Dear Designer: Our Primary Contract
I work at a large social media platform. Last week, a doctored video of a civil servant went viral on our platform. Our leadership acknowledged the video was doctored but refused to take it down. I don’t think that’s the right decision, and I’m not sure what to do. Do I fight, or do I do my job?
You do your job. And you fight. Your job, from the moment you became a designer, is to fight for the people who come in contact with your work.
Your job is to help those people accomplish what they’re trying to accomplish, whether they’re performing a financial transaction, reading the news, watching cat videos, or interacting with other folks online. Your job is to help them do this in as honest a way as possible. No trickery: The cat video is a cat video; the person they think they’re talking to is the person they’re talking to; and the news they’re reading or watching is actually news. They put their trust in your hands, and you need to respect the hell out of that. No bullshit. No misinformation.
Designers have a contract with the people who come into contact with their work, and they must trust us not to trick them, not to lie to them, to treat them with respect, and to honor their intentions. If they came to our platform to interact with their friends, we put them through to their friends. If they came to catch up on the news, we show them actual news. Our primary responsibility is to the people who use the products and services we build, not to the people who pay us to build them.
Our job is to honor users’ intent. Even if their intent is counterproductive to your company’s business model. If someone wants to unsubscribe from our platform, as much as that might hurt us, we should make that process as easy as possible for them. A company that can’t survive without tricking people doesn’t deserve to survive. And it certainly doesn’t deserve your labor.
Nowhere is honoring users’ intent more important than when people come to our platforms to be informed on the news of the day. A doctored video doesn’t honor that intent. What we’re showing them isn’t what we claim to be showing them — it’s a lie, and we know it’s a lie — and we’re violating their trust.
So what do we do? Flip tables, pull plugs, and burn things to the ground? Yes! Well, but also: Let’s slow our roll just a little bit. There are a few steps to hit before we start lighting Molotov cocktails, and they’re part of doing the job right.
Step one is to make your case. You were hired at your company to practice your craft, and that includes giving counsel. An accountant’s job isn’t just adding up the numbers but also making sure the numbers are honest and calling bullshit when they’re not. Same goes for you. Your job isn’t just to make things but also to be vigilant that the things you make aren’t used to harm others. Deceiving people is harmful. And if you think spreading misinformation isn’t harmful, I’ll remind you that we’re currently experiencing the largest measles outbreak in 25 years. (You may want to check your company’s role in that as well.)
Start with the assumption that the people you work for might not be aware that what they’re doing is harmful. After all, this is the kind of thing they hired you to look out for. Approach it with tact: “Hey, Mark (a random name I’m making up), we can’t be posting a doctored video of a civil servant on our platform. People trust us as a source of news and shit like this erodes that trust. Let’s take it down.”
“But the video is making us a lot of money” is something Mark might say or get a lackey to say.
A reasoned response might be, “Sure, it’s making us money today, but if money is your main motivation, we should look at the financial repercussions of a decision like this over a long period of time. Is a weeklong bump in engagement worth the long-term effects of an erosion of trust? But even more importantly than the money, Mark — this is dishonest. We have a contract with our users. I can’t break it.”
Maybe Mark’s motivations are even bigger than that. Maybe Mark doesn’t want to take down the video because the company gets $12 million a year in advertising from people who want the video to stay up. Or maybe Mark is afraid the same people who want the video to stay up might create regulations and laws that would limit or possibly break up the business — in which case, Mark actually is thinking long-term, but only about himself. He may not seem to care about the long-term effects on others.
We need to be better than the people we work for because they’re showing us who they are every day — and they’re most often not good people.
If so, Mark (again, just a random name I’m making up) is a real asshole, and you’re going to have to step up your game. Because you have a contract to protect the people Mark is willing to fuck over to either get (more) rich or to save his own skin.
That means we need to move to step two: making alliances.
You can’t be the only person in your company who feels you shouldn’t be hosting deceitful content. (If you are, you may want to skip to step three.) Find those other people. Hopefully you work at a company where employees can get together and discuss things like this in an open manner.
Then, instead of one person bringing up this issue, you’ve got a group. It’s easy to brush off one person. They’ll tell you it’s just your opinion. Technically, that may be true, but it’s also your expert opinion — which is what they’re paying you to give. But it’s much harder to ignore a group, especially when the people in that group meet an important criterion of being the ones absolutely crucial to the company getting shit done. The company will probably listen. Or, at least, they’ll pretend to hear you out.
Let me share a relevant story: A few months ago, Microsoft employees found out that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) workers were using facial recognition software they had designed to round up immigrants. They weren’t having it. They got together, they made a list of demands, and they presented that list to leadership. Microsoft cancelled its contract with ICE. Did it cancel because it was the right thing to do or because it was afraid those employees would bolt? I like to think it was the former; but honestly, it was probably the latter.
It is really, really hard to replace a bunch of employees at once. Really hard. That’s an incredible amount of power, and there’s a time to use it. Which brings us to step three: knowing when to put down the tools.
Put down the tools
Sadly, we may encounter a situation where leadership can be neither persuaded nor collectively bargained with. That means we need to reevaluate where we’re putting our labor. Are we willing to help someone make a tool that spreads lies and misinformation? Do we feel so defeated that we’ll willingly use our skills to harm others? Have we misunderstood the responsibility of our job? Or are we just assholes?
Lord, I hope we’re not just assholes. I need to believe we have some hope here. We need to be better than the people we work for because they’re showing us who they are every day — and they’re more often not good people.
On Dec. 2, 1964, civil rights activist Mario Savio stood on the steps of Sproul Hall at the University of California at Berkeley and addressed the student body. This is the last paragraph from that speech:
There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels … upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!
If the machine is harming the people we promised to protect, it’s on us to stop the machine from working. If you claim to be changing things from the inside, at some point you need to see some evidence that it’s working. Otherwise you’re just banging your head against the wall. And not only is that not doing your head any favors, it’s also not really bothering the wall, so consider giving up your seat to someone willing to swing a sledgehammer.
Will there be repercussions? Absolutely. You could miss out on future promotions. Your career could stall out. You could be blacklisted. You could lose your job, which in the United States basically also means losing your health insurance. But those are the repercussions of doing something. Let’s look at what happens when you do nothing: Misinformation spreads. Elections are nefariously influenced. White supremacists come to power. Transgender people are stripped of their humanity. Children are put in cages. The list goes on.
Too often when we ask about repercussions what we really mean is “will there be repercussions for me?” But the repercussions of not acting are worse. They may not affect you personally — that’s called privilege — but they’re most certainly a violation of the contract we made with the people we work for.
We promised we would take care of them. And we promised they could trust us. I want them to be able to trust us. I hope you do too. But if you don’t, I need you out of the way.
This column is an offshoot of Dear Design Student, a group project I and some other folks did a few years ago that you can still read. I’m kicking it up a notch for a working audience. So congratulations, you’ve all just graduated. If you have a question, email me and I’ll be happy to answer it. Maybe. If it’s a good question, and answering it could help a lot of people, I’ll be more likely to answer it. “Should I quit my job because my boss is a dick?” is not a good question (and you already know what the answer is anyway).