What Can We Learn From Facebook’s Mistakes? (Part II)

In our last post, we talked about how decision makers need to consider the interests and needs of people beyond their target markets.

Now let’s discuss Facebook’s second mistake: failing to consider the political and cultural context of their market.

Facebook in Ethiopia

We gave a bit of the political and cultural background of Ethiopia in the first post in this series. Here’s a quick summary of the context:

  • Historically, the ruling elite intentionally emphasized and promoted ethnic identity, which has fueled division among Ethiopians along ethnic lines.
  • Prime minister Abiy Ahmed released thousands of political prisoners and welcomed back opposition groups. Political commentators have said that this move was like taking the lid off a pressure cooker.  
  • Many Ethiopians get their news via word of mouth. News and rumors that circulate on social media make it out to rural areas this way, and there is no way for the people who hear it to check facts.

Adding Facebook into the mix was like pouring fuel on an already enormous fire. Oromo nationalist voices in the media and on social media accused Abiy of not having Oromo interests at heart, of trying to bring back the old government system, of being anti-federalist, even of trying to bring back a feudal system that has not existed in Ethiopia for almost two hundred years.

Things escalated in June 2020 when Hachalu Hundessa, a nationally beloved Oromo musician, was murdered in Addis Ababa. In the weeks leading up to his death, he had been demonized on Facebook in an incendiary campaign claiming that he had abandoned his heritage and sided with the prime minister.

Hachalu’s murder sparked even more violence in the capital and in Oromia where hundreds of people were brutally killed. All of this bloodshed was fueled by hate speech and incitements to violence on Facebook. There were people calling for genocide and proudly posting pictures of the property they had destroyed.

Facebook was not prepared to handle this.

They promised to employ 100 people to be content reviewers for the entire African market, but it is unclear how many of those people have been designated to handle the situation in Ethiopia. As of June 2020, they had no full-time employees in the country. Their Community Standards were not yet available in Ethiopia’s two main languages at the time of Hachalu’s death. They are relying on activists and volunteers to flag content and keep them up to date about what’s going on. Clearly, the strategy for cornering the Ethiopian market was lacking.

So, what can we learn from this?

Decision Makers Need to Think About Political and Cultural Context

Before entering a new market, especially one in another country, do your homework. Gaining awareness of the political situation and cultural nuances of the target market is critical.

Political Context

Do research on the government system your market’s country is ruled by. Sometimes we forget that democracy is not universal. Not all countries shares democratic principles and values.

When doing market research, reflect on the following questions:

  • How does this form of government impact the values and beliefs of the market? What are the effects of this type of government on the people who are subject to it? Given that impact, how is this market going to receive and use your product or service?
  • Is the political situation relatively stable? Or is it volatile? What kinds of risks come with entering this market given the political situation?
  • Does the government uphold human dignity? Or are they guilty of human rights violations?
  • How are the people in power going to use your product or service? Could they use it in a way that harms the people they rule? Can the product or service be used to denigrate human dignity? Could it be used to control and manipulate people? To whom is your creation going to give more power? The state or the people?
  • Look at the political views of the people and how they communicate them. Is there division that is leading to violence? Is your product or service going to exacerbate political division? Is it going to give power to one group over another? In what way?
  • Think through the impact of your product or service on the market considering the political situation. Is it a good idea to enter the market given the political situation? Are the risks inherent in that decision manageable and can you create solutions? Or will your creation exacerbate a volatile and problematic political situation? 
Cultural Context

When looking at the cultural context of your market, remember that culture is complex. Within a national culture, there are different flavors of that culture and there are different sub-cultures.

Under the big umbrella of, for example, American culture, there are various regional cultures (the South, the Midwest, the East Coast, the West Coast). There is a culture in the city, in the suburbs, and in the country. Then there are different ethnic cultures. Add to that religious culture and you have a lot of complexity to consider.

Consider also that some cultures are more individualist (Western countries) and others are more collectivist (Asian and African countries). Whether a country is more individualistic or more collectivist will impact how your market interacts with your product or service.

