Tech Execs on How to Balance What’s Good for Society and Shareholder Obligations

TheGrill 2019: “If you believe that Facebook and Instagram and Google and others are contributing to the problems in our democracy, is it ethical to continue to be on those platforms?” Magnet Companies co-founder Jeff Berman said

Last Updated: June 6, 2019 @ 12:42 PM

“If you believe that Facebook and Instagram and Google and others are contributing to the problems in our democracy, is it ethical to continue to be on those platforms?”

That was the question posed by Jeff Berman, a panelist on a Silicon Beach roundtable Wednesday at The Grill, TheWrap’s annual conference on entertainment and business. Berman, co-founder of private equity-backed holding company Magnet Companies, was part of a discussion on how companies can balance their financial obligations to shareholders with their ethical obligations to consumers.

“I think when you’re leading companies, whether it’s five people or 500 people, increasingly we’re being pressured by our employees to take stands and show where our values are and what we’re about and that can be very complicated when it runs up against shareholder value,” said Berman. He asked whether it was OK to stay on platforms that may harm democracy if it’s “integral to your business but maintain your obligation to your employees, your customers and to society.”

Danny Keens, current head of content at NextVR, shared his experience working at Twitter when the company was developing.

“When you’re building something and you really believe in it and you believe in the purpose of it and you believe that you really can change the world, yet at the same time you recognize the platform can be used for things that you don’t mean it to be used for, it’s hard,” Keens said. “If you think about free speech and the Arab Spring, we were so proud of what the product was doing, but at the same time you sort of put the blinkers on and you have to recognize there’s a bunch of other stuff going on on the platform that is not healthy for the world, that is not changing the world, but is actually making the world a worse place rather than better.

“I know they’ve now done some things to clean that stuff up,” he continued. “They’ve cleaned up the timeline and they’ve started to remove some content that is offensive at times or block accounts but stuff had been, in my opinion, far too late.”

Berman concluded the roundtable by saying he had hoped they would have a spirited discussion about real challenges facing their companies and the world, but that he also wanted to end with some sort of call to action on how to resolve the problem.

“Democracies do not disappear overnight; they erode and they erode and they erode until they crumble,” Berman said. “There are six markers of how this happens and all six are basically high threat alert. But one of the counterweights is when business leaders speak up on issues that are not directly in their shareholder interest.”