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Compliance & Risk

Culture wars, misinformation & Ukraine further complicate firms’ social media policies and presence

Rachel Wolcott  Regulatory Intelligence

Rachel Wolcott  Regulatory Intelligence

Culture war topics, the spread of misinformation, and the war in Ukraine have further complicated many firms' social media presence and their efforts to craft policies guiding what employees should and should not say online.

Firms should reassess policies guiding employees’ social media posts on accounts linked to the company and weigh whether they are going too far monitoring employees’ opinions online. Intrusive monitoring risks breaking privacy laws as well as being unethical, say compliance and ethics experts.

“Companies can’t effectively manage social media risk,” says Alison Taylor, an executive director at Ethical Systems in New York and an adjunct professor at NYU Stern School of Business. “They can’t do that anymore and it’s hard to let go of the idea that they can. Companies have lost control of culture and what employees are saying and doing.”

Social media policies are no longer solely a question of controlling employee speech, although that remains a big part of it. Firms also attempt to control their image online, with some resorting to unethical tactics including paying employees to post positive content about the firm using their personal accounts.

“Lots of US companies are trying to reward staff for supportive posts and otherwise manipulate what they say online,” Taylor explains. “They are also reduced to begging them not to leak — control is not a smart approach.”

Culture wars in the C-suite

Firms now must address what happens when social media brings culture wars issues — for example, anti-vaccine, women’s health, LGBTQ+ rights — into the workplace.

Taylor, who is researching companies’ approach to social media, says the culture war side of social media is a big problem in the United States. Companies are under endless pressure to take positions on social issues, and it is becoming a human resources problem, which has prompted some companies to boost monitoring. “What I’m hearing is a lot of employee complaints: ‘I saw him wearing a MAGA t-shirt on Facebook and I don’t want to work with him anymore’,” Taylor adds.

Taylor pointed to the case of Levi’s Jeans’ brand president, Jennifer Sey, who quit the company in February, as an example of what happens when social media, culture wars, and misinformation collide in the c-suite. Sey said she quit when Levi’s chief executive asked her to curtail tweeting about COVID-19-related school closures, mask mandates, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical advisor to the president.

Levi’s told The New York Times it disputed Sey’s claims she was punished “because her views veered from ‘left-leaning orthodoxy'”. Levi’s social media policy says employees are free to discuss their views but that it expects employees to protect the company’s “reputation and image”.

A new front in Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has opened a front on social media with both Russia and Ukraine attempting to influence hearts and minds online. In March, the White House briefed TikTok stars about the war to influence online content. Meanwhile, the Russian government is paying TikTokers to produce pro-Kremlin content; and the Ukrainians, too, have a social media strategy linked to the war effort.

Firms should consider issuing additional guidance about posting on emotionally divisive issues and sharing posts that could be misinformation. Firms should be aware social media is monitored by government entities, which could invite future problems, says Frank Brown, a senior director and head of regulatory consulting at Hogan Lovells in London, adding that this is particularly an issue for employees active on LinkedIn where their views appear alongside their employer’s name.

“LinkedIn has changed massively over the last two years in terms of what people are sharing,” explains Brown. “I generally take the view that if you’re posting something on LinkedIn, you’re representing your organization to a much larger degree than you would do on Facebook or Twitter.”

Therefore, employees should pause before posting or reposting content as a rule, but that pause becomes critical when misinformation and propaganda is in abundance.

“There’s an awful lot of false information out there. I think Ukraine situation — as with any conflict — has brought some allegations of some horrible things that the Russians are supposed to be doing. It may be true, but equally it is commonplace to see misinformation,” Brown says.

Policy and presence

Clearly, firms approach to social media has evolved over the past 15 years. Now, firms need to articulate social media policies more clearly and add context, Brown observes. Most of the time, however, these policies simply remind employees not to bring the firm into disrepute and to be careful about what they say about the company.

Firms’ use of social media to manage their brand and market products using employee accounts has muddied the water somewhat. Firms create their own content and encourage employees to share it — sometimes paying them to do so. That makes it harder for firms to justify banning employees from social media and raises ethical difficulties about using employee accounts to promote official content.

“People should have a social life, should have a personal life, and should be able to articulate personal views up to a degree. Obviously, that degree is subject to interpretation, and it differs from person to person,” Brown says. “Do we perhaps self-censor a little bit more than we used to because of what’s happening? I think that’s probably true.”

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