistreating their workforce. All these rules, we’re told, are “killing jobs” and so must be eliminated, no matter the other repercussions.
So what if “is good for democracy” became the bar that needed to be cleared?
It would certainly cast something like the proposed Sinclair/Tribune Media merger in a different light as a strong case could be made that it would be detrimental to the free exchange of ideas that powers a democracy. It would certainly cause many issues regarding corporate governance to be reconsidered.
Even outside of governmental consideration, if that question were asked by shareholders and corporate executives would drastically shift the decision-making process in countless companies.
“Is what we’re doing good for democracy?” is a very different question, with very different answers, then “Will this maximizes shareholder value this quarter?”
More than a few studies in the last couple years have shown young consumers want more from the brands and companies they do business with. They want them to take clear positions on social issues. They want those businesses to be aligned with moral causes and be responsible for the welfare of the environment and their own workforce.
That attitude is coming from a generation that saw its forerunners do little to address issues that now seem at a critical, if not irreversible, point. Climate change, worker exploitation and more are all on the minds of those who are now in their 20s and 30s and are beginning to have the buying power of their own.
So imagine 15 to 20 years from now when the children who have watched football players take a knee during the National Anthem or who went with their parents to Women’s Marches reach the age of independence. They are getting early exposure to an essential element of democracy: The right to peacefully protest when they feel the system is leaving them behind.
It’s not hard to see many current companies not being able to live up to the standard of being a clear benefit to democracy above all else. It’s also not hard to see that, as the children of 2017 and 2018 get older, they’re going to have more of an eye to how the companies they work for, start and do business with measure up. Striving for that will drastically change things and will cause more than a little upheaval along the way. But having the conversation alone will be a benefit for everyone, not just shareholders.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.