Social Concepts

Ethics in social media demand our attention

Posted on: March 22, 2011

Social networks are continuing to explode at phenomenal rates, and media has taken a new turn, as a result. But with this social realm comes a lack of standards to regulate social media in its entirety. The medium is too large with excess variables to accurately watch each Tweet, Facebook post, or forum comment. Among the lack of general standards to sharpen the spectrum is ethics – something that professionals are just merely figuring out in the process.

Industries have just recently started to implement their own set of ethical standards for professionals to abide by, but mistakes are still being made. Take for instance an extreme, blatant ethical dilemma sparked by a media specialist for a major grocery line in upstate New York. After a customer uploaded a picture of Price Chopper, with less than kind words about the service, the PR specialist, who seemed to have had enough of getting negative backlash for the company, went as far as to visit the user’s page to contact their employer and demand some sort of disciplinary action against them.

The actions of this individual crossed the line, and questioned her general morals as a PR professional from an ethical standpoint. But no matter how wrong her mistake was, there was no concrete set of ethical rules for the company in relation to their social media presence, and the specialist was retained against the public cries for her removal from the company.

Price Chopper speaks volumes to the rest of the industries who are slowly presenting their brands on Twitter and Facebook. They lack a set of rules or standards, and can essentially be represented however their employees see fit. The only unified industry standard we see right now that relates to ethics is the notion for professionals to be transparent online. But even that has its pitfalls when not handled correctly.

In 2009, a medical student in training at Syracuse University decided to upload a Facebook photo of a graphic brain surgery. Reports never specified where he got the photo, or how he took it (if he did), but the photo was available to his 260 friends and garnered a few comedic comments. This kind of alleged transparency crossed the line, and although the student did not indicate just who the patient was in the photo, it still was unnecessary exposure both on his behalf, and his university’s. The university investigated the incident, but no actions were taken. Instead, they planned to launch a new campaign to clarify the social policies for their students as they decide to partake in social media.

Other incidents that question just how transparent individuals should be online include potential NPD party candidates in Canada. In order for candidates to join the political party, they were not only required to pay a $15,000 fee but also required to hand over the passwords to their social networks. The party apparently wanted to penetrate through privacy standards on Facebook and Twitter to view the candidate’s profiles themselves. But one candidate refused to divulge the information, claiming that allowing the party to see his page not only violated his privacy rights, but that of his friends, as well.

Unfortunately, there are little to no standards for how professionals should behave on social networks, causing a bevy of issues that damage their brands. Once individual companies band together to create an industry standard for ethics, they can learn how to appropriately be transparent and strategic in their social efforts.


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