Is social media ethical?

mar 21 2020

Abstract: How ethical is social media today? Do people still abide by social ethical rules in their day to day web activities, whether they are private or professional? For the past two decades social media have developed so fast that they have outran any sort of legislature and ethical rules - the same standards for public behaviour simply do not apply when being active on social media and while legislature has been slowly clawing after social media, one thing in cyberspace has been made abundantly clear - ethics are optional.
Key words: social media, ethics, journalism, cybercrime, web-journals


First social media were created just barely two decades ago, and they have only lately achieved a proper significance in order to be ethically challenged. The internet is a global medium and the experiences so far show that according to the development in countries of the west world it has become rather easy to predict the development of social media anywhere in the world, example - Western Europe is a couple years behind the United States when it comes to social media and its usage, as well as legislature. This fact shows that it is simply not possible to jump ahead a couple years and catch up with the technological social media, however it is possible to discuss issues that are already showing up because of social media.

When it comes to ethics it is not always possible to establish black and white instructions, quantitative analyses and concrete conclusions. The goal of this essay is to describe proper sources – specifics of internet media against traditional media – and develop a cycle of issues that are currently becoming potential ethical problems of social media or they have already become ethical issues but they are being ignored by the proper authorities so far.

The first part of this essay describes the proper definitions, in order to establish the role of the internet and its interest and contributions when it comes to social media. Describing the internet itself, followed by the usage of the FTP and IRC services.

The second part of this essay describes circumstances in which individual ethical issues are analysed – issues that many journalists as well as the members of the general public may encounter. These are in the form of commentaries and this section deals with the responsibility of negative comments and who is essentially to blame if racist, religiously intolerant and otherwise negative submissions are made.

The final part deals with the difference between traditional publications (television or radio) and the spreading of information on a global scale via computers, tablets, smartphones, etc. The main example of the second part will consist of the media fiasco that occurred following the lecture of Peggy Kamuf, Professor of Literature from the University of California on neurology and understanding the process of reading and writing, and how misinterpretation and anger can lead to ignoring source material. All documented in the book Cybercrime: Security and Surveillance in the Information Age by Douglas Thomas and Brian Loader.

And finally this essay will reach the conclusion that like with every other invention or tool there is a risk of misuse but all in all, social media are harmless unless perverted by corporations or individuals for their own gains and the public should not blame the tool but the person that misused it.

Social Media

Internet is the key technology that makes social media in its entirety possible. Websites that a particular individual saves on a server, which is connected to the internet are made available to anyone else who is connected as well – it is a two way street. Many journals, diaries, blogs, articles etc. are in the form of websites, including television networks as well as radios. And websites function as all those above as well; people can use them to watch television shows and listen to their favourite radios. Internet is therefore an artificial personification of mass communication. A user does not have the option to interfere with a website unless given a permission to do so by the publisher in the form of a public form or a comment section – which essentially gives everyone the ability to voice their opinion. It is a very popular aspect that makes social media possible and available to almost everyone on the planet. Accompanying it is the service of the internet mailing system which allows users to post official documents in a matter of seconds and is something that is quickly replacing normal mail service – with more and more business opting out of the necessity of physical copies. (McQuail, 2002)

The FTP (File Transfer Protocol) allows the mobility of files between two servers – computers, where one person is transferring the data while the other is receiving, usually free of charge. This practice has been outlawed in the UK, particularly content that is protected by copyright issues but it is free and available in more than half of the other countries of the European Union and is wide spread across the world, where it falls under the official Fair Use agreement (in support of the many freedoms established by the UN). Usually it is impossible for FTP to work however unless a certain external software is bought or downloaded by the user. But recently more ways are being developed for the use of the FTP service without the external software (such as the integrated FTP software of Windows 10). (Chandler & Munday, 2011)

Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is a process that allows for both non-professional and professional communication between users and there are many services that are using it today; Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Skype, etc. IRC works on the same principle as use-net or email on a system of dedicated irc-servers and in order to access this service, a specific software is required. And this process itself is widely used by journalists as well, whether it be interviews on television networks, YouTube, etc. Questions are commonly forwarded by the interviewer – who can be one person or a group of people and it is up to the editor of the program whether or not the question will be asked of the interviewee. In the UK this service is used by the Guardian magazine, where on their website there is a chat always present where users can discuss articles, news, announcements, etc. UseNet is a service as old as the Internet itself – it allows for conference calls and chats (practically a conference call on Skype) between an unlimited numbers of people. UseNet functions on its own servers, where all the data is stored and subsequently, after the discourse has concluded is erased – this can however be tweaked by the administrator. As well as being the first service to be created alongside the ability to share data, the UseNet service has always been proof that the Internet is an efficient way of mass communication – giving people the ability to voice their opinions across various distances. (Jones, 2005)

When it comes to the definition of social media on its own – it is a synonym of online journalism; the main difference between social media and traditional journalism lies in the form. One of the main features is the usage of hypertext and the multimodality of the digital environment along with the combination of written and recorded source of information.

Also concerning traditional media there is a limit to available information. Newspapers do have a specific number of available pages that are set by regulations and television and radio broadcasting can only have enough content to fill a 24 hour slot. The issue has always been prioritizing which piece of information gets more time/pages; if one gets more, others have to be reduced in size. And in most traditional media the priorities were set by the attention of the viewers. And when it comes to social media on the internet – there is no such limitation since all the data is stored on servers and there is no time limit. The capacity of these servers is however not infinite but it can be easily increased and the cost when compared to tv/radio broadcasting is minimal.

Commentary and Responsibility

It comes as no surprise that social media offer a much better environment than traditional media to express racism, xenophobia, anger, violence, etc. One of the main reasons being the absence of global legislature that may punish the existence of such websites – were they published as regular newspapers, the police would have had a much easier job of seeking prosecution. The first issue is the responsibility for comments of the readers. As it has been already mentioned, many web-journals and social media give the option to comment on available articles. It has become apparent that negative comments are much more likely to appear in open discussions and forums than those that are positive. And on the other hand, if people write letters or emails to various businesses, there tend to be more positive than negative. Reason for this is simple – commenting on an article, open forum, etc. is much easier to do so and write a letter and mail, plus with social media people feel the safe embrace of anonymity. (Warren & Streeter, 2013)

Bad commentary, shaming and other cyber bullying is not the only negative outcome of open source for the audience. Many forums and discussions are littered with false advertising and are a scam heaven. Internet media did not arrive with any new ethical issues. An example of an ethical issue is the way how to reach the spread of solid information and at the same time voice one´s opinion about what he believes is the truth and the ability to maintain independence and at the same time do not cause professional harm to one´s employer or employee. An ethical issue can also manifest in the form of searching for a balance between protecting privacy and the advocacy of interests of the general public. (Scaife, 2015)

All of these issues exist in any form of media – be it social media on the internet or traditional media that are in print or being broadcasted. However, what new social media did introduce are completely new situations in which even the best of journalists make faulty decisions, if they were not prepared beforehand, or they are not aware of how social media can affect different people since they are an open source of information and there are no limits to the demographics of the recipients. (Kamuf, Signature pieces : on the institution of authorship, 1988)

For example – if there was a report about a crime involving rape, both the traditional magazine column and an online article would want to hide the victim´s identity. But, in the online articles, the author would create an open forum for anyone to voice their opinion regarding the crime, the perpetrator, the victim and the article itself. Law states that the author must not edit or censor the discussion, because under several circumstances it could be considered criminal activity. However, some of the opinions that readers have voiced on the forum are inappropriate, unethical and may cause harm to any parties involved in the article. What should the author of said article do? Censorship has always been an option and it is older than the social media themselves, being practiced by governments, health institutions, etc. The responsibility for unwanted commentary by the audience lies not with the author of the article but the person who is in charge of the website. (Fuchs, 2013)

Ethical Conduct, More Attention and Priorities

Journalists with integrity have always been obligated to provide serious, proofed and objective information, they should not succumb to speculation and spread rumours. Such conditions should always be required by any respected news corporation and every journalist should reasonably have a strong ethical codex.

