Ethics in Social Media

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ethics in social media essay

  • Øyvind Kvalnes 2  

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Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media have radically changed the ways in which organizations, groups, and individuals spread, share, and discuss ideas and information. They provide platforms for expressing opinions very rapidly to a wide audience, without interference from an editor or a group of editors. With traditional platforms like newspapers, radio, and television, the steps from formulating a viewpoint to reaching an audience with it tend to be complex and slow. The sender will usually have to convince someone with editorial powers that the message is worth publishing. This is not so with social media, where each person can be his or her own editor and immediately release personal content to an audience. From an organizational perspective, the dramatic changes in publicity options create a range of ethical challenges. This chapter provides a preliminary categorization of ethical dilemmas for users of social media based on input from professionals who are engaged in digitalization processes in their organizations.

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Social media introduce a range of new ways for individuals, groups, and organizations to spread, share, and comment on ideas, beliefs, and information. They no longer need to go through an editor to get their views published. This chapter explores the ethical dilemmas that can occur with social media use in everyday organizational settings. There are other ethical aspects of social media that will not be addressed, most notably those connected to the use of Big Data in research, product development, and marketing. These have already been under scrutiny in other research (Bender, Cyr, Arbuckle, & Ferris, 2017 ; Kosinski, Matz, Gosling, Popov, & Stillwell, 2015 ). The focus here will be on the concrete dilemmas that arise in workplaces adapting to a reality where Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and other social media have created a radically different environment for conversation and interaction.

The dilemmas discussed in this chapter will be constructed from input delivered by executive students who have participated in my ethics training sessions in a program on digitalization and leadership. For a number of years, I have invited students to share dilemmas they have encountered when working professionally with digital transitions within organizations, including the development from using traditional to digital and social media.

Based on the input from these sessions, I will outline a list of five categories of dilemmas that can occur when leaders and employees in an organization apply social media at work.

The following story exemplifies what we may call a role dilemma . Financial advisor Peter works for a local bank in the district where he grew up. Three of his former colleagues in the bank have left to join a competitor in the same district. Those three are still in contact with a range of former colleagues, even though they are now employed by a competitor. On Facebook, current and former colleagues have established friendships across the competitive divide and frequently share and like each other’s content there. Facebook is an important platform for both banks and a place where they can interact with actual and potential customers and demonstrate their banking competence. They can also reach out to the public with information about new products and invite people to evening seminars, information meetings, and other arrangements.

Recently, Peter has noticed that some of his own colleagues in the bank even share, like, and put favorable comments on professional content published by their former colleagues. He is very critical of this practice of assisting former colleagues in spreading professional content from their new employer, who is a serious competitor making the effort to tighten its grip on the banking market in the district. He believes the colleagues doing this are confused about their roles in social media. They behave like friends and should instead realize that they are first and foremost employees of competing organizations.

When Peter brings up the topic with his colleagues, they argue that what they are doing is normal and right in a knowledge-sharing economy. Social media like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are designed to make information available to everybody. Knowledge hiding, where you try to gain advantages by guarding your own knowledge, is a thing of the past. Sharing is good for banking as an industry, they argue, as it means that the decision-makers have to be alert and ready to develop new services and products based on insights that are available to everybody. The kind of knowledge sharing Peter finds unacceptable actually triggers innovation and can be beneficial to all, they claim. It is an assumption based on their personal experiences, but it can also find some backing in research (Leonardi, 2017 ).

Peter disagrees and argues that his colleagues’ sharing practices on Facebook provide the other bank with a competitive advantage that can lead to a decline in profits for their own employer and a gradual loss of the banking hegemony in the district.

A role dilemma occurs when the roles of the people who are active in social media are unclear or open to different and conflicting interpretations. Are these words the expressions of a professional or a private person, a colleague or a friend, a company owner or a concerned citizen, an expert or a non-expert, or a teacher or a dismayed employee? Dilemmas arise when the sender has one understanding of his or her role, whereas various receivers interpret the role differently, leading them to have conflicting perceptions of what should be the next step forward for the sender or receiver. From the sender’s point of view, the dilemmas can occur in advance of a particular interaction. How will the message I am about to publish be interpreted? Am I entitled to express it? Based on one interpretation of what my role is, I should not post the message, but based on another, I am in my full right to do so. Will the receivers understand that I make this claim as a private citizen and not as an employee of this particular organization? Dilemmas can also occur in the aftermath of an interaction, when the sender realizes there can be more than one reasonable interpretation of the message, based on different understandings of his or her role. Then the choice can be made between remaining committed to the message and the way it was published and admitting that it was a mistake to put it forward.

There can also be role dilemmas where decision-makers in an organization create role confusion. One of my students worked as a journalist in a magazine and explained that the owners wanted to professionalize the use of their Instagram account by hiring an advertising agency to run it. Social media specialists from that agency would post photos on the account, accompanied by text to the effect that “we” will be on this location today, and you can meet “us” there, creating the impression that they were journalists from the magazine, when in fact they were hired externals. The real journalists were critical of this approach, as they felt that it would trick the readers and users of Instagram into thinking that the people on location were actually part of the magazine’s own team.

It has been interesting to apply the principle of publicity, articulated in Chap. 5 , to this dilemma in different teaching contexts. The principle claims that we should be willing to defend our decision publicly and be open about it to relevant people and groups. I have presented the dilemma to young students (20 to 25 years old) and to executive students (30 to 50 years old). In the first group, the majority sees no problem with hiring people from an advertising agency to run the Instagram account on behalf of the magazine. This is already happening with hired help in a range of contexts, they argue, and it makes no difference to them as users whether the people they meet are permanently employed by the magazine. In the second group, most people experience that the idea goes against their basic moral intuitions and is an alternative that would not stand up to public scrutiny, as it erases the difference between employed, professional journalists and hired nonprofessionals, who admittedly have more competence in the use of social media. Here we see an interesting example of a generation gap when it comes to moral intuitions and ethical analysis, one that may be indicative of an emerging change in people’s perceptions of roles.

The second category of dilemmas in social media arises in connection with the speed in which the interactions tend to take place. We can call them tempo dilemmas . Things happen very fast in social media, and part of the attraction is to participate in a pulsating activity where intuitions are at play. In terms of the distinction between the fast System 1 and the slow System 2 of decision-making (Kahneman, 2013 ), this is clearly an arena where the former dominates. If you slow down and try to activate System 2, you are likely to miss out, as the discussion has moved on and your carefully crafted expressions are no longer relevant. Input from my executive students indicates that traditional leaders find the high tempo to be particularly challenging, making them wary of entering the social media arena. They are understandably concerned that they might lose control on a communication platform characterized by rapid exchanges of words but are also afraid to miss out on business opportunities by staying away.

Some dilemmas in social media can have both a role and a tempo dimension in them. Senders can be impulsive and join the fast timeline on Twitter and end up ignoring or forgetting their roles in the organization. This can be the case with the following:

A CEO who uses the organization’s account to express her personal views on the upbringing of children or on political matters—issues that lie far beyond her professional competence

A researcher who uses his professional account to raise harsh criticism about a particular aspect of the welfare system in his country

An engineer who publicizes sexually charged comments from a conference he attends on behalf of the organization

A CFO who responds to reasonable criticism of one of the organization’s products by going into a harsh and heated public dialogue with the sender

Other people in the organization may be witnesses to this kind of behavior and can then face the dilemma of choosing whether to intervene and give critical input to the sender or remain silent. In some cases, this will be a real dilemma, in that on the one hand it is really important to stop the sender from putting himself or herself and the organization into further trouble, and on the other hand it may be a bad career move or the last thing the observer does in this organization. In other cases, it will be a false dilemma, as clearly the right thing to do is to intervene, and the personal cost of doing so is not all that high, but it is nevertheless tempting to turn a blind eye to the situation so as to avoid personal trouble.

The third category can be called integrity dilemmas . Presence in social media can put the integrity of organizations, groups, and individuals under pressure, in that they can face situations where it is difficult to remain committed to one’s principles and values. My executive students describe situations where the ambition to establish and maintain friends or followership in social media can make it tempting to

like and share content that you actually find uninteresting, uninspiring, and even questionable or wrong, and

refrain from speaking up against content that you disagree with or find appalling.

Both of these responses depend on putting your own moral convictions and beliefs aside in order to become and remain popular with actual or potential friends and followers. Organizations want to see the number of friends, followers, and likes in social media grow. To that end, they may expect their employees to keep personal convictions and values in check, even when these are well aligned with what the organization itself is supposed to stand for. As we saw in Chap. 6 , being committed to a stable set of values can be instrumental to corporate flourishing (Collins & Porras, 1996 ). Sacrificing integrity for popularity in social media is risky business but can nevertheless be part of what corporations expect from those who run their social media outlets.

What kinds of opinions are acceptable to express in social media? This is the question behind the fourth category of ethical dilemmas in this area. We face a speech dilemma when one set of considerations supports the publication of an expression and another set of considerations goes against it. With traditional publication channels, the task of balancing those sets up against one another and making a decision rests both with the sender and with the editors who have the final say about publication. With social media, the editors are gone, and the senders, both of personal messages and messages on behalf of organizations, need to account for ethical aspects, including those who are in favor and those who go against publication.

Providers like Facebook and Twitter are also expected to moderate the flow of input on their platforms and to remove expressions of harassment, hate speech, trolling, and misinformation. The general ethical tension for them and the users is between promoting free speech on the one hand and being on guard against potentially harmful expressions on the other. To what extent should we accept aggressive behavior in social media and defend it in the name of freedom of expression or free speech? Political exchanges on Twitter can sometimes include rude and hateful expressions, and the platform struggles to point its users in healthier and more constructive directions. The importance of moderating the exchanges is underlined by research showing that trolling and harassing behaviors in social media are contagious. People who are normally well behaved will tend to become harassers if they are exposed to that kind of behavior (Cheng, Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, Leskovec, & Bernstein, 2017 ).

The dilemmas my executive students identify in this area are often connected to role dilemmas. What is the scope of action for a leader or employee when it comes to speaking his or her mind in social media? Once the particular role of the sender has been established, and there is clarity about who he or she is in this particular context, it remains to be considered whether there are limitations to his or her freedom of speech. How active should a CEO or other leaders in an organization be in discussions about contested political topics like immigration and religion? What are the limits to what a teacher can say in a public discussion about the current leadership of the school authorities and the direction they are taking the educational system? These are open questions whose answers depend on further details of the situations. What the questions exemplify is how ethical considerations about free speech become particularly pressing in the era of social media, where people can easily publish and spread their opinions and no longer depend on external editors to get their messages across.

