Defining "truth" in a digital, alterable world (Deeper #7)
We can’t be silenced: a reflection on transparency
Hi! My name is Nikki Natividad. Over three years ago, way before I started as a Content Strategist (now, Senior 😉) at With Content (a content marketing agency serving Southeast Asian tech startups) I used to work for Maria Ressa.
I used to watch her zip in and out of the newsroom on her little penny board as she went looking for her next big story. The air in that office was thick with youth and optimism and stories of injustices that needed to be told. In the time that’s elapsed, world conditions seem to have taken a turn for the worse.
Taking into account everything that’s happening in the world—Covid-19, the Hong Kong protests, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the persistent subjugation of freedom of speech by governments (Maria was just convicted of cyber libel)—it made me realize how those in power and those with only their voices manage their conflicts.
This whole situation made me ask myself: wtf is up 2020??? When people use their voices, they’re either listened to or silenced.
Now, more than ever, truth and transparency are taking center stage in maintaining trust and loyalty in a world that’s constantly looking over your shoulder. Yes, even for brands and tech companies.
Earlier this week, Maria Ressa and Rappler writer-researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. were convicted of cyber libel in the Philippines.
Ressa, the CEO of Philippines-based social news network Rappler, is well-known for her open critique of the Duterte regime. On the site, you’ll find extensive coverage on the president’s extra-judicial killings as part of his promise to “end drug use in the Philippines within "three to six months" after being elected.
Duterte became President in 2016. There are still drugs; almost 30,000 are dead.
The case started in 2012 when Wilfredo Keng, a powerful businessman and known ally of Duterte, filed a complaint against Ressa for an article published in Rappler that implied he was involved in human trafficking and drug smuggling.
By some coincidence, the Cybercrime Prevention Act was signed into law soon after, which allowed Keng to file an official complaint accusing Ressa and Rappler writer-researcher Reynaldo Santos of cyber libel.
“We are meant to be a cautionary tale,” she says, implying that anyone who openly criticizes the government and all those in power will be next.
Just before the finalization of Santos’ and Ressa’s guilt, ABS-CBN, another major news outlet in the Philippines, was shut down. The Philippine government is in the process of bringing another law to life that will allow the arrest of anyone who poses a threat of “terrorism”, with the definition of “terrorism” seeming to translate to “anyone who displeases the president.”
Considering the number of cases and deaths from Covid-19 are crawling well into the thousands mark and the local economy is coming to a standstill, this is a funny time to be prioritizing a cyber libel case and shutting down media outfits.
Now, more than ever, truth and transparency are taking center stage in maintaining trust and loyalty in a world that’s constantly looking over your shoulder. As citizens and consumers, we need to demand honesty from those in power. And the big players—yes, brands and tech companies, that includes you—need to commit to openness.
People are becoming more demanding about what companies value and how their products and actions reflect those values. And if data shows you’re not all that’s cracked up to be, then it’s safe to say you’re out.
Especially now that we’re living in the midst of callout culture, we’re all just one tweet away from being “cancelled.” Immediately.
How can your brand navigate this new world? To understand that, we need to take a closer look at the role of transparency in all of this:
TL;DR: Truth and transparency are becoming increasingly important for businesses to maintain loyalty and trust these days.
Consumers have been wronged before by “trustworthy” brands, which highlights the need to be transparent
Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal
Self-interest and a lack of proper accounting can lead a startup to ruins and damage investor confidence
Social media and callout culture are the new weapons of an outspoken population
Reformation, Bon Appetit, CrossFit CEOs step down
Samsung’s faulty Galaxy Note 7
To satisfy consumers, businesses need to establish transparency not just in their marketing strategies but also in their actions. The internet, data, and social media all work to discredit companies that take stands on social issues or use ethics as a fad.
Consumer trust is not a toy
Transparency in a business sense refers to the process of being “open, honest, and straightforward about various company operations.” This means both employees and the public are privy to the business’ performance, revenue, pricing, etc.
It’s been lauded as a “top priority” for businesses for its ability to forge good relationships with both customers and employees, thereby increasing engagement, productivity, and sales. People love a brand that tells it how it is because there’s no reason to be suspicious or anxious about patronizing your business. In other words, they can trust you—and that makes you more money.
If your customers don’t trust you enough to recommend your products to other people, you’re going to have a hard time in Asia:
Pretty clear, right?
But in spite of the benefits that transparency can provide, only a handful of startups actually put it into practice.
