Social Media Ethics Part 1

Social media has had a dramatic impact on the way that businesses present themselves online and interact with their customers. It is important for businesses to be aware of the impact that their social media strategy can have on their customers and on wider society.

Why Do Social Media Ethics Matter?

Ethical practice is important in many areas of business for both selfless and selfish reasons. On the one hand, businesses that set ethical standards for themselves can have a more positive impact on the world. On the other hand, businesses that prove themselves to be more socially responsible can also benefit from an enhanced reputation and avoid potential scandals.

The ethics of social media are particularly pertinent for businesses operating in today’s environment. Social media plays an increasing role in customer service and marketing, so it can be essential to get it right. Social media is also drawing more public scrutiny and criticism, so it is important for businesses to be on the right side of these discussions. Businesses that are seen to be irresponsible on social media can lose customers and attract negative media coverage. You could also lose the trust of your customers or cause harm to them.

5 Key Ethical Issues for Businesses Using Social Media

Some of the ethical issues associated with social media are similar to those associated with other forms of communication and marketing. Your business may already be managing customer data and considering the social and ethical implications of your marketing choices, such as the images you use to promote your products. However, social media presents some additional challenges and it can be much faster-paced, more interactive and far less predictable than other media.


There are 5 key ethical issues for businesses using social media that I’ll consider here:


Ethical Issue #1 – Consumer privacy

Social media enables vast amounts of data to be collected. Through the advertisements on platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, as well as through cookie tracking, individuals can be targeted very precisely based. It is vital for businesses to be aware of the relevant data regulations which vary in all locations. The UK and Europe follow GDPR, but it’s different in the US, Canada and China. Customers need to be informed about how their data may be used, to avoid losing trust. Companies should also be very careful about their staff posting any personal information about the customers online which could damage the business. It’s essential to gain the person’s consent before sharing anything on social media.

There have been breaches of consumer privacy where companies have lost data, been hacked or accidentally shared details with others. Within a GDPR context this has financial implications for organisations, but it varies depending on where the company and the consumers are based.


Ethical Issue #2 – Authenticity

The value that many social media users place on authenticity reflects its importance in the online world. Businesses need to be and appear genuine across all platforms in order to build trust and market themselves successfully. Authenticity can mean different things for different types of business. Elements to consider can include the style of voice you use online, whether you should use filters or photoshop on your images, and how you interact with memes, trends, and social issues.


Since 2006 Google has indexed all tweets which means that a comment about a particular issue which a company may have made in the past, can return in the future.


This is because Twitter has an open interface, allowing researchers and others to access and potentially store tweets.


Ethical Issue #3 – Transparency

it is essential for businesses to make it clear when they are behind content or if they have paid an influencer to post something on social media. Failing to disclose a sponsorship or using a fake or anonymous account to post content could be very damaging if someone works out what’s going on. Your firm’s reputation could even be harmed if one of your employees happens to post something online without mentioning their connection to the business, so it is important to educate everyone about this issue.

We’ve seen many examples of this where influencers fail to use #Ad or #Sponsored in their posts and customers can detect when an influencer is not being transparent. There have been several examples of people failing to clearly state the work is an advert or than they gain a financial reward.


An Instagram story seen on Zoe Sugg’s Instagram page on 6 July 2019, featured an image of Zoe wearing a floral maxi dress. Text stated “Lots of you loving the dress I’m wearing in my newest photos!…it’s from @missselfridge Swipe up to shop… (Also popped it on my @liketoknowit profile if you’d rather shop straight from the app).” Additional text at the bottom right-hand side of the image, obscured by the direct message icon stated “*affiliate”. Swiping up on the story took users to a product page on the ASOS website.



This example from the ASA explains the background and the complaint was upheld and the body stated that ASOS and others promoting good should ensure that it ‘made clear their commercial intent upfront, for example, by including a clear and prominent identifier such as “#ad” at a minimum.’


Ethical Issue #4 – Exploiting User Generated Content

Asking customers to post something on social media or take part in a contest can be a great way to generate buzz online, but you shouldn’t expect users to do too much for you for free. In some cases this can also break the codes of conduct – asking people to tag themselves in pictures of a new product in exchange for a chance to win a prize are outside Facebook’s T&Cs.


If you take ideas, media or other content from individuals or organisations then you need to give credit. If you’re asking for content from creative professionals, then you should offer something more. You also need to be aware of any copyright issues.


Ethical Issue #51 – Negative comments and online abuse

One of the most widely discussed issues with social media is the prevalence of negative and abusive content across all platforms. Businesses have a responsibility to ensure that the content they post maintains the highest standards of decency and politeness.

If you manage your own platform, forum or comments section, then you will also need to set out a clear code a conduct for users, provide ways for users to block and report each other and ensure the content is effectively moderated. Businesses will also be held responsible for anything posted by their own employees, so providing social media training can be essential across the company.


It’s often said that it’s better to seek forgiveness than ask permission, but when it comes to ethical issues in business, always ask first instead of trying to repair damage later.