Pivot for Humanity wants to save social media by  ‘professionalizing' the industry. Is it already too late?

Profile picture for user jbowles By Jerry Bowles June 29, 2020
Jumana Abu-Ghazaleh is on a mission to save social technology from itself. Whether she can pull it off is an open question, but she is in the right place at the right time.  

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The social media industry is facing a moment of reckoning. In the midst of a global pandemic that has significantly altered the nature of work and customer behavior, an angry and polarized political environment and the biggest social injustice awakening in generations, the social tech giants are being buffeted by sometimes conflicting demands from users, customers, politicians, regulators, outside special interest groups and employees.

On Friday, Facebook lost $76 billion in stock market value triggered by big customers like Coca Cola, Hershey's, Levi's, Honda and Unilever and more than 80 other top companies pulling their advertising because of Facebook's content moderation policies and what they believe to be Mark Zuckerberg's inadequate efforts to reduce hate speech and racism on the platform.    

Jumana Abu-Ghazaleh believes it's way past time for the social tech companies to grow up and "professionalize" the industry. She means the coming together with stakeholders to establish high and specific industry standards, ethical guidelines, best practices, and systems of accountability For example, doctors and lawyers belong to industry associations that set and police responsible behavior, why not this industry?

A former marketing and brand communications executive who worked for more 20 years with companies like American Express, Yahoo, Coca-Cola, Bank of America, Ally Bank and Hilton Hotels, helping create such memorable campaigns as "What's in you wallet," Abu-Ghazaleh is the founder and president of Pivot for Humanity, an organization working to create "a more responsible, ethical and accountable internet." Said Abu-Ghazaleh:

The big social tech companies--Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, YouTube, Twitter and others-have simply not managed their awesome powers responsibly. They have lost trust with many users and customers and governments  by allowing bad actors to sow disinformation and discord. They have invaded users' privacy and abused their data while failing to adequately address hate speech which, in turn, has created a toxic environment for many. The initial promise of the internet as a democracy-promoting force for social good has taken a backseat to power and profits.   

Abu-Ghazaleh is not alone in her assessment.  As the social technology industry's reputation has plummeted over the past three or four years with the social media giants lurching from disaster to disaster, a deluge of advocacy groups-many of them started by former employees--has sprung up to challenge the way the big guns do business.  

Some of these groups tackle privacy, diversity or employee issues but several focus specifically on the "evils" of social media. Examples include the Center for Humane Technology and the Center for Democracy & Technology, and Human Systems. Their tagline center around redesigning social systems. The idea is to better support meaningful lives and human values. In turn. those idea mirror the organized drive for a kinder, gentler internet that sees users not simply as products to be sliced and diced but as members of a valued community protected from lies, deceptions, hate, bullying and other unsavory aspects of social media. 

How to do that, of course, is less well defined but Abu-Ghazaleh has a plan: 

Professionalization sounds sort of a boring but it is a simple word for the very complicated, big, messy, revolutionary process whereby a trade slowly becomes a profession, with enforceable, uniform professional standards and a culture of accountability. There are currently no guiding principles, no ethical standards, no industry-wide values. The mantra is work fast, break things, and make a lot of money.

Pivot for Humanity's plans begins with bringing together tech dissidents from inside the industry, and connecting them with academics, activists and customers who are working to change social tech from the outside. the goal is to create a shared vision, then build public support for basic industry reforms and getting the major players to sign onto a shared set of public principles, universal ethics, and enforceable norms and values. Said Abu-Ghazaleh:

We are talking about principles like reorienting the social tech industry away from its tendency to view users as merely products; their reluctance to move fast and fix  things before they get out of hand; and anticipating the worst-case scenarios for societal costs before releasing new tech. And it means accountability, both internally (through certification) and externally (through democratic oversight and consumer pressure), to ensure those principles translate into action.

Basically, it's a matter of working with the various stakeholders a social contract that assures everyone that their interests are being dealt with fairly and openly. Obviously, technology is not going away so the main question is where do social tech firms and how they back the trust they've lost.  Accountability and professional standards are a proven way to do that.

My take

My first thought is that it would take an enormous convergence of break-up threats from governments, regulatory pressure, advertising boycotts, employee walkouts, legal challenges and public outrage to force our favorite monopolists to entertain the notion of agreeing to a common set of industry-wide, enforceable moral, ethical and societal standards. The prospects of that happening are not improved by the fact that so much of the industry is controlled by one man who can't be fired. (Zuck is said to have lost $7 billion of his net worth on Friday which means he's down to his last $82 billion.)

My second thought is that so many of those negative pressures are already happening to varying degrees and are still building up steam. If the key players can be convinced that the only way they can escape crippling regulations or uncertain antitrust litigation they might just see the prospect of "voluntary" industry standards as a way to save their very wealthy hides.