Speech dilemmas of a particular kind occur when an organization receives criticism from a customer, client, or other stakeholders and needs to find a reasonable way to respond. The criticism may be based on what the organization sees as a false representation of the facts of the matter, but presenting a truer picture may be problematic. One executive student described a situation where the bank he worked for had recently turned down an application for a loan to a local businessman, based on an analysis of the prospects of the project the loan was supposed to finance. The bank did not share the optimism expressed in the customer’s presentation of the business case. The businessman became furious when he received the rejection and wrote a post on Facebook where he attacked the bank and encouraged his friends and contacts to boycott it. The version he put forward about the project, glossed over major weaknesses the bank found to be wanting. Now the bank faced the challenge of finding a response that would protect its own interests, without revealing the confidential details the businessman had chosen to hide from the readers of his Facebook post.

The final category in this preliminary list of ethical dilemmas generated by social media is that of competence dilemmas . Experienced users of social media build up competence in applying them and can meet customers, clients, and competitors who in contrast are novices. To what extent is it acceptable to exploit the competence gap to one’s own benefit? In many cases, this will be ethically unproblematic, such as when you have gained an upper hand in social media competence in comparison to a competitor and use that to your own benefit. The dilemmas can occur in a professional–client relationship, where the former can exploit a competence gap in relation to the latter by offering services at a higher price and at a more sophisticated level than the client needs. The professional may be an expert on social media use and sell services that the client lacks the competence to evaluate, and the imbalance introduces the possible misuse of client trust.

Conflict of interest is at the core of ethics in professions (Nanda, 2002 ). Doctors, lawyers, auditors, and teachers all have specialized competence that makes them capable of delivering specialized services. There is typically a competence gap in place between them and the patients, clients, and students, making it difficult for the nonprofessional parts to evaluate the services at hand. Professionals more or less explicitly promise to give priority to the interests of those who require their services and to not give in to the temptation of putting their self-interest first. The situation is similar to competence dilemmas in social media. Even there we find conflict of interest. The social media novice can decide to trust the provider not to exploit the gap in competence in his or her favor. In line with the distinction between real and false dilemmas, introduced in Chap. 2 , competence dilemmas as they are described here are actually false dilemmas, as the choice is between doing the right thing (looking after the client’s interest) and doing the wrong thing (prioritizing self-interest).

To sum up this outline of ethical dilemmas in social media, we can distinguish between the following five categories:

Role dilemmas: Who are we in social media? Professional, employee, friend, owner, politician, private individual, or more than one of these at the same time?

Tempo dilemmas: What kind of information and opinions do we spread with the touch of a finger? What do we miss out on if we slow down and are more thoughtful?

Integrity dilemmas: To what extent do we downplay our own principles and values in order to gain new friends and followers, and more likes?

Speech dilemmas: What kinds of opinions are acceptable to express in social media? Where do we draw the line for free speech in the processes of expressing disagreement and defending oneself against unreasonable criticism?

Competence dilemmas: To what extent is it acceptable to exploit competence gaps in your own favor?

The above categories can serve as a starting point for moral reasoning about activities in social media and may turn out to need further elaboration. There may be ethical challenges for organizational users of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media that the framework does not capture adequately. For now, it serves to zoom in on questions about right and wrong, permissible, obligatory, and forbidden in the use of social media in organizational settings.

One final remark is that the distinction from the previous chapter between prescriptive and proscriptive ethics, or do-good-ethics and avoid-harm-ethics, is relevant even in the context of social media. As is the case with automation, ethical explorations in this field can easily become preoccupied with the proscriptive dimension and on the harm and suffering that can result from improper use of social media. Trolling, harassment, and the spreading of fake news give cause for concern, but it is also worth noting that social media provide platforms for constructive conversation and collaboration. People who would otherwise remain strangers to each other are able to communicate and exchange ideas. Individuals can move out of isolation and participate in social activities. This prescriptive dimension is an integral part of the ethics of social media.

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Kvalnes, Ø. (2019). Ethics in Social Media. In: Moral Reasoning at Work. Palgrave Pivot, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-15191-1_9

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Ethical Dilemmas of Social Media – and How to Navigate Them

Øyvind kvalnes.

Social media provide opportunities for organizations and employees to publish their opinions, without an editor. But tempo, trolling, and tricky role confusions leave social media officers with digital dilemmas. How should they deal with them?

Increased activities in social media and rapid publication create a range of dilemmas for decisions-makers within organizations, where they must prioritize conflicting ethical considerations.

"The unique thing about social media is that it is not necessary to go through an external editor to publish anything. Subsequently, you have the editorial responsibility and must reflect over the ethical aspects of the publication and not just the legal aspect", says Øyvind Kvalnes, philosopher and associate professor at the Department of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour.

Exchanges happen quickly to a wide audience, and tempo increases the risk of mistakes. Kvalnes recommends slowing down and taking time to reflect on the options at hand.

Real-life Digital Dilemmas

Kvalnes knows what he is talking about after collecting memos from around 250 executive students at BI, each describing a dilemma from their first-hand experience as practitioners responsible for handling social media platforms for their organizations.

The research is made available in the recently published “Digital Dilemma: Exploring Social Media Ethics in Organizations ” - a book that contributes to the emerging research on the ethics of social media use in organizations, and provides practitioners with concepts and tools to cope with digital dilemmas at work. ( The book can be downloaded for free here )

Five Types of Dilemmas

The book presents five categories of ethical dilemmas that can arise for practitioners who are responsible for social media accounts in organizations:

  • Role Dilemmas address how the person in social media can have multiple roles, creating confusion about ethical responsibilities. Such dilemmas occur when it is unclear whether a person is professionally active on a social media platform, or as a friend, client, or competitor.
  • Tempo Dilemmas occur because the exchanges in social media happen quickly, with an increased risk of making mistakes.
  • Integrity Dilemmas are concerned with how easy or difficult it is to remain committed to personal values and moral standards when representing one’s organization online and being tempted or pressured to act against these.
  • Speech Dilemmas arise in connection with decisions about what it is acceptable to express when being active on a social media platform.
  • Competence Dilemmas occur when the social media experts can exploit competence gaps in their own favor, with little risk of detection. Such dilemmas occur due to the gaps in how well people understand the workings of social media.

"The categories can help people sort out and understand what kind of situation they are in. The concepts in the book can be used to think more clearly about ethical dilemmas in social media", says Kvalnes.

Ethical Navigation on Social Media

Journalists and editors have ethical codes of conduct, while those responsible for social media in their organization have been equipped with little ethical guidance to support their decisions.

Kvalnes offers a solution. He suggests using the Navigation Wheel when people face ethical dilemmas related to social media use. The framework guides decision-makers through a process of considering six questions regarding law, identity, morality, reputation, economy, and ethics.

The priority of questions in the model depends on context and is up to the decision-maker. A process involving the Navigation Wheel can start by identifying the most relevant options available. This is followed by taking the options through the questions in the model before using the answers and arguments that come out of that procedure as a foundation for making a decision.

Kvalnes' ethical wheel

A Troublesome Dilemma

A construction manager takes photos from a tunnel project in the mountains, and the communications advisor in the organization quickly posts them on Facebook. Unfortunately, one of the photos happens to document a serious health, safety and environment violation by one of the employees. Angry users on Facebook rapidly comment the violation.

What should the decision-maker in the construction company do?

Either she can respond to the criticism and risk bringing even more attention to the violation, or she can delete the photo and hope that there will be no further criticism. In this situation, the decision-maker can assess the tempo dilemma through the Navigation wheel.

Reaching an Informed Decision

Starting with the ‘law’ question, both options in the example above are legally acceptable. However, if an option is illegal, it constitutes a reason to avoid choosing it, while if an option is legal, than that in itself does not constitute a reason for choosing it. One must therefore assess the remaining options, such as the identity question that addresses whether the organization has core values that provide guidelines for what to do. If honesty is a part of the identity, then it indicates that openness is the right option.

The morality aspect concerns the decision-maker’s moral beliefs and intuitions in relation to the situation. Moreover, reputation is at stake, in the sense that the decision can affect other stakeholders’ perception of the organization, in light of how they cope with the Facebook posting. In this particular dilemma, economy is not a significant concern, but it can be in other situations. Finally, ethics comes in as a principled consideration about how such dilemmas should be solved.

Published 29. July 2020

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Social Networking and Ethics

In the 21 st century, new media technologies for social networking such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and YouTube began to transform the social, political and informational practices of individuals and institutions across the globe, inviting philosophical responses from the community of applied ethicists and philosophers of technology. While scholarly responses to social media continue to be challenged by the rapidly evolving nature of these technologies, the urgent need for attention to the social networking phenomenon is underscored by the fact that it has profoundly reshaped how many human beings initiate and/or maintain virtually every type of ethically significant social bond or role: friend-to-friend, parent-to-child, co-worker-to co-worker, employer-to-employee, teacher-to-student, neighbor-to-neighbor, seller-to-buyer, doctor-to-patient, and voter-to-voter, to offer just a partial list. Nor are the ethical implications of these technologies strictly interpersonal, as it has become evident that social networking services (hereafter referred to as SNS) and other new digital media have profound implications for democracy, public institutions and the rule of law. The complex web of interactions between SNS developers and users, and their online and offline communities, corporations and governments—along with the diverse and sometimes conflicting motives and interests of these various stakeholders—will continue to require rigorous ethical analysis for decades to come.

Section 1 of the entry outlines the history and working definition of social networking services. Section 2 identifies the early philosophical foundations of reflection on the ethics of online social networks, leading up to the emergence of Web 2.0 standards (supporting user interactions) and full-fledged SNS. Section 3 reviews the primary ethical topic areas around which philosophical reflections on SNS have, to date, converged: privacy; identity and community; friendship, virtue and the good life; democracy, free speech, misinformation/disinformation and the public sphere; and cybercrime. Finally, Section 4 reviews some of the metaethical issues potentially impacted by the emergence of SNS.

1.1 Online Social Networks and the Emergence of ‘Web 2.0’

1.2 early scholarly engagement with social networking services, 2.1 borgmann’s critique of social hyperreality, 2.2 hubert dreyfus on internet sociality: anonymity versus commitment, 2.3.1 borgmann, dreyfus and the ‘cancel culture’ debates.

