Social Media, Ethics and Transparency


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A modern brain-washing?

Following the Friday Session about ‘Social media and Transparency – New Ways of Lobbying?’, I come back to the era of transparency as a starting point for another “New ways of” article. Going further into the analyse of transparency trough social media, I want to talk about the bright and the dark side of this trendy concept.

The era of transparency in which we are supposed to be is the slogan you cannot avoid. Companies, associations are claiming proudly and loudly: we are transparent! Transparency is seen as a solution to internal crisis and mostly integrated within an autoregulated system.

“We are transparent in our work, says CWG secretary general”

“We are transparent” – Tullow Oil boss

Social Media ROI: we are transparent, so we better have passion for what we do”

“Why we need transparent pricing in microfinance” –

Transparent does not mean translucent : the bright side

First of all, what is transparency? Being transparent includes clarity, information. It is mostly a state of mind: accept that others could have access to information to which they would not have normally. With a transparent information, people do not have to search; it is available right here and now.

This claim for transparency appeared for the first time with the Enlightenment Movement. This movement promoted a more participative political system in opposition to the institutions and their fuzzy way of working. Kant, for example, promoted the concept of Publicity (make things public) as a condition of democracy .

Public Opinion is watching you

Nowadays, transparency is claimed in every field. From politics [ii] to banks [iii], through solar panels installator… all of them are requested to have a transparent information about their product and/or service. This request for transparency is supposed to avoid the uncorrect behaviors and bring trust to the customers/clients. Transparency would normally be linked to an ethical behavior.

In which way? If you are promoting yourself as transparent, you let others having a look at what you do. If anybody has access to this information, you are now submitted to another law!?! Public Opinion is watching you! You became the perfect well-equiped company of “doing things well”. Now transparency gives people the right to ask who, how and why a company is doing such things. People have the permission to give their point of view and arguing if it is not done the way they want it. They are expecting from you a certain behavior. In fact, they are expecting you to be legitime in what you do, to have an “ethical” label. You gave them a “droit de regard”, and they use it, as it was predictable, as a “droit de juger”. This right of inspection was used to inspect, strictly speaking. Following this ethical movement of inspection, Code of Conduct, White Book, labels, and guidelines… are doing great for now.

The shareholders era

Social media platforms are playing in this general movement of inspection. They are transparent in the way they are diffusing and submitting some information to the Public Opinion. It is a way to diffuse and manage your image, your ethical reputation (among other things, of course). They help making information accessible.

Danone Communities

We are now dealing in the company culture with an extended stakeholders community, the shareholders community, to which consumers belong. “Shareholder” means that the company interest cannot be resumed to the only ones who have a financial interest, the interest must be widen to all kind of stakes.

Nestlé Creating Value with Shareholders

Transparent does not mean translucent : the dark side

Transparent does not mean translucent! Being transparent does not include avoiding any secret and reveal everything publically. Some information need to be private, the secret is intrinsically linked to heir own nature [iv]. It also means that some obligations can be avoided. The lie by omission is permitted! Between the image communicated and the actions, there is a gap.

Social media don’t want to be transclucent, they are transparent in the way they diffuse information. Excepting that before diffusion, there is always selection of information. Here is the first gap.

The second gap can be found in the use and the knowledge people have of these technical issues:

  • Are people aware of the way social media are managed?
  • Are they aware of the privacy policies?
  • Will social media still be open to the collective knowledge for free?

Social media can be a real weapon of reputation management but I wouldn’t talk about a revolution! I prefer being sceptical and pragmatical. Even if of course nobody can predict the way people are going to use social media in 40 years, there is still some things that must be kept in mind when we use it on a daily base. The gap between the transparency declared and the transparency applied in social media is one of these things.

Ethics were supposed to change the world

In this discussion, nothing is black or white, maybe is it my philosophical background talking here?!? One thing is sure: transparency is not as easy to study as it seems. We are only at the beginning of the conflict between transparency, social media and ethics.

Concluding with a personal reflexion. When I started studying ethics, I was convinced companies behavior was about to change. Ethics could change the world! Now I am more in a … disenchantment! Concretly, ethics reflects more in words than in facts! Organisations use the media channels to diffuse ethical principles. Even if I cannot blame companies which are submitting themselves to ethical principles, companies have tendency to follow in general the green and ethical brain-washing without wishing a change of their real problematic behaviors.

Read for example “Projet de Paix Perpétuelle“.

[ii] Example: Transparency International Belgium

[iii] Example: ECB

[iv] Some professions are defined by the professional secret and the violation of this Code of Honor leads to the exclusion/humiliation of the peers. Ex: doctors, advocates, bankers…

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  1. Hélène

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