In early 2018, Facebook was implicated in a political scandal known as The Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal. It was revealed that Cambridge Analytica, had accessed personal private information of users, and used it without their consent for political advertising purposes. These allegations were first reported by Harry Davies, who reported that Cambridge Analytica was working for a United States Senator, allegations to which Facebook refused to comment on. In March of the same year, however, a former employee of Cambridge Analytica, Christopher Wylie, exposed how the information was accessed and used. He described how the CEO, Alexander Nix, attracted support and help to access millions of Facebook profiles, which were in turn used for political advertising purposes without the users’ consent. The result was a massive fall in Facebook’s stock price and calls for tighter regulation of tech companies’ use of personal data.
The Facebook scandal is one of many examples in which corporates have engaged in unethical business practices time and time again in the quest of getting ahead. In doing this, there is a major disregard of ethical regulations that are meant to guide business practices. Some individuals upon assuming positions of authority, neglect to adhere to codes of practice, and use their assumed positions to advance their own personal agendas. The example of the Facebook scandal sheds light on three psychological dimensions that lead to unethical behaviour; omnipotence, cultural numbness, and justified neglect.
Omnipotence is the belief in an individual that they have unlimited power, so much so that rules of accountability do not apply to them. This happens in the corporate world on a daily basis, when decisions are made based on an individual’s own interests more than the best interests of the organisation. Before someone makes a decision, they are more likely to ask the question, “what’s in it for me?” The result of this is decision making influenced by personal needs, hampering the success of the organisation at large.
The second dimension we find in this instance is Cultural Numbness. This is when individuals observe the unruly behaviour, go along with this behaviour, and gradually come to accept this behaviour as normal. In the Cambridge Analytica Scandal, Christopher Wylie highlighted how the CEO had help from the Breitbart editor and Cambridge Professor in accessing this personal information and making it available for illicit use. In doing this, the accomplices knew they were indulging in unethical behaviour, but participated regardless, as they realised they could potentially gain financially from this. Scandals of this nature are uncovered on a regular basis in the corporate world. Disregard for ethical practices continues to persist, despite there being guidelines on conducting business practices.
The third dimension, justified neglect, is also covered in the scandal. Justified neglect is when people do not expose unethical behaviour because they are more concerned about staying on the ‘good side’ of the authority figure. Staying on the good side would potentially mean benefits which may include increased remuneration, promotion to similar positions of authority and staying in employment. An individual may do a cost-benefit analysis, and find that it is more beneficial for them to participate in the activities, as opposed to exposing them.
In light of all this, the question that remains is where do we draw the line in our practices? How much are we willing to break codes of conduct in advancing our own interests? Are we willing to incur major financial loss before we draw the line somewhere in conducting ourselves? The Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal is a good example of how costly breaching ethical guidelines can be on an organisation, and why it is always important to be compliant in all business practices
Lindah Mavengere is a Business Consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, a business management and human resources consulting firm.
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