Facebook: An Accountability Crisis, A Question of Values

We are seeing a lot of headlines lately about Facebook’s decision-making, about its lack of accountability, and specifically about its leadership’s (often-stated) commitment to protect society by reining in hate speech and extremism on its platform. How serious is that commitment?

A former product manager for Facebook, Frances Haugen, recently testified before a Senate subcommittee that, in her experience, Facebook  “repeatedly encountered conflicts between its own profits and our safety, (and) consistently resolved those conflicts in favor of its own profits. The result has been a system that amplifies division, extremism and polarization — and undermining societies….” Haugen went on to observe that  the company’s leadership “keeps vital information from the public, the U.S. government, its shareholders, and governments around the world.”

This is a problem, one that affects all of us–not just Facebook users. So: How does a problem of this magnitude emerge? I submit that Facebook offers us a textbook example of a failure of organizational values.

Take a close look at Facebook’s stated values. Here is what you will find:

Be Bold

Focus on Impact

Move Fast

Be Open

Build Social Value

Even if we set aside the obvious problem that some of these terms are left vague enough to mean whatever people want them to mean — what, exactly is “social value”? — these values still present a major challenge: They say nothing about character.

These values say nothing about doing the right thing. They say nothing about the principles that should guide Facebook’s leaders, and everyone in the organization, as they go about fulfilling the company’s mission. They leave the question of character unexamined. So perhaps we should not be surprised at the headlines we are seeing.

There is no accountability without a decision to live a set of meaningful values. Values are non-negotiable points of agreement on “how we do things here.” They are so valuable and so important to the organization and to each individual within it that, if one of them ever goes missing or is overlooked, we drop everything and figure out how to get it back.

Values, in other words, need to point us toward the right thing to do. Looking at Facebook’s stated values, I think we may be looking at a ship operating without a compass. No matter how big a ship like that may be, it is eventually going to run into trouble on the high seas.

For more on values and accountability take the free Accountability Assessment.

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