Social media giants no longer can avoid moral compass

Governments around the world are fighting the rise in extremist ideologies, but doing so effectively requires an understanding of what is driving it. Next to poverty, lack of political, economic and judicial reform, the unchecked powers of unbridled and unresponsive social media organizations is an essential place to start.

The comments made by New Zealand’s Prime Minister Ardern in her nation’s parliament on March 19 should give us all pause for thought: “We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and that what is said on them is not the responsibility of the place where they are published. … They are the publisher, not just the postman. … There cannot be a case of all profit, no responsibility.”

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There are genuine moral, legal and technical dilemmas in addressing the challenges raised by the ubiquitous nature of the not-so-new social media conglomerates. Why, then, are social media giants avoiding the moral compass, evading legal guidelines and ignoring technical solutions available to them? The answer is, their corporate culture refuses to be held accountable to the same standards the public has applied to all other global corporations for the past five decades.

A wholesale change of culture and leadership is required within the social media industry. The culture of “everything goes” because “we are the future” needs to be more than tweaked; it must come to an end. Like any large conglomerate, social media platforms cannot ignore the public’s demand that they act with some semblance of responsibility. Just like the early stages of the U.S. coal, oil and chemical industries, the social media industry is impacting not only our physical environment but the social good and public safety. No serious journalism organization would ever allow a stranger to write their own hate-filled stories (with photos) for their newspaper’s daily headline — that’s why there’s a position called editor-in-chief.

If social media giants insist they are open platforms, then anyone can purposefully exploit them for good or evil. But if social media platforms demonstrate no moral or ethical standards, they should be subject to some form of government regulation. We have regulatory environments where we see the need to protect the public good against the need for profit-driven enterprises; why should social media platforms be given preferential treatment?

How any meaningful regulation of social media organizations evolves is indeed subject for public debate, and who ultimately would enforce these regulations is problematic. However, self-policing does not appear to be a reliable option — though it would be the best course for a society that prides its freedom of speech.

Like gun control, we find an apparent dissonance between freedom of expression, the Constitution and protection of the public good, especially in our schools, places of worship and large music venues. The argument that “It’s not the gun, it’s the shooter” is a powerful one and finds great support in the United States. However, the right to bear arms and the right to free speech have limits, and there is a corporate and political responsibility to minimize damage to our other rights, including the unalienable right to pursue happiness and reasonable expectation for public safety.  

The words and deeds of those in leadership matter and can't be conveniently forgotten. The heinous attack against Muslims in New Zealand was carried out by the twisted mind of a man from Australia, likely influenced by the modern drafters of racism in Europe who were inspired by other events and groups in multiple countries, including the United States. An attack on any religious worship in one country is no longer an isolated event but part of a global trend in a contagion of radical extremist movements that are no less menacing than ISIS.  

Social media platforms, like global corporations, cannot be exempt from responsibility to consider their negative impact. In light of the rise in extremism, they should not be allowed to serve as a platform morally and ethically void for the global propagation of hate and violence.  

Don Hepburn served with the U.S. intelligence community for over 25 years and held senior executive positions in the CIA and FBI as chief of station and as deputy assistant director. He currently is president of Boanerges Solutions LLC.