  • 2.3.2 The Civic Harms of Social Hyperreality

3.1 Social Networking Services and Privacy

3.2 the ethics of identity and community on social networking services, 3.3 friendship, virtue and the good life on social networking services, 3.4 democracy, freedom and social networking services in the public sphere, 3.5 social networking services and cybercrime, 4. social networking services and metaethical issues, other internet resources, related entries, 1. history and definitions of social networking services.

‘Social networking’ is an inherently ambiguous term requiring some clarification. Human beings have been socially ‘networked’ in one manner or another for as long as we have been on the planet, and we have historically availed ourselves of many successive techniques and instruments for facilitating and maintaining such networks. These include structured social affiliations and institutions such as private and public clubs, lodges and churches as well as communications technologies such as postal and courier systems, telegraphs and telephones. When philosophers speak today, however, of ‘Social Networking and Ethics’, they usually refer more narrowly to the ethical impact of an evolving and loosely defined group of information technologies, most based on or inspired by the ‘Web 2.0’ software standards that emerged in the first decade of the 21 st century. While the most widely used social networking services are free, they operate on large platforms that offer a range of related products and services that underpin their business models, from targeted advertising and data licensing to cloud storage and enterprise software. Ethical impacts of social networking services are loosely clustered into three categories – direct impacts of social networking activity itself, indirect impacts associated with the underlying business models that are enabled by such activity, and structural implications of SNS as novel sociopolitical and cultural forces.

Prior to the emergence of Web 2.0 standards, the computer had already served for decades as a medium for various forms of social networking, beginning in the 1970s with social uses of the U.S. military’s ARPANET and evolving to facilitate thousands of Internet newsgroups and electronic mailing lists, BBS (bulletin board systems), MUDs (multi-user dungeons) and chat rooms dedicated to an eclectic range of topics and social identities (Barnes 2001; Turkle 1995). These early computer social networks were systems that grew up organically, typically as ways of exploiting commercial, academic or other institutional software for more broadly social purposes. In contrast, Web 2.0 technologies evolved specifically to facilitate user-generated, collaborative and shared Internet content, and while the initial aims of Web 2.0 software developers were still largely commercial and institutional, the new standards were designed explicitly to harness the already-evident potential of the Internet for social networking. Most notably, Web 2.0 social interfaces redefined the social topography of the Internet by enabling users to build increasingly seamless connections between their online social presence and their existing social networks offline—a trend that shifted the Internet away from its earlier function as a haven for largely anonymous or pseudonymous identities forming sui generis social networks (Ess 2011).

Starting in the first decade of the 21st century, among the first websites to employ the new standards explicitly for general social networking purposes were Orkut, MySpace, LinkedIn, Friendster, Bebo, Habbo and Facebook. Subsequent trends in online social networking include the rise of sites dedicated to media and news sharing (YouTube, Reddit, Flickr, Instagram, Vine, Snapchat, TikTok), microblogging (Tumblr, Twitter, Weibo), location-based networking (Foursquare, Loopt, Yelp, YikYak), messaging and VoIP (WhatsApp, Messenger, WeChat), social gaming (Steam, Twitch) and interest-sharing (Pinterest).

Study of the ethical implications of SNS was initially seen as a subpart of Computer and Information Ethics (Bynum 2018). While Computer and Information Ethics certainly accommodates an interdisciplinary approach, its direction and problems were initially largely defined by philosophically-trained scholars such as James Moor (1985) and Deborah G. Johnson (1985). Yet this has not been the early pattern for the ethics of social networking. Partly due to the coincidence of the social networking phenomenon with the emerging interdisciplinary social science field of ‘Internet Studies’ (Consalvo and Ess, 2011), the ethical implications of social networking technologies were initially targeted for inquiry by a loose coalition of sociologists, social psychologists, anthropologists, ethnographers, law and media scholars and political scientists (see, for example, Giles 2006; Boyd 2007; Ellison et al. 2007; Ito 2009). Consequently, philosophers who have turned their attention to social networking and ethics have had to decide whether to pursue their inquiries independently, drawing primarily from traditional philosophical resources in applied computer ethics and the philosophy of technology, or to develop their views in consultation with the growing body of empirical data and conclusions already being generated by other disciplines. While this entry will primarily confine itself to reviewing existing philosophical research on social networking ethics, links between those researches and studies in other disciplinary contexts remain vital.

Indeed, recent academic and popular debates about the harms and benefits of large social media platforms have been driven far more visibly by scholars in sociology (Benjamin 2019), information studies (Roberts 2019), psychology (Zuboff 2019) and other social sciences than by philosophers, who remain comparatively disengaged. In turn, rather than engage with philosophical ethics, social science researchers in this field typically anchor normative dimensions of their analyses in broader political frameworks of justice and human rights, or psychological accounts of wellbeing. This has led to a growing debate about whether philosophical ‘ethics’ remains the right lens through which to subject social networking services or other emerging technologies to normative critique (Green 2021, Other Internet Resources). This debate is driven by several concerns. First is the growing professionalization of applied ethics (Stark and Hoffmann 2019) and its perceived detachment from social critique. A second concern is the trend of insincere corporate appropriation of the language of ethics for marketing, crisis management and public relations purposes, known as ‘ethicswashing’ (Bietti 2020). Finally, there is the question of whether philosophical theories of ethics, which have traditionally focused on individual actions, are sufficiently responsive to the structural conditions of social injustice that drive many SNS-associated harms.

2. Early Philosophical Concerns about Online Social Networks

Among the first philosophers to take an interest in the ethical significance of social uses of the Internet were phenomenological philosophers of technology Albert Borgmann and Hubert Dreyfus. These thinkers were heavily influenced by Heidegger’s (1954 [1977]) view of technology as a monolithic force with a distinctive vector of influence, one that tends to constrain or impoverish the human experience of reality in specific ways. While Borgmann and Dreyfus were primarily responding to the immediate precursors of Web 2.0 social networks (e.g., chat rooms, newsgroups, online gaming and email), their conclusions, which aim at online sociality broadly construed, are directly relevant to SNS.

Borgmann’s early critique (1984) of modern technology addressed what he called the device paradigm , a technologically-driven tendency to conform our interactions with the world to a model of easy consumption. By 1992’s Crossing the Postmodern Divide , however, Borgmann had become more narrowly focused on the ethical and social impact of information technologies, employing the concept of hyperreality to critique (among other aspects of information technology) the way in which online social networks may subvert or displace organic social realities by allowing people to “offer one another stylized versions of themselves for amorous or convivial entertainment” (1992, 92) rather than allowing the fullness and complexity of their real identities to be engaged. While Borgmann admits that in itself a social hyperreality seems “morally inert” (1992, 94), he insists that the ethical danger of hyperrealities lies in their tendency to leave us “resentful and defeated” when we are forced to return from their “insubstantial and disconnected glamour” to the organic reality which “with all its poverty inescapably asserts its claims on us” by providing “the tasks and blessings that call forth patience and vigor in people.” (1992, 96)

There might be an inherent ambiguity in Borgmann’s analysis, however. On the one hand he tells us that it is the competition with our organic and embodied social presence that makes online social environments designed for convenience, pleasure and ease ethically problematic, since the latter will inevitably be judged more satisfying than the ‘real’ social environment. But he goes on to claim that online social environments are themselves ethically deficient:

Those who become present via a communication link have a diminished presence, since we can always make them vanish if their presence becomes burdensome. Moreover, we can protect ourselves from unwelcome persons altogether by using screening devices….The extended network of hyperintelligence also disconnects us from the people we would meet incidentally at concerts, plays and political gatherings. As it is, we are always and already linked to the music and entertainment we desire and to sources of political information. This immobile attachment to the web of communication works a twofold deprivation in our lives. It cuts us off from the pleasure of seeing people in the round and from the instruction of being seen and judged by them. It robs us of the social resonance that invigorates our concentration and acumen when we listen to music or watch a play.…Again it seems that by having our hyperintelligent eyes and ears everywhere, we can attain world citizenship of unequaled scope and subtlety. But the world that is hyperintelligently spread out before us has lost its force and resistance. (1992, 105–6)

Critics of Borgmann saw him as adopting Heidegger’s (1954 [1977]) substantivist, monolithic model of technology as a singular, deterministic force in human affairs (Feenberg 1999; Verbeek 2005). This model, known as technological determinism , represents technology as an independent driver of social and cultural change, shaping human institutions, practices and values in a manner largely beyond our control. Whether or not this is ultimately Borgmann’s view (or Heidegger’s), his critics saw it in remarks of the following sort: “[Social hyperreality] has already begun to transform the social fabric…At length it will lead to a disconnected, disembodied, and disoriented sort of life…It is obviously growing and thickening, suffocating reality and rendering humanity less mindful and intelligent.” (Borgmann 1992, 108–9)

Critics asserted that Borgmann’s analysis suffered from his lack of attention to the substantive differences between particular social networking technologies and their varied contexts of use, as well as the different motivations and patterns of activity displayed by individual users in those contexts. For example, Borgmann neglected the fact that physical reality does not always enable or facilitate connection, nor does it do so equally for all persons. For example, those who live in remote rural areas, neurodivergent persons, disabled persons and members of socially marginalized groups are often not well served by the affordances of physical social spaces. As a consequence, Andrew Feenberg (1999) claims that Borgmann overlooked how online social networks can supply sites of democratic resistance for those who are physically or politically disempowered by many ‘real-world’ networks.

Philosopher Hubert Dreyfus (2001) shared Borgmann’s early critical suspicion of the ethical possibilities of the Internet; like Borgmann, Dreyfus’s reflections on the ethical dimension of online sociality conveyed a view of such networks as an impoverished substitute for the real thing. Like Borgmann, Dreyfus’s suspicion was informed by his phenomenological roots, which led him to focus his critical attention on the Internet’s suspension of fully embodied presence. Yet rather than draw upon Heidegger’s metaphysical framework, Dreyfus (2004) reached back to Kierkegaard in forming his criticisms of life online. Dreyfus asserts that what online engagements intrinsically lack is exposure to risk , and without risk, Dreyfus tells us, there can be no true meaning or commitment found in the electronic domain. Instead, we are drawn to online social environments precisely because they allow us to play with notions of identity, commitment and meaning, without risking the irrevocable consequences that ground real identities and relationships. As Dreyfus put it:

…the Net frees people to develop new and exciting selves. The person living in the aesthetic sphere of existence would surely agree, but according to Kierkegaard, “As a result of knowing and being everything possible, one is in contradiction with oneself” (Present Age, 68). When he is speaking from the point of view of the next higher sphere of existence, Kierkegaard tells us that the self requires not “variableness and brilliancy,” but “firmness, balance, and steadiness” (Dreyfus 2004, 75)

While Dreyfus acknowledges that unconditional commitment and acceptance of risk are not excluded in principle by online sociality, he insists that “anyone using the Net who was led to risk his or her real identity in the real world would have to act against the grain of what attracted him or her to the Net in the first place” (2004, 78).

