Some of us are old enough to remember the halcyon days of social media, when we genuinely believed it would be a force for good in the world.
The early evidence was promising. There was the Arab Spring, in which citizens across the Middle East used Twitter and YouTube to organize mass demonstrations against oppressive regimes in their respective countries. The Occupy movement, a populist response to the greed and corruption that caused the late-’00s financial collapse, was largely a product of social media activism, as were the anti-austerity protests that took place in Greece and Spain in the early 2010s. Later, Twitter was used to bring attention to police brutality against African-American citizens in the U.S. Even WikiLeaks was viewed favorably in those days, as many believed it was a means to radical governmental transparency.
No platform seemed to embody this democratic ethos more than Facebook, whose stated mission was “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”
Oh, how naive we were to believe them. Facebook, once believed to be a vehicle for creating a more democratic global society, has instead become a means for sowing division and inequality. Facebook’s devolution in this regard is a sadly perfect example of how a company falters when it succumbs to pressure from shareholders and fails to make sustainability a priority.
Facebook quickly emerged as the single largest media network in human history, and widely-held belief was that it would be an instrument for good — a true marketplace of ideas, that would help would usher in an era of unprecedented social and political activism, and foster equality and democracy all throughout the world.
That seems laughable given what we now know. “Facebook was fatally flawed from the start,” says Harvard Business School professor Geoffrey Jones. “It’s business model was entirely based on acquiring customer data for free and selling it for profit. Of course they kept quiet about that in their mission statements.”
Over the past several years, Facebook’s network has been a haven for disinformation, illegal political surveillance, election meddling, right-wing extremism and all kinds of contempt, harassment and bad faith political debate. More recently, Facebook was exposed for mounting a smear campaign against activist investor George Soros after he criticized Facebook at the 2017 World Economic Forum, then attacking The New York Times for exposing its malfeasance.
In trying to please its shareholders and placing short-term profits ahead of long-term sustainability, Facebook lost sight of its mission. Instead of worrying about its social impact, Facebook was singularly obsessed with its ad platform. It developed laser-precise ad targeting capabilities while simultaneously throttling the number of people brands could reach organically, forcing brands to purchase ad space instead.
The stock price soared, but the platform suffered. News feeds were flooded with narrowly-targeted posts that damaged the user experience. And the problem ran much deeper than annoying, sometimes creepy ads. Facebook allowed unchecked ads, fake news and political division to proliferate, and in doing so, created a number of pressing issues for both the company and society at large.
The negative impacts of short-term thinking extend far beyond a single company, however. The two most pressing problems facing our world today — global warming, and financial inequality — are both symptoms of a flawed economic system that values quick and dirty returns over sustainability.
Capitalism is often cited as the most effective vehicle for lifting people out of poverty, and for a time, that might have been true. But we’ve experienced a colossal shift in how companies conduct business over the past century. Businesses abandoned long-term, socially conscious goals during the globalization of the 1980s and ’90s, instead turning their focus to pleasing Wall Street and delivering short-term gains.
The result has been an alarming increase in income inequality. And that inequality can be blamed as for the recent increase in nationalism, populist unrest and demagoguery across the globe. Experts have already started predicting an economic breakdown even more catastrophic than 2008–2009 that will in turn spark a large-scale international military conflict. World War III, essentially. And the U.N., in its alarming global warming report last year, said our short-sighted business system is largely to blame for our impending doom.
The solution is to fundamentally change our current financial structure, such that long-term goals are paramount.
“I’m convinced that one of society’s most vexing problems is the relentlessly short-term orientation that manifests itself in investing, in business decision-making, and in our politics,” billionaire hedge fund manager Seth Klarman told a group of Harvard Business School students last December. “It’s a choice to attempt to maximize corporate results over the very short run and a different and sometimes harder decision to take a longer-term view.”.
Many companies have already made social responsibility a core tenet of their business. Investment firm BlackRock now requires its portfolio companies demonstrate how they benefit society. Economists have laid out a blueprint for how companies can help decrease inequality — namely, by investing in infrastructure, green energy, job training and health programs.
The best news is that long-term thinking doesn’t have to come at the expense of a business’ bottom line. Research has consistently shown that companies that prioritize social and environmental sustainability perform better financially than companies that don’t.
Making the difficult choice — to prioritize long-term success; to be socially responsible; to let everyone reap the benefits of capitalism, instead of a privileged few — is not only the right thing to do, it’s good business.
After years of insisting it was “just a platform” and abdicating responsibility for the accuracy of information on its network, Facebook says it’s finally taking fakes news seriously. It’s hard to see the effort as anything other than a cynical effort to regain the public’s trust after losing users in droves. But it’s a positive sign, nonetheless.
The change won’t be good just for Facebook and its bottom line, but for all of us.