Mark Suster of Upfront Ventures believes that founders need to “suspend disbelief.” If employees see the company as a risky endeavor, it’s less likely they’ll stay. Asian founders say that the culture of secrecy stems from a fear of copycats—having someone else swoop in and steal your idea. This fear of openness is ingrained into operations and management from the very first day, eventually leading to an organization that’s caked in dishonesty.
The fact remains that the lack of transparency can lead people to believe that you’ve got something to hide. And maybe you do.
TikTok, for example, is notorious for its secretive tactics and promotion of censorship.
In 2018, the Chinese video-sharing app instructed moderators to put down posts by users deemed “too ugly, poor, or disabled for the platform.” Not only that, leaked documents revealed that TikTok explicitly instructed moderators to censor content that was deemed as “sensitive topics” for the Chinese Government and Community Party—the Hong Kong protests for democracy being one of them.
There were also rumors circulating that the company was funneling US data to China.
This is a frightening notion, and it brings back memories of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal that reportedly helped put Trump on the top seat.
In that scandal, Cambridge Analytica harvested data from millions of private Facebook accounts. People were unwittingly providing their data for research they didn’t agree to be part of, and that research was intended to manipulate their behavior in ways they may not have favored. All this happened on a platform they trusted.
After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, user confidence in Facebook dropped by 66%, according to a survey by the Ponemon Institute.
Respondents made it clear that they wanted Facebook to tell them when something happens to their data; 67% believe that Facebook has “an obligation” to protect them if their personal information is lost or stolen, and 66% believe that the company should compensate them in the event that happens.
Following the scandal, Facebook promised to make their privacy policies more transparent.
This drives home the point: transparency is relevant now precisely because consumers have been wronged in the past. People are suspicious because they have reason to be suspicious. And companies today need to work twice as hard to maintain consumer trust and loyalty.
Self-interest is the greatest barrier to consumer trust
Historically, businesses in Southeast Asia have been less than transparent. Just five years ago, the majority of countries in Southeast Asia did not have a transparent budgeting process in place, giving the public little to work with in terms of accountability and public engagement.
This makes it a risky endeavor for investors who have expressed legal concerns over Southeast Asian businesses.
Lauri Lahi, the chairman of professional services company Emerhub, illustrated this point when he said: “Southeast Asian countries are becoming major economic centres with little to no transparency nowadays. Some concerns usually surface over a period of time: who owns this company? Is it even a legal entity? Do they have the right licenses? Are they paying their taxes?”
This might seem like a silly thing to be concerned about—I mean, of course you’d do your due diligence and do detailed background checks on potential investments, right?
Let’s jog your memory: Honestbee.
A Tech In Asia exposé titled “Honestbee founder’s biggest lie in a web of deceit” probably says it all.
The online grocery and food delivery startup was the rising star of its time, accruing over US$46 million in funding from investors while its competitors RedMart and Happy Fresh were struggling to stay afloat. And at the helm of it all was founder Joel Sng, a Harvard graduate, veteran investor, and the “great-grandson of Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen” (that was a lie).
Honestbee, seemingly on its way to success, had everyone’s jaws dropping when it was cutting off partnerships and laying off staff out of the blue.
The company had no proper financial tracking management and didn’t tabulate monthly profit and loss statements in 2017. There were also a number of questionable transactions on Honestbee’s balance sheets, including a “spacious five-bedroom chalet” in a remote ski town in Hokkaido, Japan.
Even its shiny reputation as the new kid on the block couldn’t save it now. No fresh funds for the company came.
By 2019, the company owed US$1 million to 217 employees. Honestbee even filed legal action against former CEO Joel Sng and other employees who were said to have various “irregularities” in past transactions with the company.
Social media, call-out culture, and the price of opacity
All the chaos around the world is serving to further highlight the urgency of transparency.
Let’s not forget that China withheld information in the early days of the pandemic, similar to how they initially covered up SARS in 2002. They only confirmed that the virus was contagious on January 20. And by that time, there were already confirmed cases reported outside of China, namely in Thailand, Japan, and South Korea.
Indonesia took this a step further by taking weeks to even admit that there miiiiight’ve been a few cases in the country. (The death toll in the country now sits at 2,339, the worst in ASEAN).
Meanwhile, the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the US is opening up a can of worms for top corporations. CEOs are stepping down left and right for reported discriminatory behavior against blacks and peoples of color (POCs).
