In today’s more developed global village, responsible leadership is of paramount importance especially from businesses that make use of digital platforms. In 2017, The European Business Review published an original article by De Cremer, Zhang, and De Schutter entitled “The Challenge of Leading Digital Platforms in Responsible Ways”, which pointed out the disasters that Facebook and other digital platforms could face because of their lack of responsible leadership and why simply relying on legislation to tackle the ethical challenges of digital platforms is reactive at best. Today, as requested by The European Business Review, De Cremer provided an updated analysis on what they have predicted in 2017 in relation to the emergence of the Cambridge Analytica controversy. The big question today is how can Facebook, through Mark Zuckerberg’s leadership prevent people from dwelling in a realm of turmoil?
In our super connected world, hardly anyone will have escaped the news that the most famous of social media platforms, Facebook, has misused personal information at a very large scale. According to a recent update on 4th April 2018, it may well be that the data of as many as 87 million Facebook users has been accessed. The core of this privacy scandal is that Facebook profiles were mined for data to be used to influence the U.S. and UK elections. Facebook provided access to these profiles to academic scholars, with the pledge to only use the data for scholarly purposes, but it soon became clear that this was not the case. It seems that scholars working together with the now infamous British analytics firm, Cambridge Analytica, provided (knowingly or not) this company the “holy grail” of big datasets to use people’s personality profiles to gain the upper hand in several political battles across the globe.
Most of us watched in disbelief the evidence mounting that Facebook allowed personal information to be used for political purposes and eventually went into shock when it was revealed how many Facebook profiles had been data mined. Wasn’t it the case that Facebook, as a reputable and competent company, was believed to be able to protect the privacy of its users? In fact, in June 2017, the founder and CEO of Facebook, Marc Zuckerberg, told in an interview with Freakonomics Radio: “of course, privacy is extremely important, and people engage and share their content and feel free to connect because they know that their privacy is going to be protected [on Facebook]”. No matter how much disbelief the world may communicate, this privacy scandal can be identified as a full-fledged predictable surprise. And, the reason why this is the case is the lack of responsible leadership that founders and companies using digital platforms as their business strategy display.
A predictable surprise is the emergence of a disastrous event that companies could have anticipated and prepared for (Bazerman & Watkins, 2003)¹. A problem, however, is that too often companies do not invest sufficient time and resources in the short term in order to avoid potential negative consequences that may emerge in the future. As I will explain below, for Facebook, the reason why they failed to act in a more responsible way concerns their own psychological biases and hubris. And, unfortunately, such neglect of responsible behaviour has turned into a predictable surprise in which the damage may take years to repair. Indeed, as indicated by Mark Zuckerberg in a podcast interview with media outlet Vox: “I wish I could solve all these issues in three months or six months, but I just think the reality is that solving some of these questions is just going to take a longer period of time.”
Is all this negative buzz and excitement unique to Facebook? Not really. It is something that almost seems inherent to any company adopting digital platform strategy. So, what is the problem with creating digital platforms to – using the famous words of many important Silicon Valley executives – improve people’s lives? Of course, trying to improve human lives is not a problem, the problem reveals itself when looking at the motivation of most entrepreneurs using this platform strategy. Last year, I, Zhang, and De Schutter already pointed out the disasters that Facebook and other digital platforms could face because of their lack of responsible leadership. Specifically, these authors wrote: “As with any business strategy that is new, revolutionary and aimed at raising growth quickly, the focus of platforms is directed primarily towards the product itself and less so at the possible long-term consequences at the societal level.” (p. 13)² And, it is exactly this extreme focus on the product which makes Zuckerberg and many others among him suffer from a blind spot to take on any sort of responsible leadership. How so?
I call it a blind spot, because their obsession with creating something unique, something that the world had not seen before, but would change the lives of us all, makes many entrepreneurs working in this industry see the value of their undertakings in creating innovation itself, but not at all in its potential consequences. It makes most entrepreneurs pursuing innovation as an end goal so focussed on their products that they forget about the human actor involved and the consequences that could impact them. Unfortunately, when creating a platform so innovative like Facebook, one does carry the responsibility for the consequences the use of this platform will produce as well. And, importantly, one is responsible for those consequences – that will take place in the future – from the first day that the platform comes into action and not only when those consequences reveal themselves! This latter part, however, is not really understood well, as illustrated by Mark Zuckerberg’s statement that only today – after the facts are known – he noted that: “I started this place, I run it, I’m responsible for what happens here. I’m not looking to throw anyone else under the bus for mistakes that we’ve made here.”
About the Author
David De Cremer is the KPMG Chaired Professor of Management Studies at the Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, UK, a founder the Erasmus Center of Behavioral Ethics at Rotterdam School of Management, and a Fellow of the Royal Dutch Academy of Science. He has published over more than 250 academic articles and book chapters and is the author of the books “Pro-active Leadership: How to overcome procrastination and be a bold decision-maker” and “Huawei: Leadership, culture and connectivity”.
1. Bazerman, M.H., & Watkins. M. (2008). Predictable Surprises: The Disasters you Should Have Seen Coming, and How to Prevent Them. Harvard Business Review Press
2. De Cremer, D., Zhang, J., & De Schutter, L. (2017). The challenge of responsible leadership in digital platforms. The European Business Review, July-August, 13-15.
3. De Cremer, D. (2013). The proactive leader: How to overcome procrastination and make a bold decision now. Palgrave Macmillan.