At one time, the idea that technology and social media had a major impact on society and politics would have sounded insane. Given the technology so embedded in our lives, this reality raises legitimate questions about Silicon Valley’s ethical responsibility.
Should tech companies step in to create and enforce guidelines within their platforms if they believe such guidelines would help the common good? Or should executives allow their technology to evolve organically without filters or manipulation?
One authority on this fascinating subject is Casey Fiesler– a researcher, assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, and an expert in technology ethics. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt Law School. There she found a passion for the interfaces between law, ethics and technology.
She was further fueled when she found that, given the significant overlap, much more empirical research into the ethics of modern tech companies was required. With a sense of urgency, she devoted her career to researching and communicating the laws and ethics behind the influence of technology.
Today, Casey strives to educate every technology leader, from young entrepreneurs to seasoned CEOs, about designing and supporting ethical platforms. She believes a revived interest in technology ethics could create a brighter future for businesses, tech users, and society at large.
What is tech ethics?
We all probably know the general concepts behind ethics and technology – but what exactly is technology ethics? Despite constant controversy and conversation about the role of social media in society, Casey himself admits that there is no one-stop answer.
“Ethics can be a charged term,” she says. “Sometimes we talk about responsibility. Are the people who design technology responsible and think about the possible harm to their product? Ultimately, I see tech ethics as the design of technology that does more good than bad for the world. “
Take a look at Facebook, the world’s most popular social media platform, from an ethical standpoint. “Before Facebook was Facebook,” Casey says, “it was built as a platform for rating girls. The idea that one day it would be Deeply embedded in society and having an impact on democracy would have sounded ridiculous! ”
While Casey is designing Facebook in his Harvard dormitory, he gives Mark Zuckerberg a pass for ignoring the ethics behind the ban on a seated president. As a tech company grows, so does its responsibility for ethical speculation.
“Eventually for Facebook,” Casey says, “it should be clear how things could go.” Eventually, instead of overlooking ethics, it becomes a leader’s duty to anticipate, plan, and take action on potential problems. And with examples of bad tech ethics around us, startups have no excuse to postpone them while waiting for some level of success.
She also encourages tech designers and entrepreneurs to look beyond the bottom line. Financial health is absolutely a critical number, but it shouldn’t be the only metric. “Make sure sales aren’t the only benchmark,” Casey says. “When it comes to social media, decisions have been made based on the number of eyeballs you can put on ads.”
Casey points out a controversy surrounding the YouTube algorithm, which openly transferred conspiracy theories to its watchers in an attempt to increase ad revenue. After receiving a significant pushback, “they made a conscious decision to change their algorithm so that certain types of content would not be recommended as strongly,” Casey says. “It was an ethical call and I am sure it has resulted in a loss of revenue – but sometimes you have to do what is right for the good of society.”
“We should think about what could go wrong early and often,” says Casey. “Don’t wait and see what goes wrong to fix the problem. By then, the damage has already been done. “
Social Media and Tech Ethics in Politics
Unsurprisingly, Casey’s focus today is often on the role of social media in politics, from its moderation tactics to decisions about flagging information or deleting accounts altogether. “Decisions about the moderation of content are enormously currently political and ethical issues, ”says Casey. “It’s a great example of why ethics are so challenging – and it’s challenging to teach and learn.
“There are no right and wrong answers. It often has to do with how people value things differently,” she continues. “One person will tell you that freedom of speech is the most important value. Another will tell you that protection of people is the most important asset before hate speech or harassment. Platforms have to make decisions about it. “
One tech giant in the midst of this ethical technology debate is Twitter. They currently have a policy called the Civic Integrity Policy, where violations involve sharing misinformation about election procedures or results. Examples could be tweeting fake polling station locations or incorrectly stating that an election has been postponed. If a tweet violates this policy, Twitter can remove it.
“Another part of the policy is that you can’t share content that has misled people about the outcome of an election,” Casey says. “When President Trump tweeted that he won the election after it was called for Joe Biden, that content was flagged as part of the civil integrity policy.”
Until recently, Twitter had a policy not to remove content from political leaders. Instead, they would label it misinformation. However, the events of January 6, 2021 forced Twitter to reconsider its ethical stance on this policy.
Now they are removing Tweets from all users who, despite their status, consistently violate this policy. Although the decision had a negative impact on Twitter’s bottom line, the leadership team believes it was ethically correct.
Why Tech Ethics is Important to Every Business
Politics aside, there are innumerable reasons why technical ethics is important. Before 2020 and the COVID pandemic, only a few could predict the now well-known phenomena of the zoom bomb – or when an uninvited visitor enters a private zoom chat.
Sometimes an unexpected zoom bomb just makes you laugh. In other cases, a company could face significant security threats or harassment. In both cases, many are wondering why Zoom’s executives and designers failed to foresee how people could abuse their platform and find a solution In front it was started.
“You can understand Facebook to a certain extent,” says Casey. “It was built for a cause. We couldn’t expect it to go to this place. But zoom was Built for business conferences. A bit of ethical speculation could have gone into their process. “
Remember, this is Zoom’s bug a lot of It’s easier to solve problems before a platform can potentially land in the hands or desks of millions. “Sometimes you can predict where the technology is going,” Casey says. “Maybe it’s a slow, gradual process, and that can be challenging. But that’s why the company’s executive team should check in.”
During the startup and development phase, Casey encourages technology leaders and designers to put themselves inside the minds of “terrible people.” Think about how they could use this technology as it spreads more widely.
“You know this is going to happen,” Casey says. “When you’re designing technology, part of that process should think about how bad actors might use it. Then design it to make that more difficult. “
Finally, Zoom fixed many of the serious issues that led to Zoom Bombing. However, all of this was done in a reactive response to the problem. Imagine how much time, money, and headaches you would have saved by integrating these solutions from the start – not to mention fewer PR hassles.
“I don’t expect software designers to be clairvoyant, but I think it’s really important to be ethical in the design process. Even if your motivation is not to want a PR disaster, “laughs Casey.” I take it! “
The conversation with Casey Fiesler continues Lead with real care Podcast. You will hear how ethical speculation changed during COVID, why greater diversity and equity in technology can solve many ethical problems, and much more! Don’t miss any article or episode of the podcast by signing up my mailing list. You also get a free guide to my favorite mindful resources. Connect with me Twitter and LinkedIn and keep up with my company imageOne.