2.3 Contemporary Reassessment of Early Phenomenological Critiques of SNS

While Borgmann and Dreyfus’s views continue to inform the philosophical conversation about social networking and ethics, both of these early philosophical engagements with the phenomenon manifest certain predictive failures (as is perhaps unavoidable when reflecting on new and rapidly evolving technological systems). Dreyfus did not foresee the way in which popular SNS such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter would shift away from the earlier online norms of anonymity and identity play, instead giving real-world identities an online presence which in some ways is less ephemeral than bodily presence (as those who have struggled to erase online traces of past tweets or to delete Facebook profiles of deceased loved ones can attest).

Likewise, Borgmann’s critiques of “immobile attachment” to the online datastream did not anticipate the rise of mobile social networking applications which not only encourage us to physically seek out and join our friends at those same concerts, plays and political events that he envisioned us passively digesting from an electronic feed, but also enable spontaneous physical gatherings in ways never before possible. That said, such short-term predictive failures may not, in the long view, turn out to be fatal to their legacies. After all, some of the most enthusiastic champions of the Internet’s liberating social possibilities to be challenged by Dreyfus (2004, 75), such as Sherry Turkle, have since articulated far more pessimistic views of the trajectory of new social technologies. Turkle’s concerns about social media in particular (2011, 2015), namely that they foster a peculiar alienation in connectedness that leaves us feeling “alone together,” resonate well with Borgmann’s earlier warnings about electronic networks.

The SNS phenomenon continues to be ambiguous with respect to confirming Borgmann and Dreyfus’ early predictions. One of their most unfounded worries was that online social media would lead to a culture in which personal beliefs and actions are stripped of enduring consequence, cut adrift from real-world identities as persons accountable to one another. Today, no regular user of Twitter or Reddit is cut off from “the instruction of being seen and judged” (Borgmann 1992). And contra Dreyfus, it is primarily through the power of social media that people’s identities in the real world are now exposed to greater risk than before – from doxing to loss of employment to being physically endangered by ‘swatting.’

If anything, contemporary debates about social media’s alleged propagation of a stifling ‘cancel culture,’ which bend back upon the philosophical community itself (Weinberg 2020, Other Internet Resources), reflect growing anxieties among many that social networking environments primarily lack affordances for forgiveness and mercy, not judgment and personal accountability. Yet others see the emergent phenomenon of online collective judgment as performing a vital function of moral and political levelling, one in which social media enable the natural ethical consequences of an agent’s speech and acts to at last be imposed upon the powerful, not merely the vulnerable and marginalized.

2.3.2. The Civic Harms of Social Hyperreality

One aspect of Borgmann’s (1992) account has recently rebounded in plausibility; namely, his prediction of a dire decline in civic virtues among those fully submerged in the distorted political reality created by the disembodied and disorienting ‘hyperintelligence’ of online social media. In the wake of the 2016 UK and US voter manipulation by foreign armies of social media bots, sock puppets, and astroturf accounts, the world has seen a rapid global expansion and acceleration of political disinformation and conspiracy theories through online social networks like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp.

The profound harms of the ‘weaponization’ of social media disinformation go well beyond voter manipulation. In 2020, disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic greatly impeded public health authorities by clouding the public’s perception of the severity and transmissibility of the virus as well as the utility of prophylactics such as mask-wearing. Meanwhile, the increasing global influence of ever-mutating conspiracy theories borne on social media platforms by the anonymous group QAnon suggests that Borgmann’s warning of the dangers of our rising culture of ‘hyperreality,’ long derided as technophobic ‘moral panic,’ was dismissed far too hastily. While the notorious ‘Pizzagate’ episode of 2016 (Miller 2021) was the first visible link between QAnon conspiracies and real-world violence, the alarming uptake in 2020 of QAnon conspiracies by violent right-wing militias in the United States led Facebook and Twitter to abandon their prior tolerance of the movement and ban or limit access to hundreds of thousands of QAnon-associated accounts.

Such moves came too late to stabilize the epistemic and political rift in a shared reality. By late 2020, QAnon had boosted a widely successful effort by supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump to create a (manifestly false) counter-narrative around the 2020 election purporting that he had actually won, leading to a failed insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Borgmann’s warnings on ‘hyperreality’ seem less like moral panic and more like prescience when one considers the existence of a wide swath of American voters who remain convinced that Donald Trump remains legitimately in office, directing actions against his enemies. Such counter-narratives are not merely ‘underground’ belief systems; they compete directly with reality itself. On June 17, 2021, the mainstream national newspaper USA Today found it necessary to publish a piece titled “Fact Check: Hilary Clinton was not hanged at Guantanamo Bay” (Wagner 2021) in response to a video being widely shared on the social media platforms TikTok and Instagram, which describes in fine detail the (very much alive) Clinton’s last meal.

Borgmann’s long-neglected work on social hyperreality thus merits reevaluation in light of the growing fractures and incoherencies that now splinter and twist our digitally mediated experience of what remains, underneath it all, a common world. The COVID-19 pandemic and increasingly catastrophic impacts of climate change testify to humanity’s vital need to remain anchored in and intelligently responsive to a shared physical reality.

Yet both the spread of social media-driven disinformation and the rise of online moral policing reveal an unresolved philosophical tension that Borgmann’s own work did not explicitly confront. This is the Concept of Toleration and its Paradoxes , which continue to bedevil modern political thought. Social networking services have transformed this festering concern of political philosophy into something verging on an existential crisis. When malice and madness can be amplified on a global scale at lightspeed, in a manner affordable and accessible to anyone with a smartphone or wifi connection, what is too injurious and too irremediable, to be said, or shared (Marin 2021)?

Social media continue to drive a range of new philosophical investigations in the domains of social epistemology and ethics, including ‘vice epistemology’ (Kidd, Battaly, Cassam 2020). Such investigations raise urgent questions about the relationship between online disinformation/misinformation, individual moral and epistemic responsibility, and the responsibility of social media platforms themselves. On this point, Regina Rini (2017) has argued that the problem of online disinformation/misinformation is not properly conceived in terms of individual epistemic vice, but rather must be seen as a “tragedy of the epistemic commons” that will require institutional and structural solutions.

3. Contemporary Ethical Concerns about Social Networking Services

While early SNS scholarship in the social and natural sciences tended to focus on SNS impact on users’ psychosocial markers of happiness, well-being, psychosocial adjustment, social capital, or feelings of life satisfaction, philosophical concerns about social networking and ethics have generally centered on topics less amenable to empirical measurement (e.g., privacy, identity, friendship, the good life and democratic freedom). More so than ‘social capital’ or feelings of ‘life satisfaction,’ these topics are closely tied to traditional concerns of ethical theory (e.g., virtues, rights, duties, motivations and consequences). These topics are also tightly linked to the novel features and distinctive functionalities of SNS, more so than some other issues of interest in computer and information ethics that relate to more general Internet functionalities (for example, issues of copyright and intellectual property).

Despite the methodological challenges of applying philosophical theory to rapidly shifting empirical patterns of SNS influence, philosophical explorations of the ethics of SNS have continued in recent years to move away from Borgmann and Dreyfus’ transcendental-existential concerns about the Internet, to the empirically-driven space of applied technology ethics. Research in this space explores three interlinked and loosely overlapping kinds of ethical phenomena:

  • direct ethical impacts of social networking activity itself (just or unjust, harmful or beneficial) on participants as well as third parties and institutions;
  • indirect ethical impacts on society of social networking activity, caused by the aggregate behavior of users, platform providers and/or their agents in complex interactions between these and other social actors and forces;
  • structural impacts of SNS on the ethical shape of society, especially those driven by the dominant surveillant and extractivist value orientations that sustain social networking platforms and culture.

Most research in the field, however, remains topic- and domain-driven—exploring a given potential harm or domain-specific ethical dilemma that arises from direct, indirect, or structural effects of SNS, or more often, in combination. Sections 3.1–3.5 outline the most widely discussed of contemporary SNS’ ethical challenges.

Fundamental practices of concern for direct ethical impacts on privacy include: the transfer of users’ data to third parties for intrusive purposes, especially marketing, data mining, and surveillance; the use of SNS data to train facial-recognition systems or other algorithmic tools that identify, track and profile people without their free consent; the ability of third-party applications to collect and publish user data without their permission or awareness; the dominant reliance by SNS on opaque or inadequate privacy settings; the use of ‘cookies’ to track online user activities after they have left a SNS; the abuse of social networking tools or data for stalking or harassment; widespread scraping of social media data by academic researchers for a variety of unconsented purposes; undisclosed sharing of user information or patterns of activity with government entities; and, last but not least, the tendency of SNS to foster imprudent, ill-informed or unethical information sharing practices by users, either with respect to their own personal data or data related to other persons and entities. Facebook has been a particular lightning-rod for criticism of its privacy practices (Spinello 2011, Vaidhyanathan 2018), but it is just the most visible member of a far broader and more complex network of SNS actors with access to unprecedented quantities of sensitive personal data.

Indirectly, the incentives of social media environments create particular problems with respect to privacy norms. For example, since it is the ability to access information freely shared by others that makes SNS uniquely attractive and useful, and since platforms are generally designed to reward disclosure, it turns out that contrary to traditional views of information privacy, giving users greater control over their information-sharing practices can actually lead to decreased privacy for themselves and others in their network. Indeed, advertisers, insurance companies and employers are increasingly less interested in knowing the private facts of individual users’ lives, and more interested in using their data to train algorithms that can predict the behavior of people very much like that user. Thus the real privacy risk of our social media practices is often not to ourselves but to other people; if a person is comfortable with the personal risk of their data sharing habits, it does not follow that these habits are ethically benign. Moreover, users are still caught in the tension between their personal motivations for using SNS and the profit-driven motivations of the corporations that possess their data (Baym 2011, Vaidhyanathan 2018). Jared Lanier frames the point cynically when he states that: “The only hope for social networking sites from a business point of view is for a magic formula to appear in which some method of violating privacy and dignity becomes acceptable” (Lanier 2010).

