The Diffusion of Accountability in Big Tech
When thousands of people globally contribute millions of lines of code, who bears responsibility for the outcome?
Latest since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook can’t seem to get out of the headlights (and headlines for that matter). In the recent hit documentary “The Social Dilemma”, which Netflix recently released, another big target is drawn on Facebook’s back. That barely seems to have an impact on users and employees, however. Facebook usage is at an all-time high, continuing to rise at pre-PR-crisis numbers.
All those #DeleteFacebook posts have proved to be the virtue signalling everyone expected, with little action and no bite.
Facebook employees seem unfazed by what is playing out in the global headlines. And speaking to individuals or looking at their reactions only makes one thing clear — no one feels responsible. And that goes all the way up to the top. Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony in front of congress can only be summarized as a farce. Acknowledging only the most basic responsibility levels and pointing to the complex world of malicious actors while preaching Facebook values as something laudable.
On every level — from users to employees, to the leadership itself — no one seems to feel any sense of responsibility for what is playing out. And how could they?
On the surface, every single user is just one of nearly 2.5 billion. Even if everyone I personally knew quit Facebook — what would change? Every developer is only contributing a few lines of code to one feature. Has that feature undermined our democracy? Or particularly those lines of code? Every designer is just responsible for a few screens in one user journey. Have those designs compromised user’s privacy?
Diffusion of responsibility is a classical philosophical dilemma. If the individual is not clearly assigned responsibility or cannot be attributed to responsibility through their action or inaction, they will assume others to be responsible. This is exacerbated in large crowds and distributed communities, both of which are a vital feature of Facebook’s user and employee base. Essentially — Ethics is no one’s job.
Which stone killed the delinquent?
A popular punishment in the middle ages, essentially exploiting diffusion of responsibility, was Stoning. Given a grave enough transgression, everyone in the village would get together and pick up stones. At the sign of a judge, everyone would get to throw those stones at the transgressor. That usually led to the transgressor’s death.
Who effectively killed the person? Can anyone be labeled a murderer? No single stone throw would be powerful enough to kill a person. Given that tens or hundreds of people would be throwing stones — which stone delivered the final blow? And would it be possible to attribute the death to that throw, while the previous throws ensured the victim to be weakened enough for it to have a final lethal effect?
Given the lack of technology to measure any of this, and the general difficulty and unwillingness of dealing with the above, everyone was satisfied that they were not responsible. Yet the transgressor had been “adequately” punished in their minds, and their communal life could continue within its normal boundaries as if nothing happened.
From diffusion to distribution
By contrast, our modern societies and corporations do not work based on the same principles. A corporation is a hierarchy, and ultimately the top of that hierarchy cannot pass the buck. There is no diffusion of responsibility for a person who actively runs the company and controls the majority vote. Whatever happens, is ultimately on them.
Yet in the layers below that, we should not merely accept shrugging shoulders. Just because the particular button you have been designing has not compromised users’ privacy does not mean you are not complicit.
Diffusion of responsibility speaks to our ethical standards — and those, in today’s times, should reflect full ownership and awareness, rather than a timid silo mentality and blinders.
The diffusion of responsibility is only a psychosocial effect that appears when individuals are not called out. They “disappear” in the crowd and feel without guilt and blame. Yet on a factual level, the responsibility does not appear but is instead distributed to all collaborators. As everyone knows about the impact of the big machine which they are working on, no matter how small their part means they all share the full responsibility for their creation.
We are already seeing people realize this and vote with their feet and conscience at other technology companies, such as Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. People speak up publicly, demanding change, asking their companies to withdraw from morally dubious contracts, and fighting for better business practices. For some, this has led to their dismissal — which should be considered a positive outcome, given that the company does not want to change; hence leaving is the best option to keep one’s personal ethics and integrity intact.
Do we need a Chief Ethics Officer?
There will be suggestions to put someone in charge of ethics to ensure it’s on the map. If no one owns it, let’s designate a person to own the topic. That will fix the responsibility gap and mend the broken process — right? But from what we have seen, any persons, committees, or boards in charge of overseeing ethics, morality, equality, or data protection have mostly been a farce — a quick-fix band-aid to keep criticism at bay.
The only way to fix a broken culture, where responsibility is diffused, outcomes are morally problematic, and nothing is being done, is for people to take ownership. Every single user, every single customer, every single employee, every single leader — if you are part of, or do business with, a company that is an active threat to our society, then you are responsible for the outcomes they produce.
Hence, to address these concerns and make progress towards diffusing the technological time bombs we are sitting on, the only way is for every individual to own this responsibility and take the consequences. Don’t wait for someone else to fix things, don’t think you are not a part of what is happening and don’t believe you have no voice.
Your action is the only action you can influence and control. Hence taking full ownership is the only way to take a stand.
If you have any thoughts, responses, or questions to add, I would love to hear from you in the comments below, or feel free to reach out to me directly via LinkedIn. Thank you for reading.