People from individualist cultures typically value independence and autonomy. They see themselves as separate from others. Their self-image is conceptualized in terms of their personal traits, and they think of those traits as being stable across contexts. They tend to say what they mean and make information explicit and unambiguous. The kinds of goals that people from individualist cultures strive after tend to be promotion-focused. This means they go after what they desire. They also tend to frame things in terms of gains, meaning they focus on getting a positive outcome.

Those from collectivist cultures value interdependence and group identity. They see themselves in terms of the other people they are connected to (family, ethnic group, religious community, etc.). When describing themselves, they are more like to define themselves in terms of their relationships (e.g. “I am a mother and a wife.”). They think of their characteristics as variable across contexts. Communication in collectivist cultures tends to be more indirect. What is meant is often implied, but individuals typically try to avoid conflict or embarrassment when they communicate. Individuals from collectivist cultures orient themselves toward prevention-focused goals, meaning they focus on maintaining certainty and security. They want to accomplish tasks carefully, and they frame things in terms of losses and negative outcomes.

Another layer to consider is whether a culture is organized horizontally or vertically.

In “flat” horizontal cultures, people treat each other as equals. Conversely, “layered” vertical cultures are more hierarchical, and people treat each other differently depending on status and position. The United States is an example of a vertical individualist culture. This means that, as a culture, we value independence and status. This is reflected in the ideal of the “American dream.”

This is not to make a judgment on any culture. Each culture has its own strengths and weaknesses. This is all just to say that culture impacts the market.

Consumers in one cultural context may use your product or service in a different way than consumers in another cultural context.

So being mindful of cultural diversity is important. Decision makers need to think about how the cultural roots of their product or service and their marketing campaign are going to interact with the culture of their target market. They also need to think about how the culture of the market is going to express itself via their creation.

The Need for Empathy

Empathy is a critical skill when considering how political and cultural contexts influence your target market. The dictionary definition of empathy is simply the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Empathy is important for a few reasons:

  • It helps us to be sensitive to the needs and feelings of others. This means that we are able to truly understand others’ humanity.
  • It helps us to be sensitive to the diversity of humanity and to better understand context
  • It creates more genuine connection between people, which in turn creates better outcomes

I emphasized this in another post, but it’s worth repeating: markets are made up of human beings. And human beings have emotions that influence their decisions. Business teams need to have not just an intellectual understanding of their market and the context, but to feel how they feel within their political and cultural context. Exercising empathy opens you up to considering more than just the bottom line and connects you to the humanity of the people you’re trying to serve.

The feelings that seem to have come up for Ethiopians in context of the political situation could be anger, frustration, indignation, hatred, and shame. Facebook might have thought about how its platform could exacerbate these emotions, which often lead to unhealthy and destructive behaviors.

What We Can Learn from Facebook’s Mistake

Here are the three key takeaways from Facebook’s mishandling of the Ethiopia situation:

  • Decision makers need to research the political situation of the market and consider how that will affect the market they are targeting.
  • Decision makers need to consider the cultural context of the market and understand the impact that it has on how the market will use their product or service.
  • Decision makers should practice empathy and make it part of the way they do business.

In the next post, we’ll be taking a look at Facebook’s third mistake: not adequately assessing the risks and potential bad consequences of their decision.

What Can We Learn From Facebook’s Mistakes? (Part I)

Let’s quickly recap the three mistakes Facebook made when they expanded into new markets overseas. Facebook failed to consider:

  • The interests and needs of people beyond their target markets
  • How the political and cultural context of their market might affect the way their platform would be used
  • The risks and potential bad consequences of their decision

These considerations are all interconnected. People are embedded in societies that have a particular political system and cultural norms and values, so any consideration of people outside a target market naturally leads to considerations of context. Risk assessment requires thinking about the interests and needs of people outside the target market: what will the impact be on society at large?

We’ll take a look at each of these considerations in turn, the first in this post and the others in a subsequent post. Let’s first talk about the initial decision of creating a business model.