Scholars also note the way in which SNS architectures are often structurally insensitive to the granularity of human sociality (Hull, Lipford & Latulipe 2011). That is, such architectures tend to treat human relations as if they are all of a kind, ignoring the profound differences among types of social relation (familial, professional, collegial, commercial, civic, etc.). As a consequence, the privacy controls of such architectures often flatten the variability of privacy norms within different but overlapping social spheres. Among philosophical accounts of privacy, Nissenbaum’s (2010) view of contextual integrity has seemed to many to be particularly well suited to explaining the diversity and complexity of privacy expectations generated by new social media (see for example Grodzinsky and Tavani 2010; Capurro 2011). Contextual integrity demands that our information practices respect context-sensitive privacy norms, where ‘context’ refers not to the overly coarse distinction between ‘private’ and ‘public,’ but to a far richer array of social settings characterized by distinctive roles, norms and values. For example, the same piece of information made ‘public’ in the context of a status update to family and friends on Facebook may nevertheless be considered by the same discloser to be ‘private’ in other contexts; that is, she may not expect that same information to be provided to strangers Googling her name, or to bank employees examining her credit history.

On the design side, such complexity means that attempts to produce more ‘user-friendly’ privacy controls face an uphill challenge—they must balance the need for simplicity and ease of use with the need to better represent the rich and complex structures of our social universes. A key design question, then, is how SNS privacy interfaces can be made more accessible and more socially intuitive for users.

Hull et al. (2011) also take note of the apparent plasticity of user attitudes about privacy in SNS contexts, as evidenced by the pattern of widespread outrage over changed or newly disclosed privacy practices of SNS providers being followed by a period of accommodation to and acceptance of the new practices (Boyd and Hargittai 2010). In their 2018 book Re-Engineering Humanity , Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger argue that SNS contribute to a slippery slope of “techno-social engineering creep” that produces a gradual normalization of increasingly pervasive and intrusive digital surveillance. A related concern is the “privacy paradox,” in which users’ voluntary sharing of data online belies their own stated values concerning privacy. However, recent data from Apple’s introduction in iOS 14.5 of opt-in for ad tracking, which the vast majority of iOS users have declined to allow, suggests that most people continue to value and act to protect their privacy, when given a straightforward choice that does not inhibit their access to services (Axon 2021). Working from the late writings of Foucault, Hull (2015) has explored the way in which the ‘self-management’ model of online privacy protection embodied in standard ‘notice and consent’ practices only reinforces a narrow neoliberal conception of privacy, and of ourselves, as commodities for sale and exchange. The debate continues about whether privacy violations can be usefully addressed by users making wiser privacy-preserving choices (Véliz 2021), or whether the responsibilization of individuals only obscures the urgent need for radical structural reforms of SNS business models (Vaidhyanathan 2018).

In an early study of online communities, Bakardjieva and Feenberg (2000) suggested that the rise of communities predicated on the open exchange of information may in fact require us to relocate our focus in information ethics from privacy concerns to concerns about alienation ; that is, the exploitation of information for purposes not intended by the relevant community. Such considerations give rise to the possibility of users deploying “guerrilla tactics” of misinformation, for example, by providing SNS hosts with false names, addresses, birthdates, hometowns or employment information. Such tactics would aim to subvert the emergence of a new “digital totalitarianism” that uses the power of information rather than physical force as a political control (Capurro 2011).

Finally, privacy issues with SNS highlight a broader philosophical and structural problem involving the intercultural dimensions of information ethics and the challenges for ethical pluralism in global digital spaces (Ess 2021). Pak Hang Wong (2013) has argued for the need for privacy norms to be contextualized in ways that do not impose a culturally hegemonic Western understanding of why privacy matters; for example, in the Confucian context, it is familial privacy rather than individual privacy that is of greatest moral concern. Rafael Capurro (2005) has also noted the way in which narrowly Western conceptions of privacy occlude other legitimate ethical concerns regarding new media practices. For example, he notes that in addition to Western worries about protecting the private domain from public exposure, we must also take care to protect the public sphere from the excessive intrusion of the private. Though he illustrates the point with a comment about intrusive uses of cell phones in public spaces (2005, 47), the rise of mobile social networking has amplified this concern by several factors. When one must compete with Facebook or Twitter for the attention of not only one’s dinner companions and family members, but also one’s fellow drivers, pedestrians, students, moviegoers, patients and audience members, the integrity of the public sphere comes to look as fragile as that of the private.

Social networking technologies open up a new type of ethical space in which personal identities and communities, both ‘real’ and virtual, are constructed, presented, negotiated, managed and performed. Accordingly, philosophers have analyzed SNS both in terms of their uses as Foucaultian “technologies of the self” (Bakardjieva and Gaden 2012) that facilitate the construction and performance of personal identity, and in terms of the distinctive kinds of communal norms and moral practices generated by SNS (Parsell 2008).

The ethical and metaphysical issues generated by the formation of virtual identities and communities have attracted much philosophical interest (see Introna 2011 and Rodogno 2012). Yet as noted by Patrick Stokes (2012), unlike earlier forms of online community in which anonymity and the construction of alter-egos were typical, SNS such as Facebook increasingly anchor member identities and connections to real, embodied selves and offline ‘real-world’ networks. Yet SNS still enable users to directly manage their self-presentation and their social networks in ways that offline social spaces at home, school or work often do not permit. The result, then, is an identity grounded in the person’s material reality and embodiment but more explicitly “reflective and aspirational” (Stokes 2012, 365) in its presentation, a phenomenon encapsulated in social media platforms such as Instagram. This raises a number of ethical questions: first, from what source of normative guidance or value does the aspirational content of an SNS user’s identity primarily derive? Do identity performances on SNS generally represent the same aspirations and reflect the same value profiles as users’ offline identity performances? Do they display any notable differences from the aspirational identities of non-SNS users? Are the values and aspirations made explicit in SNS contexts more or less heteronomous in origin than those expressed in non-SNS contexts? Do the more explicitly aspirational identity performances on SNS encourage users to take steps to actually embody those aspirations offline, or do they tend to weaken the motivation to do so?

A further SNS phenomenon of relevance here is the persistence and communal memorialization of Facebook profiles after the user’s death; not only does this reinvigorate a number of classical ethical questions about our ethical duties to honor and remember the dead, it also renews questions about whether our moral identities can persist after our embodied identities expire, and whether the dead have ongoing interests in their social presence or reputation (Stokes 2012).

Mitch Parsell (2008) raised early concerns about the unique temptations of ‘narrowcast’ social networking communities that are “composed of those just like yourself, whatever your opinion, personality or prejudices.” (41) Such worries about ‘echo chambers’ and ‘filter bubbles’ have only become more acute as political polarization continues to dominate online culture. Among the structural affordances of SNS is a tendency to constrict our identities to a closed set of communal norms that perpetuate increased polarization, prejudice and insularity. Parsells admitted that in theory the many-to-many or one-to-many relations enabled by SNS allow for exposure to a greater variety of opinions and attitudes, but in practice they often have the opposite effect. Building from de Laat (2006), who suggests that members of virtual communities embrace a distinctly hyperactive style of communication to compensate for diminished informational cues, Parsell claimed that in the absence of the full range of personal identifiers evident through face-to-face contact, SNS may also indirectly promote the deindividuation of personal identity by exaggerating and reinforcing the significance of singular shared traits (liberal, conservative, gay, Catholic, etc.) that lead us to see ourselves and our SNS contacts more as representatives of a group than as unique persons (2008, 46).

Parsell also noted the existence of inherently pernicious identities and communities that may be enabled or enhanced by SNS tools—he cites the example of apotemnophiliacs, or would-be amputees, who use such resources to create mutually supportive networks in which their self-destructive desires receive validation (2008, 48). Related concerns have been raised about “Pro-ANA” sites that provide mutually supportive networks for anorexics seeking information and tools to allow them to perpetuate disordered and self-harming identities (Giles 2006; Manders-Huits 2010).

Restraint of such affordances necessarily comes at some cost to user autonomy—a value that in other circumstances is critical to respecting the ethical demands of identity, as noted by Noemi Manders-Huits (2010). Manders-Huits explores the tension between the way in which SNS treat users as profiled and forensically reidentifiable “objects of (algorithmic) computation” (2010, 52) while at the same time offering those users an attractive space for ongoing identity construction. She argues that SNS developers have a duty to protect and promote the interests of their users in autonomously constructing and managing their own moral and practical identities. This autonomy exists in some tension with widespread but still crude practices of automated SNS content moderation that seek on the one hand, to preserve a ’safe’ space for expression, yet may disproportionately suppress marginalized identities (Gillespie 2020).

The ethical concern about SNS constraints on user autonomy is also voiced by Bakardjieva and Gaden (2012) who note that whether they wish their identities to be formed and used in this manner or not, the online selves of SNS users are constituted by the categories established by SNS developers, and ranked and evaluated according to the currency which primarily drives the narrow “moral economy” of SNS communities: popularity (2012, 410). They note, however, that users are not rendered wholly powerless by this schema; users retain, and many exercise, “the liberty to make informed choices and negotiate the terms of their self-constitution and interaction with others,” (2012, 411) whether by employing means to resist the “commercial imperatives” of SNS sites (ibid.) or by deliberately restricting the scope and extent of their personal SNS practices.

