I watched a documentary on Netflix last week. It’s called The Great Hack and it’s about how Cambridge Analytica manipulated people all over the world to influence the results of elections, mainly using social media channels to do so. And we’re not just talking about the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election. This company was involved in manipulating the results in dozens of elections all over the world. Watching the story unfold was pretty uncomfortable.
I’m not a fan of social media and I am particularly vocal about the terrible corporate values of the Facebook Group (which owns WhatsApp, Instagram and Oculus, amongst others). Its blatant disregard of user privacy is damaging people all over the world. As a public company, it has an impetus to return value to its shareholders but it has prioritised profit above all else, including operating with even a veneer of corporate integrity. This company has no moral compass. None. It treats its users’ data with reckless abandon.
There are hundreds of articles about the story and I recommend you look up Carole Cadwalladr’s fantastic reporting to learn more about the issue. She first broke the details of Cambridge Analytica some years ago and has been tenacious in reporting on the truth ever since. She delivered a powerful TED Talk to an audience full of tech industry execs on how Cambridge influenced the outcome of the Brexit vote. Check it out.
The Great Hack got me thinking about the type of person who works for an organisation (not just Facebook) that has a deliberate agenda to derail democracy. Do they set out on day 1 as a complete anarchist? Or, is it a slow journey down a dirty path from idealism to grubby behaviour? Would these people ever really understand the catastrophic impact of their work, and if they did realise would it even bother them?
I’m currently working alongside another consultant who has been running her business – and quite successfully – for a good few years. She left the public sector with a very clear view of what she wanted to achieve professionally and built her company based around her five core values. The first three of those values are honest, integrity and conviction. And those values shape the clients and type of work she’ll take on. Her moral compass is strong. Consulting can be a grubby world, particularly at the top end of town. She’s drawn a line in the sand and made it clear about what she will and won’t do to earn a buck.
By coincidence, integrity is one of my personal values, along with health and progress. That last one used to be achievement but morphed into progress because I don’t want to achieve the same thing every day – I need to continue growing and progressing as a person and a professional.
Integrity means different things to every person. It’s about being honest, open and taking accountability for my actions. For me, it’s also about having an accountability for the broader social impact of my work and my employment. I would never be comfortable working for a social media or gambling company – ironically, two of the biggest employers in Melbourne. I just wouldn’t be comfortable knowing that I was contributing to what I believe are incredibly negative influences in our society.
So back to Cambridge Analytica and the political organisations who used its data to manipulate voters with false information. It’s unlikely every person involved completely lacked a moral compass. I think it’s more likely that from the outset, there was limited understanding for where they’d end up. But I do wonder how many that had an “oh f&$k” moment of realising how dirty their work had become and were brave enough to walk away.
It’s just like the old fable of a frog being boiled alive. If it’s put into boiling water immediately, it would jump out. But if the frog is put into cool water that is slowly bought to a boil, it doesn’t realise the danger and is cooked to death. But if the change comes incrementally, say via a series of actions which slowly erode the principles of democracy, there’s a risk of drifting on until we boil.