Building Ethical Business Models

What happens when a company prioritizes profits to the detriment of people?

We’ve seen it with Facebook. Ethnic violence in Ethiopia. Ethno-religious persecution in Myanmar. Damage to democracy in the United States. The deleterious effects of building a business model that exploits human weakness in order to make money is apparent.

There is a lot of emphasis placed on creating a profitable business model. After all, a business that can’t make a profit will not survive.

But hardly anyone points out that you need to build ethics into a business model.

If business people really want to make the world a better place, they need to ask themselves whether or not the way they are pursuing profit is ethical.

Facebook’s Business Model

The basis of Facebook’s business model is the sale of user data to advertisers. The point of engagement for the platform is the Newsfeed. Algorithms determine the individualized content and advertisements that users see. If a user clicks on an ad or on a story, she will get more of the same thing the next time she’s on Facebook.

This leads to an echo chamber effect where users are never exposed to alternative narratives. People are encouraged by Facebook’s algorithms to engage with more of the same content, even if that content includes disinformation, extremist propaganda, and conspiracy theories.

However much damage this model has done in society, Facebook continues to profit from it. Community Standards are in place, but it’s not required reading for creating an account.

Facebook’s business model is a prime example of a focus on profits at the expense of people. Such an approach to business has a human cost: real-world violence, division, and confusion.

Reflect Before You Act

We want, of course, to make a profit and for our businesses to do well. But we need to keep in mind some assessment questions as we pursue profitability:

  • Are we upholding the dignity of the human person in our pursuit of profit? Or are we denigrating it?
  • Are we making a valuable contribution to humanity? Will our business contribute to a more harmonious society? Or are we playing on human weaknesses to make money?
  • What impact will/does our business model have on society? Does it do harm?

The key to creating a business model that is sustainable and contributes to the good of society (and, really, the key to making a good decision in general) is reflection, thinking before doing.

Looking Beyond the Target Market

Part of Facebook’s ethical failure is its lack of consideration for those outside their target market. The big question is, who isn’t Facebook’s target market? It seems like their target market is any human being over age 13 with an internet connection.

But this actually excludes a lot of people, 3.23 billion to be exact. The most impoverished, many of those living in rural communities, and many indigenous peoples around the world are excluded from the public discourse that takes place on social media while bearing the negative consequences of it.

Only 6% of the population in Ethiopia have internet access, necessarily privileging the voices of a few and excluding the voices of the majority. The incitements to violence on Facebook contributed to riots, murders, and the persecution of Ethiopian people who didn’t have a voice on the platform. Disinformation spread from Facebook to rural areas in Ethiopia by word of mouth, and the people who were hearing it didn’t have access to alternative sources of information.

The same thing happened in Myanmar, where so many of the Rohingya population is impoverished and cannot access the internet. The voices of prejudice rang much louder than the voices of the marginalized and their supporters thanks to Facebook’s algorithms.

When expanding into new markets, Facebook only saw an opportunity to extend its reach. It didn’t consider the people who would not have access to its service and how they might be affected by discourse on the platform.

What these cases clearly show us is that markets are not segregated. They do not exist in a vacuum. Markets interact with other markets. The way that a product or service is used by one market has effects on people outside of that market.

The other thing to note is that markets are made up of human beings, not data points. Humans have emotions and biases that affect their judgment. Various types of education and training, both good and bad, leads human beings to make different kinds of decisions. All of this informs the way in which products and services are used.

A communication service like Facebook has an enormous potential for abuse. The number of people who know how to communicate respectfully and compassionately and who can discern truth from falsity are few and far between. The number of people who haven’t learned virtuous ways of communicating and who haven’t been trained to make distinctions in the processing of information is far greater. Look at any comment section on the internet for the evidence.

The takeaway lesson is that decision makers need to consider the interests and needs of those outside of their target market. They also need to think about the ways that their product or service will be used by the target market and how that will effect people outside of that market.

We’ll look at considerations of political and cultural context in the next post.