SNS can also enable authenticity in important ways. While a ‘Timeline’ feature that displays my entire online personal history for all my friends to see can prompt me to ‘edit’ my past, it can also prompt me to face up to and assimilate into my self-conception thoughts and actions that might otherwise be conveniently forgotten. The messy collision of my family, friends and coworkers on Facebook can be managed with various tools offered by the site, allowing me to direct posts only to specific sub-networks that I define. But the far simpler and less time-consuming strategy is to come to terms with the collision—allowing each network member to get a glimpse of who I am to others, while at the same time asking myself whether these expanded presentations project a person that is more multidimensional and interesting, or one that is manifestly insincere. As Tamara Wandel and Anthony Beavers put it:

I am thus no longer radically free to engage in creating a completely fictive self, I must become someone real, not who I really am pregiven from the start, but who I am allowed to be and what I am able to negotiate in the careful dynamic between who I want to be and who my friends from these multiple constituencies perceive me, allow me, and need me to be. (2011, 93)

Even so, Dean Cocking (2008) has argued that many online social environments, by amplifying active aspects of self-presentation under our direct control, compromise the important function of passive modes of embodied self-presentation beyond our conscious control, such as body language, facial expression, and spontaneous displays of emotion (130). He regards these as important indicators of character that play a critical role in how others see us, and by extension, how we come to understand ourselves through others’ perceptions and reactions. If Cocking’s view is correct, then SNS that privilege text-based and asynchronous communications may hamper our ability to cultivate and express authentic identities. The subsequent rise in popularity of video and livestream SNS services such as YouTube, TikTok, Stream and Twitch might therefore be seen as enabling of greater authenticity in self-presentation. Yet in reality, the algorithmic and profit incentives of these platforms have been seen to reward distorted patterns of expression: compulsive, ‘always performing’ norms that are reported to contribute to burnout and breakdown by content creators (Parkin 2018).

Ethical preoccupations with the impact of SNS on our authentic self-constitution and representation may be assuming a false dichotomy between online and offline identities; the informational theory of personal identity offered by Luciano Floridi (2011) problematizes this distinction. Soraj Hongladarom (2011) employs such an informational metaphysic to deny that any clear boundary can be drawn between our offline selves and our selves as cultivated through SNS. Instead, our personal identities online and off are taken as externally constituted by our informational relations to other selves, events and objects.

Likewise, Charles Ess makes a link between relational models of the self found in Aristotle, Confucius and many contemporary feminist thinkers and emerging notions of the networked individual as a “smeared-out self” (2010, 111) constituted by a shifting web of embodied and informational relations. Ess points out that by undermining the atomic and dualistic model of the self upon which Western liberal democracies are founded, this new conception of the self forces us to reassess traditional philosophical approaches to ethical concerns about privacy and autonomy—and may even promote the emergence of a much-needed “global information ethics” (2010, 112). Yet he worries that our ‘smeared-out selves’ may lose coherence as the relations that constitute us are increasingly multiplied and scattered among a vast and expanding web of networked channels. Can such selves retain the capacities of critical rationality required for the exercise of liberal democracy, or will our networked selves increasingly be characterized by political and intellectual passivity, hampered in self-governance by “shorter attention spans and less capacity to engage with critical argument” (2010, 114)? Ess suggests that we hope for, and work to enable the emergence of, ‘hybrid selves’ that cultivate the individual moral and practical virtues needed to flourish within our networked and embodied relations (2010, 116).

SNS can facilitate many types of relational connections: LinkedIn encourages social relations organized around our professional lives, Twitter is useful for creating lines of communication between ordinary individuals and figures of public interest, MySpace was for a time a popular way for musicians to promote themselves and communicate with their fans, and Facebook, which began as a way to link university cohorts and now connects people across the globe, also hosts business profiles aimed at establishing links to existing and future customers. Yet the overarching relational concept in the SNS universe has been, and continues to be, the ‘friend,’ as underscored by the now-common use of this term as a verb to refer to acts of instigating or confirming relationships on SNS.

This appropriation and expansion of the concept ‘friend’ by SNS has provoked a great deal of scholarly interest from philosophers and social scientists, more so than any other ethical concern except perhaps privacy. Early concerns about SNS friendship centered on the expectation that such sites would be used primarily to build ‘virtual’ friendships between physically separated individuals lacking a ‘real-world’ or ‘face-to-face’ connection. This perception was an understandable extrapolation from earlier patterns of Internet sociality, patterns that had prompted philosophical worries about whether online friendships could ever be ‘as good as the real thing’ or were doomed to be pale substitutes for embodied ‘face to face’ connections (Cocking and Matthews 2000). This view was robustly opposed by Adam Briggle (2008), who claimed that online friendships might enjoy certain unique advantages. For example, Briggle asserted that friendships formed online might be more candid than offline ones, thanks to the sense of security provided by physical distance (2008, 75). He also noted the way in which asynchronous written communications can promote more deliberate and thoughtful exchanges (2008, 77).

These sorts of questions about how online friendships measure up to offline ones, along with questions about whether or to what extent online friendships encroach upon users’ commitments to embodied, ‘real-world’ relations with friends, family members and communities, defined the ethical problem-space of online friendship as SNS began to emerge. But it did not take long for empirical studies of actual SNS usage trends to force a profound rethinking of this problem-space. Within five years of Facebook’s launch, it was evident that a significant majority of SNS users were relying on these sites primarily to maintain and enhance relationships with those with whom they also had a strong offline connection—including close family members, high-school and college friends and co-workers (Ellison, Steinfeld and Lampe 2007; Ito et al. 2009; Smith 2011). Nor are SNS used to facilitate purely online exchanges—many SNS users today rely on the sites’ functionalities to organize everything from cocktail parties to movie nights, outings to athletic or cultural events, family reunions and community meetings. Mobile SNS applications amplify this type of functionality further, by enabling friends to locate one another in their community in real-time, enabling spontaneous meetings at restaurants, bars and shops that would otherwise happen only by coincidence.

Yet lingering ethical concerns remain about the way in which SNS can distract users from the needs of those in their immediate physical surroundings (consider the widely lamented trend of users obsessively checking their social media feeds during family dinners, business meetings, romantic dates and symphony performances). Such phenomena, which scholars like Sherry Turkle (2011, 2015) continue to worry are indicative of a growing cultural tolerance for being ‘alone together,’ bring a new complexity to earlier philosophical concerns about the emergence of a zero-sum game between offline relationships and their virtual SNS competitors. They have also prompted a shift of ethical focus away from the question of whether online relationships are “real” friendships (Cocking and Matthews 2000), to how well the real friendships we bring to SNS are being served there (Vallor 2012). The debate over the value and quality of online friendships continues (Sharp 2012; Froding and Peterson 2012; Elder 2014; Turp 2020; Kristjánsson 2021); in large part because the typical pattern of those friendships, like most social networking phenomena, continues to evolve.

Such concerns intersect with broader philosophical questions about whether and how the classical ethical ideal of ‘the good life’ can be engaged in the 21 st century. Pak-Hang Wong claims that this question requires us to broaden the standard approach to information ethics from a narrow focus on the “right/the just” (2010, 29) that defines ethical action negatively (e.g., in terms of violations of privacy, copyright, etc.) to a framework that conceives of a positive ethical trajectory for our technological choices; for example, the ethical opportunity to foster compassionate and caring communities, or to create an environmentally sustainable economic order. Edward Spence (2011) further suggests that to adequately address the significance of SNS and related information and communication technologies for the good life, we must also expand the scope of philosophical inquiry beyond its present concern with narrowly interpersonal ethics to the more universal ethical question of prudential wisdom . Do SNS and related technologies help us to cultivate the broader intellectual virtue of knowing what it is to live well, and how to best pursue it? Or do they tend to impede its development?

This concern about prudential wisdom and the good life is part of a growing philosophical interest in using the resources of classical and contemporary virtue ethics to evaluate the impact of SNS and related technologies (Vallor 2016, 2010; Wong 2012; Ess 2008). This program of research promotes inquiry into the impact of SNS not merely on the cultivation of prudential virtue, but on the development of a host of other moral and communicative virtues, such as honesty, patience, justice, loyalty, benevolence and empathy.

As is the case with privacy, identity, community and friendship on SNS, ethical debates about the impact of SNS on civil discourse, freedom and democracy in the public sphere must be seen as extensions of a broader discussion about the political implications of the Internet, one that predates Web 2.0 standards. Much of the literature on this subject focuses on the question of whether the Internet encourages or hampers the free exercise of deliberative public reason, in a manner informed by Jürgen Habermas’s (1992/1998) account of discourse ethics and deliberative democracy in the public sphere (Ess 1996 and 2005b; Dahlberg 2001; Bohman 2008). A related topic of concern is SNS fragmentation of the public sphere by encouraging the formation of ‘echo chambers’ and ‘filter bubbles’: informational silos for like-minded individuals who deliberately shield themselves from exposure to alternative views. Early worries that such insularity would promote extremism and the reinforcement of ill-founded opinions, while also preventing citizens of a democracy from recognizing their shared interests and experiences (Sunstein 2008), have unfortunately proven to be well-founded (as noted in section 2.3.2). Early optimism that SNS would facilitate popular revolutions resulting in the overthrow of authoritarian regimes (Marturano 2011; Frick and Oberprantacher 2011) have likewise given way to the darker reality that SNS are perhaps even more easily used as tools to popularize authoritarian and totalitarian movements, or foster genocidal impulses, as in the use of Facebook to drive violence against the Rohingya minority in Myanmar (BBC 2018).

When SNS in particular are considered in light of these questions, some distinctive considerations arise. First, sites like Facebook and Twitter (as opposed to narrower SNS utilities such as LinkedIn) facilitate the sharing of, and exposure to, an extremely diverse range of types of discourse. On any given day on Facebook a user may encounter in her NewsFeed a link to an article in a respected political magazine followed by a video of a cat in a silly costume, followed by a link to a new scientific study, followed by a lengthy status update someone has posted about their lunch, followed by a photo of a popular political figure overlaid with a clever and subversive caption. Vacation photos are mixed in with political rants, invitations to cultural events, birthday reminders and data-driven graphs created to undermine common political, moral or economic beliefs. Thus while a user has a tremendous amount of liberty to choose which forms of discourse to pay closer attention to, and tools with which to hide or prioritize the posts of certain members of her network, the sheer diversity of the private and public concerns of her fellows would seem to offer at least some measure of protection against the extreme insularity and fragmentation of discourse that is incompatible with the public sphere.

Yet in practice, the function of hidden platform algorithms can defeat this diversity. Trained on user behavior to optimize for engagement and other metrics that advertisers and platform companies associate with their profit, these algorithms can ensure that I experience only a pale shadow of the true diversity of my social network, seeing at the top of my feed only those posts that I am most likely to find subjectively rewarding to engage with. If, for example, I support the Black Lives Matter movement, and tend to close the app in frustration and disappointment whenever I see BLM denigrated by someone I consider a friend, the platform algorithm can easily learn this association and optimize my experience for one that is more conducive to retaining my presence. It is important to note, however, that in this case the effect is an interaction between the algorithm and my own behavior. How much responsibility for echo chambers and resulting polarization or insularity falls upon users, and how much on the designers of algorithms that track and amplify our expressed preferences?

