What CBP Tells Us About Subcultures

This week we learned that employees of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection operate a closed Facebook group, replete with racist, sexist posts about migrants and Democratic politicians. For corporate compliance and governance professionals who think about the challenges of building a strong corporate culture, the mess at CBP offers a cautionary tale.

The facts of the story speak for themselves. The Facebook group, created three years ago, has some 9,500 members. We don’t know exactly how many are current or former CBP employees, but one assumes that a solid majority are. The group is called “I’m 10-15,” which is Border Patrol code for an alien in custody.

The group encourages members to “start a chat or discussion,” or to post pics. The discussions can be “funny, serious or just work-related,” which is an important detail we’ll revisit later. 

As to the posts themselves — well, where to begin? 

We have one CBP agent complaining about Óscar Martínez and his daughter Valeria, the Salvadoran migrants who drowned last week trying to cross the Rio Grande; the CBP agent believes the photo is fake. 


Source: ProPublica

Or the CBP agents talking about throwing burritos at Democratic members of the Congressional Hspanic Caucus, who visited several concentration camps in Texas earlier this week. Or the agents who doctor a photo of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to make it look like she was being forced to perform oral sex on President Trump. (Which is ironic, because Trump forcing a woman to perform oral sex on him is one thing I do find entirely believable.)

You get the idea. For all the talk about integrity on the Customs & Border Patrol website — “Integrity is our cornerstone. We are guided by the highest ethical and moral principles. Our actions bring honor to ourselves and our agency” — Facebook allowed CBP employees to create their own corporate culture, apparently a cesspool of ignorance, misogyny, and racism. 

Culture vs. Subculture

Employees developing their own subculture isn’t anything new. They aren’t even a problem to be eradicated, because you can’t; subcultures will always be with us. Subcultures are more like a chronic illness the company has to manage — through corporate lifestyle choices such as a strong focus on ethical standards; or regular medication such as employee satisfaction surveys; or direct intervention with new policies or disciplinary measures. 

What’s happening, however, is that social media is giving employees new ways to ignore those measures. Social media gives them more powerful tools to divorce themselves from the culture you want to achieve, in favor of their own subculture. 

That’s the emergent force to be reckoned with here. When you have a few employees isolated in one location, cultivating their own subculture while ignoring the boss, that’s an episode of “The Office.” But when all employees, across the whole enterprise, network together via social media to ignore all the bosses, that’s not funny. That is a corporate compliance officer’s nightmare. 

Computer scientists have actually thought about this, in a concept known as Metcalfe’s Law. That law says the power of a network isn’t equal to the number of members in that network — it’s equal to the square of those members, since every member can talk to every other. So even incremental increases in the size of a network (say, from 5 to 8 members) can make that network much more powerful (from 25 to 64). 

Here’s where it gets spooky. Robert Metcalfe devised this law in 1980. At the time, he used it to define the power of networked devices, such as fax machines, computers, or telephones. Everyone knew his law made intuitive sense, and as social media arrived in the 2000s, scientists started applying the law to networks of people — but nobody proved his idea with actual data until 2013. Metcalfe himself validated the law in a paper he published that December.

And he used data from Facebook to do it.

Fighting Networked Subcultures

I spend so much time exploring this network theory because that is the mechanism driving the growth of subcultures today. Metcalfe’s Law is why social media is such a powerful thing, and that’s why subcultures festering on social media can become such pernicious threats. That’s why they can emerge so rapidly, spread so swiftly, and entrench their own values so deeply. 

That’s exactly what happened with at the CBP.  The Facebook group allowed that subculture to become its own echo chamber, reinforcing awful values. 

We can’t even say that the group is a small slice of CBP employees, not representative of the whole organization. The group has 9,500 members. That’s nearly half of CBP’s 20,000 employees. Nearly half is not a small slice. It’s nearly half of employees exposing themselves to ethical and intellectual rot. Every compliance officer should be horrified at the prospect of this happening at your own organization. 

What to do about it is much more tricky.

First, private employee Facebook groups can be protected speech under the National Labor Relations Act. Employees are allowed to use such channels to discuss workplace conditions, as the National Labor Relations Board spelled out in a memo from 2012. If a company fires an employee for that protected speech, the employee can sue. 

Source: ProPublica

Yes, the Trump Administration’s NLRB is steadily working to reduce those protections. Earlier this year the board narrowed the range of what “protected, concerted activity” is, versus a lone employee griping to others about workplace conditions he or she doesn’t like. Then again, the NLRB issued another ruling this year where an employee’s gripes were protected, and those gripes were made on Facebook.

Now, crude images of public officials, or callous comments encouraging violence to migrants don’t sound like gripes about workplace conditions to me. If an employee uses Facebook to advocate violence or some other view antithetical to the company’s mission, you probably could fire him or her. But that’s going to be a complicated, fact-specific ordeal — and all the while, the subculture will still be using its social media echo chamber to keep ratcheting up whatever incorrect, inappropriate, or outright vile values it wants. 

You could try to nurture subcultures on other social media platforms that are more transparent than a private Facebook group. Glassdoor.com would be one, although employees might recognize when the company lurks there. Blind is another, and to my thinking better, because other group participants don’t know who is whom; a compliance officer would be as anonymous as everyone else. 

And, ultimately, companies should aim to hire better employees with a good ethical grounding. I know how idealistic that sounds. I know that CBP employees put themselves in harm’s way, and do encounter migrants who are criminals or con artists. Add the workplace rules of any unionized workforce (let alone a public employee union), which chokes out a person’s ability to exercise judgment — and we can’t be that surprised that their ethical backbone buckled to more base impulses of racism and hatred. 

We’re not going to un-invent Facebook, and I don’t quite know what the answer is. But compliance officers should take a long look at what happened with the CBP, because it’s a vivid example of just how menacing the threat can be.

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