by Julius WiedemannMar 02, 2022
The idea to "lead by example" became a mantra in the corporate world decades ago, and also for families who seek to applaud people who can deliver not only good speeches, but also lead the way by doing the right things even when it’s hard, and especially when it is not the norm. A simple example for me is trying not to engage in corrupt activities in a country like Brazil, where I live, where systems and common practice tend to push you to make concessions because it’s hard to make otherwise. And many people really do the right things, even when they are pointed to easier ways of sorting out bureaucracy, dealing with law enforcement, and more. But the role models now have become global, they extend beyond families and corporations. They have become a global phenomenon. This aspect is probably making us more vigilant because it’s always costlier to deal with phenomena that has spread around different areas than dealing with niche, circumstantial problems. Digital media forces us to look beyond our borders, beyond our reach, and be specially careful because we are more vulnerable due to lack of control. Once a message is sent or posted, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. The ownership of communication has gone baloney.
One simple idea of truth has three pillars. The first one is academia, the second one media, and the last is the courts. But digital media has imposed a different kind of scrutiny in the world. First of all it is now completely global. The case of Novak Djokovic in Australia makes it very clear. Not only he was setting a bad example for people in Australia, which was used as an argument for the courts to deny him the participation and the current Australian Open, he was being a bad example for the entire world. He might still have a small group of people supporting him, who can be noisy, but the overwhelming majority agreed that he was supposed to be allowed to play as long as he was vaccinated. Examples are not always positive. The spread of fake news through influencers is a case to reflect on how deep the damage of the lack of authority can cause. How far we should let lies support entire conversations, such as the flat world.
Researchers from Wageningen University and Indiana University have found that the diminishing relevance of factual truth in public discourse is part of a gradual trend that started some decades ago. According to the study, published in the first half of January 2022, “Analysing language from millions of books, the researchers found that words associated with reasoning, such as "determine" and "conclusion," rose systematically beginning in 1850, while words related to human experience such as "feel" and "believe" declined. This pattern has reversed over the past 40 years, paralleled by a shift from a collectivistic to an individualistic focus as reflected by the ratio of singular to plural pronouns such as "I"/"we." Finding role models in such unstable environments that disconnect truth and facts from reality has become certainly more difficult. The cause for such change still remans speculative according to lead researcher Marten Scheffer.
Brands now also need to be aware of global sensibilities when it comes to dealing with something controversial. On internet an international cross-border boycott is not easier than it has ever been. Companies send out messages by hiring PR companies and by putting money in advertising, but it certainly costs a lot of money. On the website ethicalconsumer.org you can find a list of companies being threatened with boycotts and protests all over the globe. They go from Amazon to AXA, from Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories to Barclays. With the title More Than 1,000 Companies Boycotted Facebook. Did It Work? The New York Times investigated that the harm caused by the campaign to stop using Facebook as an advertising platform might have caused more image damage than the financial one. According to the article published in October 2021, the boycott, called #StopHateForProfit by the civil rights groups that organised it, urged companies to stop paying for ads on Facebook in July to protest the platform’s handling of hate speech and misinformation. More than 1,000 advertisers publicly joined, out of a total pool of more than nine million, while others quietly scaled back their spending.”
On the other hand, citizens and companies have to be aware that the tools that they are employing to communicate, and eventually to mislead public opinion, are mostly under private regulations, in democratic countries, without broad regulatory rules from governments. That means that these companies can take away your rights to give your opinion if they consider that you have crossed the line of decency. We need to be mature to separate freedom of expression from incitement of violence. This is a clear case in the Donald Trump exclusion from using Twitter, to spread lies for example. When we sign a disclaimer we are agreeing with policies that we rarely read. There are a lot of hidden rules. The debate about special regulations for the digital world remains. Should we come up with new rules, or should we stick to the current codes and try to apply them to the internet? We have changed a few things such as privacy, but we are still a long way to go to have a more stable environment where we can separate opinions from facts. We need more role models.
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.