Perils of the parallel universe

Abhijit Bhaduri | Updated on March 27, 2019

What if the fringe action on Facebook or YouTube enters your organisation? Who is responsible?

A popular radio jockey (RJ) often makes prank calls to unsuspecting listeners. When Facebook bought over WhatsApp, the RJ called a “victim” and told him that as part of the merger, all videos from WhatsApp would now be posted on everyone’s Facebook page.

After a brief moment of outrage against the RJ for not seeking prior approval, the listener suddenly realised that his family members would see the content he had traded with friends on WhatsApp. We laughed at the discomfort of the victim of the prank call as he pleaded and begged not to have the videos shared on Facebook. What if this happened inadvertently to you?

Private and public persona

WhatsApp has become the parallel universe of communication between parents and teachers, doctors and patients, lawyers and their clients and between family members. Conversations that were held in private are now held on this platform.

The WhatsApp messages we send and receive provide a rich picture of our personality. We get continuously bombarded with all kinds of messages — important as well as inane. Each response (or lack of it), if analysed, can give us insights about the personality of the group members. The lines between private and public persona have blurred and that is a rich treasure trove that can be monetised at a price.

Content and context

The content shared in a WhatsApp group of classmates from school or college may not be appropriate to be shared among colleagues. The content we share among WhatsApp group of family members is reflective of the aspects of personality we choose to present to the group members.

Occasionally the wires get crossed. Many of us have seen rifts formed because someone accidentally forwards content meant for another group. From jokes and political views, to our responses, everything tells people something about our personality. It is not just the content but how and with whom we share it, that reflects how the context is interpreted by us.

Even in our silences, people are evaluating us. Everything, from our religious views to political slants, comes through sometimes in the groups we are a part of or the ones we quit. The groups where we are vocal, and the ones where we are inactive, tell others about behavioural choices. What if your employer could buy that data about you? I know candidates who have been asked, “What does your browser history say about you?”

As an aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a parliamentary committee was set up to look into the data economy and how it makes us vulnerable to manipulation. Their verdict about Facebook: “Personal data was, for Facebook, equivalent to a currency — the company would give it to app developers in exchange for new and improved apps on the platform. Cambridge Analytica might have breached the company’s conditions, as Facebook claimed, but the model — partner with us and we will give you personal data in return — was baked into the company’s DNA.”

We all know the predictability of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s response to breach of privacy. Apologise with solemn face to Facebook users, the Senate and other lawmakers, promise to fix it right away, and get back to business as usual.

So who is responsible?

Facebook describes itself as a platform and not a content aggregator like, say, a newspaper, and hence is not responsible for the content. Zuckerberg sees himself as upholding the value of free speech. The Christchurch shootings were broadcast live on Facebook and the videos of the gruesome shootings were floating on WhatsApp groups quickly, making it go viral. The prank call that the RJ had pulled off was happening for real. The lines between Facebook and WhatsApp were erased.

Before the attack, the gunman told his online viewers to subscribe to the YouTube channel of PewDiePie. PewDiePie, a Swedish gaming YouTuber whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, has in the past promoted alt-right themes and attracted criticism for lauding an anti-Semitic YouTube channel.

Facebook and YouTube are not responsible because they are platforms.

Neither Facebook nor YouTube nor PewDiePie are acknowledging their role in the Christchurch attack. PewDiePie has responded by tweeting that, “I feel absolutely sickened having my name uttered by this person..” While he gets paid millions based on the content he creates, he is not responsible for the impact it has on society. PewDiePie is “sickened” and has distanced himself.

This is beginning to sound like the gun control debate that comes up briefly after every shooting. Right to arms wins over right to safety because of the former’s lobbying power. Liquor companies run campaigns to encourage consumers to “drink responsibly”. It is our freedom to choose. Freedom of choice wins over the agony of the mother who loses her child to a drunken driver.

Laws for a hyperconnected world

One look at Zuckerberg’s testimony before the European Parliament shows how powerless lawmakers are because they do not understand how modern media works. US senators were not much better when it came to questioning Zuckerberg. Lawmakers pose for selfies and photos with the very person they intend to grill.

The Guardian put it perfectly: “Zuckerberg was well prepared, but he also benefited from redundant questioning that rarely included smart follow-ups.” Part of the problem was the clear ignorance, in the face of technology, displayed by most of the senators. At times, Zuckerberg resembled the polite teenager who visits his grandparents, only to spend the afternoon showing them how to turn on the Wi-Fi.

The senior leaders and decision-makers inside organisations are often like the politicians who are in charge of making laws to regulate something they do not comprehend. What if one day a frustrated employee did something horrendous inside an organisation and livestreamed it? We would see a repeat of the Christchurch attack. No one would be responsible for the tragedy. What happens in the fringes of society sooner or later becomes a choice to be made inside organisations. In a hyperconnected world, the change rushes in like a tsunami.

When science fiction writers write about aliens attacking our world, maybe they are predicting the scenario just witnessed. “No humans were involved in this process.” Really?

Abhijit Bhaduri is a talent management expert, a leadership coach and the author of Digital Tsunami

Published on March 27, 2019

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