Sustainable clothing retailer Reformation attempted to contact one of its former black employees in an effort to “do better.” But instead of taking the call, Elle Santiago didn’t want to risk giving Reformation the “opportunity to hear without listening” and shared her experience working for the brand.
Following these claims, Reformation CEO Yael Aflalo admitted that she had failed as a leader and stepped down from the company. She now joins the ranks of former Bon Appetit editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport and former CEO of CrossFit Greg Glassman in the growing list of disgraced leaders and companies.
This goes to show that protests don’t just happen on the streets, but online too. Social media has given rise to “callout culture” and “cancel culture,” which shames bigots, misogynists, and other alleged “wrongdoers.”
While callout culture runs the risk of being toxic, and, in some cases, does more harm than good, it does give everyday people a voice and a platform to be heard. And it’s precisely these callouts that make transparency two-sided, where companies usually have the upper hand with regard to what they disclose or what they don’t.
Callout culture has increased accountability for businesses and prompted them to continue “good behavior.”
Samsung, for example, stopped production of its Galaxy Note 7 back in 2016 when customers were sharing photos of faulty devices and damaged phones across the globe.
After some investigation, the South Korean tech company asked its partners to stop selling and exchanging the phone and asked consumers to power down their phones immediately. The phone’s battery was catching on fire.
Note that it is with great irony, to say the least, that the very platforms that give customers a channel to talk to brands and voice out their opinions are not so transparent themselves (going back to TikTok and the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal). These platforms can just as easily take away the freedoms that they have given their users all these years, and that’s something we all need to think about.
In an ideal world, the channels we use to disseminate information are partners in the transparency journey—that would probably help us mitigate the rapid spread of hoaxes and political-leaning content on social media. But for the time being, this will continue to be a major issue. Rather than focusing on the facts, content companies like Facbeook have been accused of being partial or of censoring certain points of view.
This again calls into question the role of a tech company in spreading truth and knowledge. Do they have a responsibility to remain impartial? If they are politically-leaning, should we demand that they make their opinions clear? Or, as members of the private sector, do they have a right to their own stances?
We should be actively considering the role of media companies, tech giants, and community-based social groups in discerning the truth, both domestically and internationally.
How can businesses be more transparent? By committing, despite the consequences
Unfortunately, calling out an unfair organization does not always result in justice. All around the world, journalists and everyday citizens continue to be silenced.
In Hong Kong, the country’s media outfits face similar threats from the Chinese government. In Indonesia, a young local comedian named Bintang Emon was accused of being a meth addict by paid government buzzers after he poked fun at the light sentencing of the two policemen involved in an acid attack against Novel Baswedan:
Translation: Bintang Emon is starting to get worried, he doesn’t want to take a urine test.. Bro, if you want to dope, don't use meth. Your future is at stake.
He was forced to go to a hospital, take a drug test, and post the photo on his social media accounts to prove to everyone (including the paid buzzers) that he was clean.
Elsewhere, the world continues to struggle with transparency and honesty. In the US, the police continue to tear-gas protestors across the country and even shoot civilians who are simply trying to record videos. It’s kind of bad out there, folks.
So—what can you do?
As the world continues to fight the good fight, businesses can do their part by 👏🏼 actually 👏🏼 practicing 👏🏼 transparency.
To understand what we mean by that, you can refer to the definition: being “open, honest, and straightforward about various company operations.”
In other words, say what you mean; do what you say.
Take Ben & Jerry, one of the few major brands that has seen positive reception from #BLM protestors thanks to their clear stand on major human rights issues:
Ben & Jerry's @benandjerrysThe murder of George Floyd was the result of inhumane police brutality that is perpetuated by a culture of white supremacy. https://t.co/YppGJKHkyN https://t.co/YABzgQMf69
The traction they’ve received just goes to show: if your product is good and you are willing to take a stand for what’s right, consumers can justify your prices.
No, we don’t want your “star-studded singalong to ‘Imagine’” videos or “I’m with you” graphics flooding our socials. We want action; we want businesses to take a step in the right direction by pushing for systemic change, instead of just waxing poetic about it. No one’s going to steal your idea, and anyways, isn’t it best to just focus on creating the best product out there?
Some might argue that just because a business speaks up about a cause doesn’t mean they fully embrace it. But I say that’s ok. Why? Because that’s just the first step. It’s like how you have to smile even when you’re feeling crummy and sad inside—keep doing it long enough and you’ll eventually feel better.
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