AHRI CEO Lynn Goodear FAHRI GAICD discusses how Facebook’s mistreatment of contract workers led to a press leak and subsequent reputational damage.
Rachel Botsman gave a keynote address on technology and trust at our national convention last year. The audience loved her talk and so did I. More recently, she has written a Guardian article about the new tech giants, especially Facebook, which have been widely reproached over the past year, and particularly in the wake of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump.
Along with executives from Twitter and Google, Facebook’s general counsel was given a grilling by the US House Intelligence Committee last November.
As a platform for connecting with family and friends, I happily count myself among Facebook’s millions of trusting users. Yet I see claims now being made that its algorithms have enabled mass circulation of false information, such as the 2016 story about the Pope endorsing Donald Trump.
Only a platform?
Its founder Mark Zuckerberg insists Facebook is just an open platform, not a curator of content. However, an article by Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein in Wired magazine contests that view and looks back at Zuckerberg’s strategic crushing of Twitter in 2012 by taking its space in the market of news dissemination, and by hiring a team of journalists to do it.
While Facebook hired journalists, Wired notes it spent little time discussing “the big questions” that bedevil the media industry such as What is fair? What is a fact?” They note that Facebook seems to think it is immune from those discussions because it claims to be just a tech company that operates a neutral open platform.
Part of the predicament Facebook now faces can be traced back to those journalists, about whom Thompson and Vogelstein write: “Facebook prides itself on being a place where people love to work. But Benjamin Fearnow (one of the journalists) and his team weren’t the happiest lot. They were contract employees hired through a company called BCforward, and every day was full of little reminders that they weren’t really part of Facebook.
“Plus, the young journalists knew their jobs were doomed from the start. Tech companies, for the most part, prefer to have as little as possible done by humans because, it’s often said, they don’t scale. You can’t hire a billion of them, and they prove meddlesome in ways that algorithms don’t. They need bathroom breaks and health insurance, and the most annoying of them sometimes talk to the press. Eventually, everyone assumed, Facebook’s algorithms would be good enough to run the whole project, and the people on Fearnow’s team would be expendable.”
Well, Fearnow did talk to the press, and by doing so contributed to the crisis that Facebook now faces. Fearnow is what we might call a contracted worker, a worker who is also an outsider.
A few weeks ago I contributed a submission on AHRI’s behalf to a Senate Select Committee Inquiry on the Future of Work and Workers. The Facebook story has resonance in the light of that submission because in it I referred to our 2017 member survey on ‘The Future of Work: HR hopes and fears’ in which the HR respondents were asked about the gig economy in the context of emerging technologies. Respondents were either unsure (23 per cent) or agreed (43 per cent) that the gig economy will impact negatively in performance, customer service, workplace culture and ethical behaviour.
The Facebook story is an example of that member projection coming true. The Facebook gig workers did not regard themselves as part of the company culture and saw no ethical impediment in going to the press against the interests of an employer to which they owed no loyalty.
I invite you to read the submission on the AHRI website and welcome your feedback on it, as well as on the wider discussion around the role of HR in the future of work.