Tag Archives: ethics

Me And Mr. Jones

You might have read the news this morning that Apple has banned Alex Jones and Infowars from their podcasting platform. They join Facebook, Spotify, and YouTube in tossing this material off their distribution channels. Some of you will see this as a political move, stifling free speech. I don’t want to look at it that way today. Instead, I’d like us to focus on some business issues.

If you’re not familiar with Mr. Jones, he’s a conspiracy theorist who has claimed, among other things, that the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School were staged by paid actors and that the government is poisoning children to make them gay. Do you remember a guy walking into a pizzeria with a gun to free the children being held there as part of a sex ring? An Alex Jones listener, who heard that the Clintons were running the ring on Alex Jones’ program.

Following the ban, some folks are yelling about freedom of speech and the First Amendment. Sorry folks. Some speech is not protected. I can’t make things up about a product and knowingly advertise false information. I can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater. The most relevant type of speech that’s not protected is this:

Government may prohibit the use of “fighting words,” which is speech that is used to inflame another and that will likely incite physical retaliation. Likewise, language that is meant to incite the masses toward lawless action is not protected. This can include speech that is intended to incite violence or to encourage the audience to commit illegal acts. The test for fighting words is whether an average citizen would view the language as being inherently likely to provoke a violent response.

That’s exactly why this material was banned. It violates the platforms’ terms of service. Frankly, it disappoints me that it’s taken so long and it raises a business point we all need to consider.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects platforms from liability when people publish on their platform. This prevents me from suing a platform when a third-party writes something completely false about me, and it’s a great idea. The problem is that too many platforms hide behind this, feeling as if they begin moderating the obviously false or hateful content that they might, in fact, become liable. In doing so, they open the platform up to become a megaphone for hate and disinformation. Most importantly, it damages their reputation and turns off users. Look at what has happened with Twitter. The word I hear most often when people describe it is “cesspool.” To their credit, Twitter management is acting to clean it up (finally) but a lot of damage has already been done.

Any of us in business need to do more to protect our brands and businesses than the minimum legally required amount. Being corporately responsible is proactive. Remember that there are other channels through which Mr. Jones or any other content provider can distribute their information. That doesn’t mean I have to allow him or anyone else into mine, just as you don’t need to permit anyone into your retail store who you find potentially troublesome – a suspected shoplifter, for example –  as long as it is not based on bias against a federally protected class of people. I need to be clear about that to my users (we don’t welcome hate speech or knowingly false information here in your terms of service, perhaps).  Most importantly, I need to be responsible and do the best I can to do the ethically correct thing. Not because I dislike what it is you have to say, but because it’s a hate-filled lie.

Your thoughts?

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Filed under digital media, Reality checks, What's Going On

Selling Sneaky Vs. Selling Right

I got called an idiot this morning. OK, not in those exact words, but I was reading an article on social media marketing and a pop-up asked me to download a whitepaper. The choices I was given via the two buttons were “YES, sign me up” or “No, I don’t want the latest research.” It’s a classic example of what is called “confirmshaming”. This is the act of guilting the user into opting into something. If you choose not to, the option to pass is worded in such a way as to shame you into compliance. You can see numerous examples of it here.

That’s just one of the sneaky things marketers do. The worst, of course, is tracking you without your permission. Did you ever hear of a company called InMarket? Me neither, but if you installed one of 800 apps, they’re tracking your every move without your permission. You can read a very well done piece about it in Adweek. Is it legal? No one seems to be sure. Is it ethical? Oh hell no, not in my book. 

Marketing has never really been held up as a paragon of ethical behavior but I’m not sure why many of the folks in the field decided to head for new lows. Maybe it’s because digital tools have made it all much easier, maybe it’s because there aren’t enough grown-ups in the room when these decisions are made, maybe it’s because the drive for money has overtaken common sense. Witness the ongoing effort to force “influencers” to disclose when they’ve been paid to say nice things about a product or service. Besides that requirement being the law, it’s also the right thing to do.

Some more examples? Designing a website or email to focus your attention on one thing in order to distract your attention from something else such as an opt-out button. Asking you to upload your contacts to give you some sort of social or informational benefit but using your address book to spam your friends. Not posting all of the charges and fees until the very last step in checkout or, even worse, hiding them in such as way that they’re hard to find. I think I’ve seen examples of those things just in the last few days. They’re not rare.

Why is there an aversion to the truth? Why can’t we call advertising by its name rather than some misleading name such as “sponsored content” or “special section”? Why can’t we treat consumers as we would a family member rather than a mark?

I’m not naive and I realize that this is about selling stuff. Given the high cost of getting caught, both in dollars (millions of dollars in fines!) and in reputation (check out the latest 20 Most-hated companies and why), those sales derived from the methods described above and others probably aren’t worth it in the long run. That’s my take – what’s yours?

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Filed under Huh?, Thinking Aloud

A Disgusted Capitalist

Let me begin by saying I’m a fan of making money. However, just as with free speech (you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater), I think there are some limits as to what a person can do in order to make that money. I was reminded of what those limits should be this week when I received what is not, unfortunately, an atypical letter in the mail.

I recently registered my business in a new place. I also purchased a car. In both cases, I received letters in the mail that seemed incredibly official but which were, in fact, full of deceptive language and claims. In the former case, I got a “Labor Law Compliance Notice,” that informed me I was required by Federal Law(!!) to hang a poster in my place of business. While that might be true for most businesses, because I have no employees, my business is not required to hang anything other than the 250 pictures of myself I keep around for inspiration. A little research by this company would have saved them the stamp. Still, this notice is extremely official looking, cites Federal Law, and looks like a bill for $84. Had I been required to hang these posters, there are numerous other vendors who will sell you the same thing for a quarter the price.

The same sort of deceptive crap followed the car purchase. Notices about activating my warranty came from a few sources, none of which had anything to do with the car manufacturer, and who were looking to sell me a superfluous warranty (the car will be under the manufacturer’s warranty for quite a while). Obviously, since these folks can see what year the car was made they know that, but they sent the letters anyway.

You’ve probably received phone calls from the “service department” or “IT support” telling you your computer is full of spam. While the aforementioned companies don’t fall into the outright scam category that the computer scammers do, they raise a serious issue for us all:

How far will we go to make a buck?

Charities that give tiny percentages of the money raised to the causes they serve, enriching the folks who run them instead. VW and other manufacturers rigging emission tests. Kellogg‘s claiming Rice Krispies boosted the immune system or Mini-Wheats made you smarter. It’s a long list, one to which I’m sure you could add just by opening your mail.

There are people behind these deceptions, people with minimal ethical principles. Did they at any point ask themselves how they’d feel if their elderly parent bought into a scam they were enabling?

I’m all for making a buck, lot of them in fact. But as with almost everything, there is a right way and a wrong way. You decide.

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Filed under Huh?, Thinking Aloud