On Social Business in Defence & The Military

I have been involved in a slow, but somewhat public imbroglio with an old employer this week; Dachis Group, a consulting company whose business, put simply, is helping companies understand who is supporting them and who is criticising them on social media. The debate started when I spotted that their new European MD would be speaking at a conference delightfully titled ‘Social media in the Military and Defense Sector’.

As someone who comes from a tradition of British social liberalism, the defence industry is something I consider to be an awful, corrupt and broken sector. This is an industry who until very recently were making cluster bombs and land mines; weapons with a legacy that extends far beyond the conflict they were a part of. It’s an industry that regularly accepts fines as part of the cost of doing business and is notorious for improper business standards. And, ultimately, it’s a business that makes it easier for people to kill other people they disagree with.

This essay is directed at Dachis Group, and Jeff in particular. I know I wasn’t entirely civil on Twitter about this, and I can tend to hyperbole, as Jeff pointed out, but this is an important point in defining what a company that I was enormously proud to be part of will become.

12 months ago, we all marvelled at the uprisings in the ‘Arab Spring’; driven by social media, a transparent press and, ultimately, the power of mass uprisings. A bunch of countries overthrew dictators and military leaderships in order to attempt to move towards more liberal and accepting societies. This was overtly supported by the leaders of the US, UK, NATO and EU governments, despite the fact that many companies in these ‘developed’ countries were explicitly profiting from the attempts to put down these rebellions. We have seen David Cameron on trade missions with defence companies, US companies selling tear gas to help put down riots and many more examples of how, if we are favourable, the left hand of international aid and diplomacy does not know what the right hand of trade protectionism and control is doing.

And through all of this, the power of social media was trumpeted as a civilising force, at least from a explicitly western view of ‘civilisation’. But we’ve now had Edward Snowden’s leaks show how the governments that publicly support free speech, freedom of association and the rights of consenting adults to privacy in their own homes have undermined all of these things for their own citizens.

The range of social media companies who have rolled over is unsurprising; FISA courts and anti-terrorism warrants can have a fairly terminal effect on business models, and these companies are only now growing backbones of various sorts as they scramble over each other to show that they care about the privacy of their users.

Sadly, the commercial side of social media seems to slip very easily into this very uncomfortable space. The question I want to ask is; can a company that on the one hand extols the benefits of listening to users and customers, allowing employees to engage directly with the public, sharing knowledge promiscuously within an ecosystem and responding to feedback, really work with companies (updated: I am making the assumption you would pursue any sales leads that emerge from this speaking engagement) whose business is helping people kill other people? How is it ‘social’ to work with companies whose business rests on producing weapons that kill indiscriminately; children, non-combatants and families. At this point, you are helping enforce power dynamics and structures which are explicitly in opposition to the openness we hope for from social media and the internet. Jeff, you talked about the internet as the most important positive transformational technology since the printing press; how do you square that with using it to reinforce imperialism and hegemonic western values?

When I interviewed at Headshift, I was asked what industries I wasn’t prepared to work with, and we discussed defence. Headshift’s policy was always that they would not do this work, and I welcomed that.

When we were acquired by Dachis Group, you talked to us about the group values and what the positive change we were trying to bring about in the world was.

So I hope you understand why it feels disingenuous to me when you claim that your business is a force for good if you are willing to share a platform with speakers from companies who endorse cluster bombs, land mines, (non lethal) chemical weapons and the like. As I said to you in Vegas once, I fundamentally disagree that a business which produces guns and bullets can be a social one.

It is possible to do business in this world and maintain your values; we all have our line in the sand as to who they would and would not accept money from, and I appreciate that my line many be closer to some legitimate businesses than where other people draw theirs.

That said, promoting your business as a leader in engagement, understanding and dialogue while being prepared to work with businesses who are the anathema of all of those values seems wrongheaded at best. I’m not asking Dachis Group to immediately jump to my position, but I do ask them to respect the values that they propound, as well as those of their employees and shareholders (disclosure: I do have non-voting shares in Dachis Group), or, if not, to be open and honest, if not proud, of who they are willing to do business with. I believe you will have given this decision serious consideration before publicly associating Dachis Group with this industry, and I’d genuinely like to engage with you about how you see social business in defence improving the world.

I don’t host commenting on this blog, but if you (Jeff or any other interested parties) would like to reply to this post, please email me your feedback and I will publish it here; [email protected]

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