Douglas Thomas, a journalist and social researcher examined various ethical issues concerning social media; one example being as follows: professor of French literature from the University of California, Peggy Kamuf came forward with a lecture on the history of reading and writing. Her speech was well versed in academic literature and the lecture followed two basic lines, literary-theoretical and scientific, during which she spoke about how neurology understands the process of reading. Her lecture concluded with the proposal that literature theorists should read the works of cognitive scientists and vice versa. Later on, professor Kamuf found out that her email was overflowing with angry messages in which her theory was being called outright absurd and repulsive. These emails however where not sent by scientists or literature theorists; they were coming from outraged mothers. (Kamuf, The End of Reading, 2000)

It was later revealed that the source of this outrage was the article by Amy Halloran, a journalist from the online magazine Salon, who after spending time at Kamuf’s lecture wrote a review with the headline being that if parents read to their kids aloud, it is a forceful act. Ms. Halloran further using words “brutal”, “painful” and “terrorist” – none of which were used in the lecture itself – reached the conclusion that professor Kamuf devised the lecture on the purpose of accelerating her career. The material was published on under the title of “Mothers who think.” The Professor felt the responsibility to act as soon as possible, however her letter to Salon was published in the column “Letter to Editor” and was not mentioned as being connected to the original article in any way. The response remained buried in the archives. According to the main editor of the Salon magazine Scott Rosenberg, it is not customary for articles of this kind to be verified by any means necessary. In the defence of his magazine he stated that when it comes to publishing, the Salon magazine relies on the “…integrity of intelligent journalists and the trust which readers are always happy to acknowledge…” and went further on to state that the journalists employed at the Salon are not without mistake, but such journalists do not exist anywhere either way. Also according to Editor Rosenberg, the reporter heard an opinion during the lecture that she ended up disagreeing with and wrote an article about it. Whenever Douglas Thomas tried to interview Rosenberg about the incident, he could not make the Editor admit that an actual mistake was made. (Halloran, 2000)

However, this was not all that happened. Ms. Halloran’s article was picked up by US News & World Report where the same incorrect conclusion of the lecture was used as in the original article published in the Salon magazine. Next, this entire scandal was picked up by the website „Bonehead of the Day“ which satirically spoofed Professor Kamuf’s lecture and included her email with the mock article. Being the only case in this drama, after everything was explained to the author of the website, he publicly apologized to Professor Kamuf and the article was removed from the website. After all of this, another magazine wrote an article in a spirit similar to the one published in the Salon; this time by Shelley McKinney in titled “Please, do not commit forceful acts on children” where she quoted previous articles that misinterpreted the original lecture wrong. Despite all of this, McKinney got right the background of the Professor right – which only proved that she did in fact do proper research. (Thomas, 2000)

Finally, this media fiasco concluded in 2000 when the magazine Salon received an award for the best political, cultural and entertaining online magazine, with numerous other awards (one including the best Website by Time). The Salon magazine did not start out as a tabloid magazine; since their first publications included book reviews, interviews with various academics and other professional critiques and later it developed to a daily publication.

Observations that can be drawn from this case are as follows: internet media do not require as much fact verification as regular newspapers and magazines, the ability to spread false information is much easier and faster than any physically printed news and more attention is a bigger priority than proper ethical conduct.


What should be done with the negative and potentially harmful submissions? There are many filters and the ability to report and ban certain users; supporting hate crimes, racism, religious intolerance, etc. However, not all of these submissions are so clear to identify and where should we draw the line? What is the difference between opinion and crime? Everyone in a discussion has the right to voice their opinion and everyone else has the same right to tell them that such an opinion is wrong, these are the basics of freedom of speech. Did we become overly sensitive? It is the easy way out to declare that social media are bad and if someone does not wish to be insulted, they should avoid it.

Social media and cyber journalism are technologies that are barely over two decades old. They are technologies that have been the fastest to be accepted and widely used in our history. They do not have strict limitations such as size, pages, etc. – as these can be easily increased. They have proven to be less professional than traditional media as verification and proper quoting gives way to popularity and demand as demonstrated by the fiasco with Professor Kamuf and the interpretation of her lecture. However, it is not the tool itself to be blamed, but the people behind it – the classical nuclear energy metaphor is apparent. Had it not been for the misleading article by the Salon magazine, the original lecture might have gotten better publicity.

Author: lt. MSc. BA Jan Janek


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