Should Philanthrocapitalism Begin at Home?

In 1967 Paul McCartney admitted to a national newspaper that he had taken LSD. Soon after, an ITN reporter asked McCartney if this was a matter he ‘should have kept private.’ In his response McCartney elegantly articulated a dilemma at the heart of modern media.

McCartney: ‘You’re spreading this now at this moment. This is going into all the homes in Britain. And I’d rather it didn’t. You’re asking me the question. You want me to be honest. I’ll be honest.’

Reporter: ‘As a public figure, surely you’ve got a responsibility…’

McCartney: ‘No, you’ve got the responsibility not to spread this now. I’m quite prepared to keep it as a very personal thing if you will too. If you’ll shut up about it, I will.’

What are the ethical responsibilities of media channels? Do the media have an obligation to seek the truth and share it, whatever that truth and wherever it may be found? Or should respect for privacy (and concern for security) act as a constraint?

In the past media outlets prided themselves on their ability to ‘speak truth to power.’ But such is the capacity of modern broadcasters and journalists to spread information, to shape opinion, to provoke a response, that the media represent a considerable power in their own right. And with that power surely comes responsibility.

McCartney’s argument for media responsibility seems as pertinent today as it did in 1967, and we may perhaps broaden its application beyond traditional media brands.

Technology has created a social, political and economic revolution. But it has also ushered in new societal challenges. Our world is increasingly cursed by cyber bullying and salacious sidebars; witch-hunts and lynch mobs; hacking and trolling; shaming and blaming. The same technology that spreads knowledge and understanding can also intensify hate and bigotry. The very platforms that liberate the wisdom of crowds also facilitate the cruelty of the mob.

Hitherto tech brands have for the most part clung to a kind of ethical neutrality. They are the medium, not the message. They cannot be held accountable for the content they carry. But is this not a denial of responsibility? If Silicon Valley won’t tackle the social ills of social networks, who will?

Mark Zuckerburg and Priscilla Chan recently announced that they will gradually give away 99% of his stake in Facebook to fund the Chan Zuckerburg Initiative.

Nowadays such endeavours are rarely termed ‘charity’. They are described as philanthropy, or social investment, or ‘philanthrocapitalism’. Whatever we call it and whatever the reservations around tax and the democratic deficit, I think we should nonetheless applaud this extraordinary act. But where should the money be spent?

In Zuckerberg’s post he states that ‘we have a moral responsibility to all children in the next generation.’ The mission of the Chan Zuckerburg Initiative is ‘advancing human potential and promoting equality.’ Such a mission could embrace all manner of activities. From alleviating poverty to eradicating disease; from promoting social justice to enabling sustainable development; from providing access to technology, to education, to microfinance. So where to start?

It used to be said that ‘charity begins at home.’ Perhaps philanthrocapitalism should begin at home too.

I suspect the most appropriate and effective means of this new initiative ‘advancing human potential and promoting equality’ would be to address the darkness on the edge of town: the web-pests, trolls and haters; the bullying, blackmail and bribery; the manipulators, exploiters and electronic thieves. Surely the phenomenal technical expertise available to the architects of the social web should be directed at the phenomenal societal challenges posed by the social web.

Silicon Valley has given today’s generation knowledge, connection and freedom of expression. What greater gift could it give the next generation than security, privacy and protection from harm?

No. 60