Facebook, Twitter and taking credit for revolutions

Photo by: West McGowan / CC BY

Matthew Clark, senior director of startup engagement for Microsoft’s strategic and emerging business team, explains why young technology companies should resist the temptation to take credit for how their platforms have influenced political change.

How should we understand Facebook’s role in the supporting the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt? Did it help the protesters? Did it do so actively? What can and should Facebook take credit for?

When historic events appear to gravitate around a technology, the tendency of young company founders is to take credit. They regard themselves and their technology as agents of change (see reference to Zuckerberg and China in article in Bloomberg today). Situations like that in Tunisia and Egypt reinforce this view. The consensus, in the West at least, was that the technology promoted positive change.

Corporations, and young technology companies in particular, need to resist the temptation to take credit. When you take credit for all the good that stems from your platform, you’re going to be held accountable for all the bad that comes from it too.

And, trust me, it will come. As Evengey Morozov has chronicled in The Net Delusion, eventually a not-so-enlightened government will use your very same technology to put down protests, quite brutally. No tech founder wants to be held accountable for that.

And what if you don’t take credit for all the good? Will you be held accountable for the bad things anyway? It depends. My experience is that the public and governments in the West tend to be rather forgiving when one of two conditions applies.

First, if they think the company was genuinely not aware of the bad being done, they’ll give the company a pass as long as it pledges to take action. The obverse condition is that if the company was aware of the bad being done and did take reasonable steps to address it, again, the public tends to be forgiving.

A theoretical example illustrates this. Think of PG&E, an “electricity delivery platform.” No interest group has ever asked PG&E to turn the power off at Klu Klux Klan meetings. For years, the public has understood that while PG&E was aware the KKK was using electricity to power the microphones and lights at its meeting, no one thought PG&E had the capability to turn them off. The expense and effort required to turn the power off was not considered reasonable. PG&E’s platform was not sufficiently advanced.

But what now should we make of PG&E’s “smart grid” and the “smart meter” it recently installed on my house? This hints at the unique circumstances of technology companies.

All technology platforms these days are, by design, “smart.” A social networking company, like Facebook, can figure out where you are, what you like, how you’re feeling and increasingly what you’re likely to do next. Compared to PG&E’s smart electricity delivery platform the platforms of Facebook, Twitter, Google and Bing look like Einstein.

When you’re that smart, you’re going to be held accountable. You cannot claim you were not aware. The only thing you can claim is that you’ve taken all reasonable steps to address the issue. Of course, what “reasonable steps” are — whether it relates to privacy or political uprising — is a matter of public debate.

It’s a debate companies should accept and then embrace.

Re-published with permission. Read the original blog post.

About the author

  • Matthew clark

    Matthew Clark

    Matthew has more than 14 years of experience driving business strategy and building private-public partnerships. He has overseen Microsoft Inc.'s worldwide relations with international financial institutions like the World Bank and International Finance Corp., and currently serves as senior director for startup engagement with the company’s Strategic and Emerging Business Team, responsible for Microsoft BizSpark™ One, a global program that accelerates the growth of high-potential startups and builds a supporting community of incubators, investors and advisors around them. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Microsoft or Devex.