Social media has emerged as an information gathering and reporting source that has greater influence over the behaviors of the public than traditional media outlets, such as television and newspaper. Social media can be broadly defined as “any online service through which a user can create and share a variety of content” (Bolton et al., 2013). Social network mediums such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Blogger are tools of digital engagement used in personal lives and as tools for businesses, organizations, and professional disciplines. Companies use social media to promote products and brands, while other disciplines such as public relations, health care, social work, and education have integrated social media into their professional practice. As the popularity and mass use of social media continues to grow, it is important to consider the ethical use of social media tools.
Ethical issues are of great importance in the use of social media because of the immediacy and permanency of social media content on the internet. Furthermore, the ethical use of social media should be explored because social media can have detrimental effects on the psychological, emotional, and physical well-being of people, especially Generation Y users; therefore, it is important that there be a level of ethical regulation in the use of social media (Bolton et al., 2013). The ethical use of social media should be measured against foundational ethical principles such as nonmaleficence, beneficence, autonomy, principle of fidelity, and justice. These foundational ethical principles, taken as a collective, should influence the ethical use of social media by guiding users to refrain from doing harm, doing good, embracing freedom of action and choice, being honest and trustworthy, and being fair (Aragon et al., 2014).
Under the foundational ethical principles, attention should be paid to the way in which information is collected from social media users. Currently, when social media users engage in social media and they share content, ‘like” any content, or follow any users; cyber footprints are left and information is collected by the social media site (Jayson, 2014). The ethical concern is in regards to privacy issues that arise as social media companies share user information that they collect. When social media mediums collect user information and then provide identifiable information without the consent of users, this violates the ethical principle of not doing harm to users and violates the principle of fidelity because the site then lacks trustworthiness. Moreover, this act is a violation of consumer privacy, whether unintentional or purposeful (Vinjamuri, 2011). When the privacy of consumers of social media is desecrated, an abuse of ethics in the form of a violation for the respect for autonomy because the rights and freedom of a person to do with their own life and to have their own actions is dishonored (Aragon, 2014).
As users engage in social media via various modes, users do so with an expectation of receiving accurate and truthful information. In fact, Bowen (2013) reports that more than half of research survey respondents stated that they expect that blogs and social media are honest, tell the truth, and advocate a transparent and ethical culture. Additionally, the ethical use of social media in regards to information accuracy and truth should mirror the ethical standards that are applied to journalist and public relations professionals; and that social media ethics are not judged differently than other media contexts (Lipshultz, 2016). Social media offers users the opportunity to offer instantaneous communication and a communication path for quick responses, which elicits the opportunity for erroneous stories, misreported information, and untruthful content. Inaccurate and untruthful information spread via social media violates the ethical principle of fidelity because it is a desecration of honesty and trust (Arogon et. Al, 2014). National Public Radio (NPR) published a document that addresses how NPR will handle social media as a new medium that has emerged as a valuable resource for their content and in this paper accuracy is addressed. NPR warns contributors against spreading information via social media that is not true and against using social media as a credible source without verification of facts (NPR, 2017). NPR (2017) suggest that the ethical use of social media for contributors begins with reaching out to other sources for confirmation, following up offline when appropriate, and only using images once they have been verified for accuracy because they can be manipulated easily on social media.
The use of social media will remain a common trend and practice in many disciplines and organizations. This widespread use and nature of social media has created unfamiliar terrain, especially in regards to ethics. Without clear guidelines for individuals and organizations regarding the ethical use of social media; and no clear guiding principle for the ethical uses of social media, the creation of guidelines is important. According to Kind (2015) guidelines are intended to be advisory and helpful in avoiding mistakes. Social media usage should have some sort of ethical guidelines that can advise, explore and mentor social media users (Kind, 2015). As challenges and opportunities related to social media use come up, there are some rules that offer a framework about how to respond or process the challenge or opportunity. Kind (2015) offers a utilitarian ethical guideline for social media users, whether individuals or organizations. Kind (2015) cautions social media users to pause before posting to protect people, privacy, relationships, and rights. Moreover, Bowen (2013) suggests fifteen guidelines for the ethical use of social media which include: being fair, avoiding deception, maintenance of dignity and respect, eschew secrecy, questioning reversibility, transparency, clearness on the identity of speech, rational analysis, clarity, disclosure, source verification, being responsible, good intention, engaging in community service, being good, and building trust. These guidelines are grounded in the moral and ethical principle of deontology which is ethics by duty (Bowen, 2013). This ethical principle of deontology serves to encourage users of social media to act with dignity and respect and to enter each use with the intention of good will. Content and social media mediums change but ethical guidelines help to keep ethics as part of the responsibility of all individuals, professionals.
Resources available to help organizations establish social media policies http://socialmediagovernance.org
Aragon, A., AlDoubi, S., Kaminski, K., Anderson, S. K.,& Isaacs, N. (2014). Social networking: Boundaries and limits part 1: Ethics. TechTrends, 58(2), 25-31.
Bolton, R. N., Parasuraman, A, Hoefnagls, A., Migchels, N., Kabadayi, S., Gruber, T., Loureiro, Y.K., & Solnet, D. (2013). Understanding Generation Y and their use of social media: a review and research agenda. Journal of Service Management, 24(3), 245-267.
Bowen, S. A. (2013). Using classic social media cases to distill ethical guidelines for digital engagement. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 28(2), 119-133.
Jasyson, S. (2014, March 08). Social media research raises privacy and ethics issues. USA Today. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/03/08/data-online-behavior-research/5781447/
Kind, T. (2015). Professional guidelines for social media use: a starting point. American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, 17(5), 441-447.
Lipschultz, J. H. (2016, June 02). The ethics of social media. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jeremy-harris-lipschultz/the-ethics-of-social-media
National Public Radio. (2017). Social Media. Retrieved from http://ethics.npr.org/category/a1-accuracy.
Vinjamuri, D. (2011, November 3). Deadly sins of social media. Forbes. Retrieved from http://forbes.com/sites/davidvinjamuri/2011/11/03ethics-and-the-5-deadly-sins-of-socisl-media