How important are ethics when making business decisions within the tech sector?
For four years, Brunswick has assessed the growing backlash from American and European consumers against technology companies, and how that impacts their perception of the industry as well as appetite for regulation.
This year, we decided to focus this research specifically around ethics in tech, seeking to learn how ethics inform business decisions in tech. To fully understand how the industry views its responsibilities, we surveyed employees of technology companies in addition to our typical consumer audience – both in Europe and the US.
The techlash was evident in both markets, but for the first time, American sentiment toward social media companies diverged from European sentiment and dropped significantly.
Only 38% of Americans report having a positive perception of “social media companies”—a 22-point dip from last year. Opinions toward “technology companies” also suffered, although 69% of Americans still have an overall positive opinion. Their European counterparts have a rosier view: 50% have a positive opinion of social media companies and 73% have a positive opinion of technology companies.
The events of the past year—the 2020 US Presidential Election, the January 6th Insurrection in DC, a social media ban of former US President Trump, the heated debate around COVID precautions, and most recently the Facebook whistleblower—have increased skepticism of the impact of social media across the globe, but have taken an especially steep toll on American views.
However, employees at technology companies have a much more positive outlook on the industry. They see the tech sector as a positive force in society, and have high expectations of the companies they work for.
One in five tech employees across the US and Europe say that the company’s mission and values was the main factor in their choice to work at their current company. More so, 39% of Europeans and 48% of Americans have left or refused a job because of the company’s approach to ethics. Employees and prospective employees take ethics very seriously; companies need to do the same or risk an uphill battle when it comes to retention and recruitment.
But tech employees recognize their own limitations and massively support an overhaul of the way the industry operates—especially in the US, where tech employee desire for oversight sometimes overtakes the general population’s.
65% of US tech employees agree that tech companies have grown too large and should be broken up, and
78% think social media companies should be held legally responsible for allowing false or misleading content on their platforms
Tech employees also see a role for industry regulation – 83% of US tech employees and 64% of European tech employees think governments should be more active in regulating tech companies.
However, this industry overhaul doesn’t have to take the shape of regulation alone. Respondents support the idea of industry-led solutions to many of the issues facing tech companies today.
While 76% of American tech employees and 67% of European tech employees believe technology companies are often held to a higher standard of ethical behaviour than other companies, even more believe they should be.
Consumers want more from tech, and employees are ready to rise to the occasion.
Less than half of American and European consumers believe that technology companies and their leaders consider ethics in their decision-making and even fewer believe they make choices that prioritize ethics over profit.
But tech employees welcome this higher expectation. 80% of tech employees think conversations about ethics in tech present an opportunity to innovation, while only 20% see it as a threat.
In the wake of the Facebook whistleblower, US audiences’ concerns are not limited to Facebook.
In the week’s following ex-Facebook-employee Frances Haugen’s release of company documents, Brunswick briefly re-fielded the survey among US consumers to measure the extent to which the coverage was affecting their opinion of the industry.
Opinions of social media and technology companies largely stayed consistent with levels prior to the news. However, consumers are paying attention to the story and overwhelmingly believe it will impact the industry more broadly: 70% say that the issues raised by the whistleblower apply to big tech companies generally, not just Facebook. While Facebook may be the current lightning rod, other players in the industry should take note that consumers don’t see the problems as isolated to Facebook.