Business and Politics in a Social Media World

by Chris Richardson

As everyone knows, human communication today is generally dominated by social media channels. People all over the world have come to accept social media platforms as a way to keep in touch across distances that are great and small. Social media allows human relationships to develop between individuals who barely know each other, and even between two people who have never met. 

This phenomenon is considered by onlookers - and users - of social media to be good and bad in equal measure. Those with a favorable opinion see social media as the incarnation of true Democracy in the modern age. For enthusiasts of social media, everyone has an equal voice - no matter what their status may be. Those who possess a negative view of social media, see it as a ruthless exploitation of the fractures in modern society. Opponents of social media think it incites a decline in morality, and is the reason why "crowd states" - with little or no respect for each other - have come to exist. 

It is fair to conclude that both enthusiasts and detractors of social media have valid opinions. It is indeed tempting to leave it at that. However such is the power of social media over the human beings that make up the world's population, that it is worth looking at the concept more closely. For instance, it can be readily argued that social media played a larger part in the Tunisian revolution of 2011 than either the Government or the demonstrators that took to the streets of Tunis. It is when social media becomes more powerful than Government itself, that those of us in business also get impacted.     

A case in point is Brexit. For any country in today's brutal global economy, there is no substitute for trade with neighbouring countries. This is half of why the European Union (EU) was created (the other half being to free Europe from its endless cycle of mutual war and conflict). In economic terms, this is why most regions of Planet Earth have developed their own equivalent of the EU (such as Mercosur in South America and ASEAN in South-East Asia). Nevertheless, in a referendum held in 2016 the United Kingdom (UK) voted to sever its connections with the EU. This was despite the British having the third highest voting influence in the European Parliament, in terms of the regulations that govern trade and legal cooperation on the continent that surrounds them. It is a decision that has bitterly divided British society. Two competing "crowd states" now exist in the UK, which completely supersede political party structures and even the mechanisms of Government itself. 

The position that the UK now finds itself in, is without doubt due to the influence of social media. Its power has actually grown since the referendum, rendering the two "crowd states" practically unable to communicate with each other in any civil fashion. This has transcended as far as the British Parliament, and is manifested by the inability of lawmakers to find a way to agree on the legislation required for the UK to leave the EU in an orderly fashion. 

Whichever side of the Brexit debate one is on, it is impossible to deny that 'Leave' voters in the UK chose rhetoric over economic common sense. Social media's role was to transform that rhetoric into fact. Which in turn appealed enormously to many of the British, who remain nostalgic for the era when the UK was a much more powerful country than it is today. No matter who much their longing may seem ridiculous in today's world, social media has the power to validate it. Such is the strength of social media over the mindset of each "crowd state" in the UK regarding Brexit, that opinions have become fact and discussions have become shouting matches in the street.

The reality to any onlooker, is that the only truly viable part of the post-Brexit economy is financial services. As a side effect of Brexit, this will lead to London becoming ever more disconnected from a slower speed hinterland. Huge employers - such as Japanese car manufacturers in the far Northeast of England - will likely have to close. Imagine the bafflement of senior executives at head office in Tokyo, when they learned that it was their own employees who voted to leave the EU. Imagine also their frustration, that such a major infrastructure decision was effectively taken out of their hands.

The bafflement and frustration experienced by the Japanese auto executives over Brexit, will be duplicated around the world in future scenarios that we do not yet even know. In the workplace, random colleagues will find themselves ever more often in an opposing "crowd state" during each and every workday. The only way to fully avoid these phenomena occurring in a given country, is to switch off social media completely. Which of course would be considered as unacceptable most everywhere. 

This is where the detractors' opinion of social media would seem to prevail. Let us not forget that for all a worldwide social media platform may have become almost as ubiquitous as the air we breath, it remains a commercial enterprise. The executives of a social media platform choose the nature of the access to it, and now the content that we see (due to the use of algorithms). Let us also not forget that these business decisions have an impact on literally billions of people in every walk of life, in every corner of the world. 

Given that the rise of social media is as irresistible as it is irreversible, the best way forward therefore would seem to lie in more Governmental regulation. After all, most industries do operate under the oversight of some sort of regulatory body. Social media platforms - and the executives that run them - currently operate in an environment where they are considered as merely content aggregators. But now that algorithms are being applied to their content, social media platforms are entering into the territory of the publishers. Social media platforms have become the "curators" of their material - and thus engaged in the wilful influencing of readers - in exactly the same way as any newspaper editorial column. As a result, the German Government has introduced specific national regulation regarding hate speech on social media platforms.   

All that said, most Governmental regulation of business has evolved over decades - often longer - depending on the sector involved. Technology marches at a faster pace than Governments tend to move. Business leaders should therefore look at their own organizations - and implement company policies - as officialdom catches up. While some may see this as an encroachment on free speech, the implications of a "crowd state" developing in an enterprise are too grave to be ignored. Several big international companies have successfully implemented social media policies. Just as codes of conduct in terms of discrimination are internally managed and maintained by companies and upheld by the law, parameters can be placed around social media. These could include principles of impartiality, integrity, professionalism, privacy and impartiality around social media use by employees. In due course, these would presumably be matched by Government guidelines.  

Ultimately social media is simply too popular for companies to become its detractors. While events like the Brexit referendum are out of the control of managers, a bold embrace of social media - and a relevant usage policy - can go a long way in securing a healthy and harmonious working environment among employees.    



Chris Richardson has lived in seven countries on three continents, performing both global and regional roles in the area of mobility and talent management. As Managing Editor of World Trade Resource, Chris has overall responsibility for the content integrity for 200 countries around the world for the World Trade Resource (WTR). He speaks French and German in addition to his native English. An avid traveler, Chris enjoys returning to the countries in which he has lived while every year also visiting a new country for the first time.