Ethics in social media

Ethics in social media

Discover the ethical issues that are pertinent to social media.

Social media use generates vast amounts of data, and one of the most pressing areas of ethical concern is how that data can and should be used—and whether that data should be considered public or private.

Vast numbers of people from all walks of life are active social media users, and any brand that’s worth their salt is on social media too. With so many people and organisations interacting online, there are huge opportunities, and potential pitfalls too. One issue that’s increasingly prevalent is that of ethical behaviour, in particular ethical research and business practices.

Public Vs. Private use of social media

Social media use generates vast amounts of data, and one of the most pressing areas of ethical concern is how that data can and should be used—and whether that data should be considered public or private.

On one hand, social media users agree to the platform’s terms and conditions when they create an account, and agree once again every time they log in and use the platform. Terms and conditions typically include language pertaining to the use of data generated by user; for instance, how and when third parties can access that data. The prevailing view is therefore that the data is public, and can be used by third parties in whatever ways they like.

On the other hand, many social media platforms distinguish between private and public areas. On Facebook, for instance, there are different types of groups, including public groups anyone can join; semi-private groups where a request to join must be approved by a group admin; and password-protected groups. Can data generated in all three types be treated equally in terms of whether it’s public or private? Or does the restricted membership of a password-protected group mean the data it generates should be considered private?

The misuse of private data is an issue that Facebook has grappled with for years—and both Facebook and other organisations have come under fire in relation to the exploitation of user data for the purpose of manipulating political votes. In both the Brexit vote and the most recent US presidential election, there have been fears that the private data of Facebook users has been exploited to ensure that certain news stories would feature prominently in personal newsfeeds.

Informed Consent in the use of social media data

The issue of public vs. private data is important on its own merits, but there’s another issue that’s equally important: that of informed consent. If an individual or organisation wants to use social media data, are they ethically obliged to seek informed consent from the owner (or creator) of the data? Complicating the issue is the fact that even though users agree to terms and conditions when they create an account, very few people read these documents, and tend not to think seriously about the fact that their social media activity is public.

Another issue is that of attributing ideas and other kinds of creative output to its creator. In social media this is particularly problematic simply due to the nature of the medium itself. Social media moves so quickly that it’s often difficult to determine who the original creator of an idea is. A tweet, an image, or a meme, for instance, can be published by a single original user, but it may then be quickly imitated by a dozen or more people—thus making it hard to determine who the original creator is. This often comes into play in instances when brands capitalise on the transient popularity of a joke or a newly-coined word, but fail to credit the originator of the idea.

One of the best-known, but paradoxically least-known, examples is that of the phrase “on fleek”, a term coined in 2015 by a woman who published a video clip of herself on the popular media site Vine. While virtually every internet-user of a certain age has heard and used the phrase, Peaches Monroee, the woman who coined it, is still virtually unknown. While numerous brands cashed in, few if any credited her for it, and none compensated her.

What about organisations that get it right? One example is TIME magazine, which did due diligence in its efforts to properly credit the creator of the #MeToo movement, Tarana Burke. While most media outlets had erroneously attributed the movement to celebrities such as Alyssa Milano or Rose McGowan—both of whom had been involved when the hashtag went viral in 2017—TIME did its homework and came up with the right answer.

Anonymity in the use of social media data

The right and ability of users to remain anonymous is integral to the way the internet works, but on social media, many people willingly give up anonymity in exchange for the ability to interact with friends and family on a personal level. For organisations that use social media to gather data, this requires effective anonymisation methods that ensure that people’s privacy is protected.

The anonymity of the internet is perhaps its most dichotomous aspect. Anonymity gives users freedom, but some people are inclined to take this freedom and use it to cause harm to others. This is not necessarily an issue that pertains to organisations—or even to most individuals—but it’s something that organisations should keep in mind when using social media, particularly in ways that involve engaging the public.

The Risk of Harm in the use of social media data

This aspect of social media ethics comes into play mostly in terms of research conducted on social media users or the data they generate. While researchers should and do make every effort to anonymise the data they use, there are instances where there is serious risk of breaching a user’s privacy, in ways that may cause harm. In particular, there is is the risk that certain unique data culled from online media sources might be traced back to its original source, even after the data has been anonymised. For instance, quotes and images that are sources online are particularly vulnerable to this kind of risk, and there is the potential to cause harm to the social media user if the data is of a private nature. In these kinds of situations it’s generally prudent to seek informed consent from the source of the data.

Keeping Social Media Ethical

The immense popularity of social media, both with individuals and organisations, means that maintaining ethical practices is of paramount concern. Whenever an individual or organisation uses social media for research, marketing, or any similar profit or non-profit venture, it’s vital that all work be carried out ethically, to ensure that the rights and privacy of users are protected.

If you need guidance, The British Psychological Society has produced its Code of Human Research Ethics which are seen as the ‘gold standard’ for researchers.