2017-12-22 05:50:00.0 2017-12-23 03:59:00.0 SHARED CORPORATE social responsibility (CSR) has become quite the catchphrase, so often bandied about by companies that it seems at times to be devoid of meaning. At its core, the laudable goal of CSR is that companies must not merely be profit-driven, but should see themselves as corporate citizens with a responsibility toward the societies from which they derive capital gains. Companies often engage in high-visibility CSR efforts that can attract the most favourable media attention, helping them develop a positive reputation with their multiple stakeholders.

These CSR efforts can take the form of large-scale charity drives, the launch of new products that cater to pressing societal needs, and organisational transformations that reflect higher ideals such as diversity and inclusivity.

However, the practice of CSR must go beyond such piecemeal, high-wattage initiatives. Responsibility to society should be deeply inscribed into companies' standard practices and operations, and form the cornerstone of their corporate philosophy. Companies must strive to be socially responsible corporate citizens who serve to uplift the very communities from which they profit so that the relationship of mutual benefit is sustainable.

Yet it increasingly seems that for many companies, CSR may be an afterthought, nothing more than an exercise in image-building and impression management. Take Facebook's recent launch of Messenger for Kids in the United States that was greeted with much consternation. Critics swiftly argued that the company was pushing its consumer demographic ever lower through this new initiative.

There were accusations that the company's ulterior motive was to collect more data about this age group that has what sociologists have referred to as "pester power", the ability to cajole their parents into fulfilling their demands, among others, for consumer goods and services that are marketed to them.

Given the growing concerns about children's media use and premature exposure to social media, why did Facebook think that launching a messaging app for this elementary school segment represents an advancement in media provisions for children? That (Facebook CEO) Mark Zuckerberg has launched this service after he has himself become a parent, and should thus be more empathetic toward parents, is all the more perplexing.

The company claims that it developed the messaging app because children are already using other apps that do not offer them a safe walled garden in which to interact with peers, and can therefore fall prey to online grooming.

However, even while peer interaction has its virtues for young people's identity formation and social development, there is evidence to show that children are not quite ready for the pressures of social media or the contextual ambiguities of electronically mediated communication. Instead of simply joining the bandwagon of providing such services to ever-younger consumers, Facebook should have led the charge in advocating for greater regulation of such services and more assiduous efforts in public education for young people and their parents.

CULTURE OF GAMBLING

Another recent development in the technology world that triggered considerable concern was Electronic Arts' inclusion of "loot boxes" in its latest Star Wars game Battlefront II. These virtual boxes offer players in-game items that can help them advance in the game but there is no guarantee that all boxes offer equally attractive rewards. Indeed, the odds of getting rare items are generally low despite the fact that a loot box is a substantial monetary investment.

Given this element of chance, players who are eyeing specific items could well spend a tidy sum on the boxes just to attain the in-game items they desperately covet. Regulators around the world decried this new game feature as tantamount to creating a culture of gambling, leading children to spend recklessly on the game, possibly inducing addiction to gaming and gambling.

Fortunately, the ensuing controversy led Electronic Arts to pull these paid loot boxes from the game.

That both incidents involve technology companies is no coincidence. With impressive efficiency gains made in data collection, mining and analysis, technology companies across all realms - from infotainment to finance to logistics - have access to a veritable gold mine of information on their consumers.

They can now harness data analytics to unpack, model and predict consumer behaviour, utilising the information for product innovation and service enhancements. With the advantage of such valuable data, companies clearly have the upper hand, fully cognisant of what consumers want, even before consumers realise they want it. Which begs the question of CSR.

What does it mean to be a socially responsible corporate citizen in an era when the power asymmetry between corporations and their consumers has become so sharply imbalanced? Even as companies enjoy this distinct advantage over their consumers, should they necessarily exploit them?

Indeed there is a great deal companies can and already do to exploit their informational advantage over their consumers. The pressing question is whether they should. Instead of merely leveraging this advantage to maximise profits, companies must consider the long-term implications of their actions, the genuine needs of their stakeholders, and the broader concerns of society. Companies would do well to bear in mind issues of sustainability and ethicality, and look beyond their bottom lines to focus on the long road.

The efforts by the Monetary Authority of Singapore to canvas views from the financial industry on ethical issues surrounding the use of artificial intelligence and data analytics are therefore timely and welcome indeed. Innovation must not come at the expense of fairness, transparency and inclusion and regulators must set the tone for responsible and ethical use of big data in the best interests of all consumers.

In this season of giving, may companies (re)discover the true meaning of CSR.

  • The writer is professor of Media and Communication and head of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.
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