Philosophers of technology often speak of the affordances or gradients of particular technologies in given contexts (Vallor 2010) insofar as they make certain patterns of use more attractive or convenient for users (while not rendering alternative patterns impossible). Thus while I can certainly seek out posts that will cause me discomfort or anxiety, the platform gradient will not be designed to facilitate such experiences. Yet it is not obvious if or when it should be designed to do so. As Alexis Elder notes (2020), civic discourse on social media can be furthered rather than inhibited by prudent use of tools enabling disconnection. Additionally, a platform affordance that makes a violent white supremacist feel accepted, valued, safe and respected in their social milieu (precisely for their expressed attitudes and beliefs in white supremacist violence) facilitates harm to others, in a way that a platform affordance that makes an autistic person or a transgender woman feel accepted, valued, safe and respected for who they are, does not. Fairness and equity in SNS platform design do not entail neutrality. Ethics explicitly demands non-neutrality between harm and nonharm, between justice and injustice. But ethics also requires epistemic anchoring in reality. Thus even if my own attitudes and beliefs harm no one, I may still have a normative epistemic duty to avoid the comfort of a filter bubble. Do SNS platforms have a duty to keep their algorithms from helping me into one? In truth, those whose identities are historically marginalized will rarely have the luxury of the filter bubble option; online and offline worlds consistently offer stark reminders of their marginalization. So how do SNS designers, users, and regulators mitigate the deleterious political and epistemic effects of filter bubble phenomena without making platforms more inhospitable to vulnerable groups than they already are?

One must also ask whether SNS can skirt the dangers of a plebiscite model of democratic discourse, in which minority voices are dispersed and drowned out by the many. Certainly, compared to the ‘one-to-many’ channels of communication favored by traditional media, SNS facilitate a ‘many-to-many’ model of communication that appears to lower the barriers to participation in civic discourse for everyone, including the marginalized. However, SNS lack the institutional structures necessary to ensure that minoritized voices enjoy not only free , but substantively equal access to the deliberative function of the public sphere.

We must also consider the quality of informational exchanges on SNS and the extent to which they promote a genuinely dialogical and deliberative public sphere marked by the exercise of critical rationality. SNS norms tend to privilege brevity and immediate impact over substance and depth in communication; Vallor (2012) suggests that this bodes poorly for the cultivation of those communicative virtues essential to a flourishing public sphere. This worry is only reinforced by empirical data suggesting that SNS perpetuate the ‘Spiral of Silence’ phenomenon that results in the passive suppression of divergent views on matters of important political or civic concern (Hampton et. al. 2014). In a related critique, Frick and Oberprantacher (2011) claim that the ability of SNS to facilitate public ‘sharing’ can obscure the deep ambiguity between sharing as “a promising, active participatory process” and “interpassive, disjointed acts of having trivia shared .” (2011, 22)

There remains a notable gap online between the prevalence of democratic discourse and debate—which require only the open voicing of opinions and reasons, respectively—and the relative absence of democratic deliberation , which requires the joint exercise of collective intentions, cooperation and compromise as well as a shared sense of reality on which to act. The greatest moral challenges of our time—responding to the climate change crisis, developing sustainable patterns of economic and social life, managing global threats to public health—aren’t going to be solved by ideological warfare but by deliberative, coordinated exercise of public wisdom. Today’s social media platforms are great for cultivating the former; for the latter, not so much.

Another vital issue for online democracy relates to the contentious debate emerging on social media platforms about the extent to which controversial or unpopular speech ought to be tolerated or punished by private actors, especially when the consequences manifest in traditional offline contexts and spaces such as the university. For example, the norms of academic freedom in the U.S. were greatly destabilized by the ‘Salaita Affair’ (in which a tenured job offer by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to Steven Salaita was withdrawn on the basis of his tweets criticizing Israel) and several other cases in which academics were censured or otherwise punished by their institutions as a result of their controversial social media posts (Protevi 2018). Yet how should we treat a post by a professor that expresses a desire to sleep with their students, or that expresses their doubts about the intelligence of women, or the integrity of students of a particular nationality? It remains to be seen what equilibrium can be found between moral accountability and free expression in communities increasingly mediated by SNS communications. A related debate concerns the ethical and social value of the kind of social media acts of moral policing frequently derided as insincere or performative ‘virtue signaling.’ To what extent are social media platforms a viable stage for moral performances, and are such performances merely performative? Are they inherently ‘grandstanding’ abuses of moral discourse (Tosi and Warmke 2020), or can they in fact be positive forces for social progress and reform (Levy 2020, Westra 2021)?

It also remains to be seen to what extent civic discourse and activism on SNS will continue to be manipulated or compromised by the commercial interests that currently own and manage the technical infrastructure. This concern is driven by the growing economic and political influence of companies in the technology sector, what Luciano Floridi (2015b) calls ‘grey power,’ and the potentially disenfranchising and disempowering effects of an economic model in which most users play a passive role (Floridi 2015a). Indeed, the relationship between social media users and service providers has become increasingly contentious, as users struggle to demand more privacy, better data security and more effective protections from online harassment in an economic context where they have little or no direct bargaining power (Zuboff 2019).

This imbalance was powerfully illustrated by the revelation in 2014 that Facebook researchers had quietly conducted psychological experiments on users without their knowledge, manipulating their moods by altering the balance of positive or negative items in their News Feeds (Goel 2014). The study added yet another dimension to existing concerns about the ethics and validity of social science research that relies on SNS-generated data (Buchanan and Zimmer 2012), concerns that drive an increasingly vital and contested area of research ethics (Woodfield 2018, franzke et al. 2020).

Ironically, in the power struggle between users and SNS providers, social networking platforms themselves have become the primary battlefield, where users vent their collective outrage in an attempt to force service providers into responding to their demands. The results are sometimes positive, as when Twitter users, after years of complaining, finally shamed the company in 2015 into providing better reporting tools for online harassment. Yet by its nature the process is chaotic and often controversial, as when later that year, Reddit users successfully demanded the ouster of CEO Ellen Pao, under whose leadership Reddit had banned some of its more repugnant ‘subreddit’ forums (such as “Fat People Hate”).

The only clear consensus emerging from the considerations outlined here is that if SNS are going to facilitate any enhancement of a Habermasian public sphere, or the civic virtues and praxes of reasoned discourse that any functioning public sphere must presuppose, then users will have to actively mobilize themselves to exploit such an opportunity (Frick and Oberprantacher 2011). Such mobilization may depend upon resisting the “false sense of activity and accomplishment” (Bar-Tura, 2010, 239) that may come from merely clicking ‘Like’ in response to acts of meaningful political speech, forwarding calls to sign petitions, or simply ‘following’ an outspoken social critic on Twitter whose ‘tweeted’ calls to action are drowned in a tide of corporate announcements, celebrity product endorsements and personal commentaries. Some argue that it will also require the cultivation of new norms and virtues of online civic-mindedness, without which online ‘democracies’ will continue to be subject to the self-destructive and irrational tyrannies of mob behavior (Ess 2010).

SNS are hosts for a broad spectrum of ‘cybercrimes’ and related direct harms, including but not limited to: cyberbullying/cyberharassment, cyberstalking, child exploitation, cyberextortion, cyberfraud, illegal surveillance, identity theft, intellectual property/copyright violations, cyberespionage, cybersabotage and cyberterrorism. Each of these forms of criminal or antisocial behavior has a history that well pre-dates Web 2.0 standards, and philosophers have tended to leave the specific correlations between cybercrime and SNS as an empirical matter for social scientists, law enforcement and Internet security firms to investigate. Nevertheless, cybercrime is an enduring topic of philosophical interest for the broader field of computer ethics, and the migration to and evolution of such crime on SNS platforms raises new and distinctive ethical issues.

Among those of great ethical importance is the question of how SNS providers ought to respond to government demands for user data for investigative or counterterrorism purposes. SNS providers are caught between the public interest in crime prevention and their need to preserve the trust and loyalty of their users, many of whom view governments as overreaching in their attempts to secure records of online activity. Many companies have opted to favor user security by employing end-to-end encryption of SNS exchanges, much to the chagrin of government agencies who insist upon ‘backdoor’ access to user data in the interests of public safety and national security.

A related feature of SNS abuse and cybercrime is the associated skyrocketing need for content moderation at scale by these platforms. Because automated tools for content moderation remain crude and easily gamed, social media platforms rely on large human workforces working for low wages, who must manually screen countless images of horrific violence and abuse, often suffering grave and lasting psychological harm as a result (Roberts 2019). It is unclear how such harms to the content moderating workforce can be morally justified, even if they help to prevent the spread of such harm to others. The arrangement has uncomfortable echoes of Ursula LeGuin’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas ; so should platform users be the ones walking away? Or do platforms have an ethical duty to find a morally permissible solution, even if it endangers their business model?

Another emerging ethical concern is the increasingly political character of cyberharassment and cyberstalking. In the U.S., women who spoke out about the lack of diversity in the tech and videogame industries were early targets during online controversies such as 2014’s ‘Gamergate’ (Salter 2017), during which some victims were forced to cancel speaking appearances or leave their homes due to physical threats after their addresses and other personal info were posted on social media (a practice known as ‘doxing’ or ‘doxxing’). More recently, journalists have been doxed and subjected to violent threats, sometimes following accusations that their reporting itself constituted doxing (Wilson 2018).

Doxing presents complex ethical challenges (Douglas 2016). For victims of doxing and associated cyberthreats, traditional law enforcement bodies offer scant protection, as these agencies are often ill-equipped to police the blurry boundary between online and physical harms. But moreover, it’s not always clear what distinguishes immoral doxing from justified social opprobrium. If someone records a woman spitting racial epithets in a passerby’s face, or a man denying a disabled person service in a restaurant, and the victim or an observer posts the video online in a manner that allows the perpetrator to be identified by others in their social network, is that unethical shaming or just deserts? What’s the difference between posting someone’s home address, allowing them and their family to be terrorized by a mob, and posting someone’s workplace so that their employer can consider their conduct? Cases such as these get adjudicated by ad hoc social media juries weekly. Sometimes legal consequences do follow, as in the case of the notorious Amy Cooper, who in 2020 was charged with filing a false police report after being filmed by a Black man who she falsely accused of threatening her in Central Park. Are doxing and other modes of social media shaming legitimate tools of justice? Or are they indications of the dangers of unregulated moral policing? And if the answer is ‘both,’ or ‘it depends,’ then what are the key moral distinctions that allow us to respond appropriately to this new practice?

