The Ethics of Online Communication

March 30, 2012

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Over the past week I have been forced to question the nature of ethical online communication: what is allowed and what isn’t, what is ethical and want isn’t, and what are the boundaries I want to set for myself?

This was sparked by a local business’ Twitter account being suspended without question after FALSE spam complaints were made against the business.

It is being reinstated after a review determined there was no misconduct, however these questions remain…

Why is it that an account that has broken no rules can be shut down? AND, what of the false spam reporters? In this case, they were the ones who were in the wrong…or were they?

In actuality, there is no Twitter rule against false spam complaints, so they did nothing officially “wrong.”

However, there is a deeper ethical dilemma here. What constitutes acceptable and ethical behaviour on social media?

Is it acceptable to ask tough questions? To challenge ideas? To get people thinking?

In my opinion, these types of communications are not only acceptable but essential! This is what makes us free! This is what helps us become better as a society and as a world.

Ah, but what constitutes these “tough questions” and at what point do they become “malicious” to another vs. honestly being conversation starters?

Is it the intent or the way those intentions are construed?

Still more questions…

  • Is it acceptable to report someone falsely for “spam” because you don’t like what they have to say?
  • Is it acceptable to unfriend people because you want them as a “fan” instead of a “friend”?
  • Is it acceptable to use social media to badmouth others?
  • Is it acceptable to use social media to push your own agenda?
  • Is it acceptable to break little rules here and there (like conducting fan draws on Facebook) when you’re “really not hurting anyone”?
  • Is it acceptable to break social media rules on behalf of clients who are asking you to do so?

For each of these questions, another still remains…is it the poster’s intent or the readers’ interpretations that determine “acceptability”?

The truth is that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have way too much going on to ensure on a day to day basis that every member is adhering to their rules of conduct. Therefore, they rely on users to make reports of spam and abuse in order to take action.

Right or wrong, that is how it is, and in that sense, it is the readers’ interpretation that creates the ways in which guidelines are enforced.

For this user, however, that is simply not enough. I cannot in good conscience use social media or any other outlet of communication in such a way that is less than what I define for myself as ethical and morally right.

I also know that my definition of ethical is different from the ways in which others define the same concept.

How, then, can the issue be resolved?

In truth, there is no universal truth. Each person must identify his or her own level of what is “acceptable” and use that to set boundaries for social media use.

I can only offer this as guidance – Make posts you would feel proud shouting from rooftops and sharing with the people whose opinions you value the most. If you use that as your ethical compass, even if you get an unwarranted false complaint, you can be sure that you have done what you know to be right in your heart.

And that is something to feel good about!