A host of metaethical questions are raised by the rapid emergence of SNS. For example, SNS lend new data to an earlier philosophical debate (Tavani 2005; Moor 2008) about whether classical ethical traditions such as utilitarianism, Kantian ethics or virtue ethics possess sufficient resources for illuminating the implications of emerging information technology for moral values , or whether we require a new ethical framework to handle such phenomena. Charles Ess (2006, 2021) has suggested that a new, pluralistic “global information ethics” may be the appropriate context from which to view novel information technologies. Other scholars have suggested that technologies such as SNS invite renewed attention to existing ethical approaches such as pragmatism (van den Eede 2010), virtue ethics (Vallor 2016) feminist or care ethics (Hamington 2010; Puotinen 2011) that have often been neglected by applied ethicists in favor of conventional utilitarian and deontological resources.

A related metaethical project relevant to SNS is the development of an explicitly intercultural information ethics (Ess 2005a; Capurro 2008; Honglaradom and Britz 2010). SNS and other emerging information technologies do not reliably confine themselves to national or cultural boundaries, and this creates a particular challenge for applied ethicists. For example, SNS practices in different countries must be analyzed against a conceptual background that recognizes and accommodates complex differences in moral norms and practices (Capurro 2005; Hongladarom 2007, Wong 2013). SNS phenomena that one might expect to benefit from intercultural analysis include: varied cultural patterns and preference/tolerance for affective display, argument and debate, personal exposure, expressions of political, interfamilial or cultural criticism, religious expression and sharing of intellectual property. Alternatively, the very possibility of a coherent information ethics may come under challenge, for example, from a constructivist view that emerging socio-technological practices like SNS continually redefine ethical norms—such that our analyses of SNS and related technologies are not only doomed to operate from shifting ground, but from ground that is being shifted by the intended object of our ethical analysis.

Finally, there are pressing practical concerns about whether and how philosophers can actually have an impact on the ethical profile of emerging technologies such as SNS. If philosophers direct their ethical analyses only to other philosophers, then such analyses may function simply as ethical postmortems of human-technology relations, with no opportunity to actually pre-empt, reform or redirect unethical technological practices. But to whom else can, or should, these ethical concerns be directed: SNS users? Regulatory bodies and political institutions? SNS software developers? How can the theoretical content and practical import of these analyses be made accessible to these varied audiences? What motivating force are they likely to have?

These questions have become particularly acute of late with the controversy over alleged corporate capture by technology companies of the language of ethics, and associated charges of ‘ethics-washing’ (Green 2021 [Other Internet Resources], Bietti 2020). Some argue that ethics is the wrong tool to fight the harms of emerging technologies and large technology platforms (Hao 2021); yet alternative proposals to focus on justice, rights, harms, equity or the legitimate use of power unwittingly fall right back within the normative scope of ethics. Unless we resort to a cynical frame of ‘might makes right,’ there is no escaping the need to use ethics to distinguish the relationships with sociotechnical phenomena and powers that we regard as permissible, good, or right, from those that should be resisted and dismantled.

The profound urgency of this task becomes apparent once we recognize that unlike those ‘life or death’ ethical dilemmas with which many applied ethicists are understandably often preoccupied (e.g., abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment), emerging information technologies such as SNS have in a very short time worked themselves into the daily moral fabric of virtually all of our lives, transforming the social landscape and the moral habits and practices with which we navigate it. The ethical concerns illuminated here are, in a very real sense, anything but ‘academic,’ and neither philosophers nor the broader human community can afford the luxury of treating them as such.

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The Ethical Implications of Using Social Media to Engage and Retain Justice-Involved Youth in Behavioral Health Research

Christopher a. rodriguez.

1 Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Weill Institute for Neurosciences, University of California San Francisco, San Francisco, CA, USA

Lakshmi Gopalakrishnan

Margareth del cid, johanna b. folk, juliet yonek, marina tolou-shams.

Given its popularity among youth ages 13–17, social media is a promising avenue for engaging and retaining historically hard-to-reach youth in longitudinal research. Social media use in longitudinal research involving youth, however, has preceded development of best practices for ethical use. This article describes the ethical challenges and considerations of using social media to engage and retain youth within the context of a randomized controlled trial of a group-based adolescent substance use intervention. Best practices for addressing ethical challenges are also provided using the Belmont Principle as a guiding framework. As social media becomes more commonly used to engage and retain youth in clinical research studies, researchers must address emerging ethical concerns within project protocols.

Longitudinal research has been critical in advancing our understanding of developmental changes occurring during adolescence. Yet longitudinal research studies involving youth often face challenges with maintaining high retention, thereby impacting study validity ( Hansen et al., 1985 ). Retention rates in longitudinal research involving youth range from approximately 38–98% ( Teague et al., 2018 ), with rates among historically hard-to-reach subgroups including justice-involved, unhoused, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth frequently on the lower end of the range. Among justice-involved youth (i.e., youth who have contact with the juvenile justice system), out-of-home placements ( CJJR, 2015 ), transfers to/from detention facilities ( Redding, 2010 ), and restricted access to reliable communication methods, are all factors that can interfere with researchers maintaining contact with these youth, and thus affect participant retention. Low retention rates not only affect power for statistical analysis, but can greatly limit the generalizability of findings regarding the efficacy of evidence-based treatments for justice-involved youth ( Burlew et al., 2011 ).

Understanding factors that hinder or promote sustained contact between participants and researchers has contributed to improvements in the retention of other historically hard-to-reach groups in longitudinal research. Some strategies for retaining hard-to-reach youth include communicating with social networks for LGBT youth ( Liu & Mustanski, 2012 ), employing peer outreach workers to conduct motivational interviewing with youth living with HIV ( Naar-King et al., 2009 ), and engaging in multiple tracking procedures (i.e., contacting collateral contacts, searching internet databases and collecting driver’s records for address updates, mailing letters home, and conducting community visits) for youth experiencing housing instability ( Hobden et al., 2011 ). Less is known about effective strategies for retaining justice-involved youth in longitudinal clinical research ( Montanaro et al., 2015 ) and novel strategies are needed.

Given its popularity among youth ages 13 to 17 ( Anderson & Jiang, 2018 ; Madden et al., 2013 ), social media is a promising retention tool in longitudinal research ( Guillory et al., 2018 ). The use of social media in longitudinal research involving youth, however, has preceded development of best practices for ethical use. Research involving social media is, in general, lacking in discussions about ethics ( Henderson et al., 2013 ) and much of the existing literature on social media research ethics focuses on adult or researcher perspectives on how to ethically use social media for research purposes ( Golder et al., 2017 ; Samuel & Buchanan, 2020 ; Weller & Kinder-Kurlanda, 2014 ). There are unique developmental considerations for using social media as a retention tool with adolescents. Adolescence is a time of increasing autonomy, individuation, and engagement in risky behavior ( Arain et al., 2013 ; Balocchini et al., 2013 ). Social media has the potential to influence identity formation and perceptions of privacy, which are more fluid and evolving during adolescence ( James et al., 2011 ). Parental authorization or consent is still generally required for youth to participate in research in addition to their own assent ( Buchanan & Zimmer, 2021 ; Leikin, 1993 ). However, parental authorization is not required for youth 13 years and older to use social media, so conducting social media research with youth brings its own host of separate ethical issues to consider, including parental underestimation of youth social media involvement ( Blackwell et al., 2016 ), parental concerns about revealing youth identity and location to researchers online ( Spriggs, 2009 ), and youth completing online parental consent forms themselves ( Hokke et al., 2018 ). Existing research on social media with youth focuses on the ethics of using social media to analyze their posts ( Lunnay et al., 2015 ), examining their attitudes about participating in social media research ( Monks et al., 2015 ), and using social media for recruitment, intervention delivery, or health measurement ( Park & Calamaro, 2013 ). Thus, there remains a critical gap in understanding how researchers can ethically use social media as a retention strategy for youth who present with unique developmental considerations relative to adults.

In this article, the authors describe their experiences using social media to enhance retention of youth currently involved or at-risk for involvement in the juvenile justice system in the context of a randomized controlled trial (RCT) of a group-based adolescent substance use intervention. Due to difficulties contacting youth to complete post-intervention assessments (e.g., frequent changes in residential placement, displacement from communities, competing priorities, changing phone numbers, loss of phone privileges, and limited or inconsistent cellular service), using social media became essential to bolstering retention and facilitating assessment completion. Ethical considerations in using social media to improve retention of underserved youth in longitudinal research and recommendations in alignment with the principles of the Belmont Report are discussed.

Project VOICES

Project VOICES was an RCT testing the efficacy of a group-based substance use intervention for adolescent girls and young women aged 12–24 years who were either on probation or at-risk for justice involvement due to substance use. Participants ( n = 132) were recruited from public schools, community-based organizations serving justice-involved youth, and juvenile courts in northern California, and were randomized at baseline to either the VOICES intervention ( Covington, 2004 ) or an active psychoeducational comparison group matched for time and attention. Group conditions consisted of 12 1-h group sessions with pre- (baseline), mid- (1 month), and post-intervention (3, 6, and 9 months) assessments. Caregivers were also invited to complete longitudinal assessments. As part of baseline assessment procedures to obtain follow-up contact, youth were asked to provide social media account information for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The primary methods used for contacting youth were phone calls and text messages; in the event that youth could not be reached through these methods, researchers attempted contact via social media. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998 restricts children under 13 years of age from using social media, so, researchers did not collect social media information or have any social media contact with youth under 13 years of age. Although individuals enrolled in the VOICES trial ranged from 12 to 24 years of age, the discussion in this paper is limited to those aged 13 to 17 years to focus on the ethical issues as they relate to social media use among adolescents.

The Belmont Report

The Belmont Report (1978) serves as the foundation for ethical conduct in human subjects research and provides a useful framework for ethical use of social media in research with youth participants. The Belmont Report (1978) lays out three primary ethical principles: justice (i.e., equitable distribution of the benefits and burdens of research), beneficence (i.e., obligation to do no harm and maximize benefits), and respect for persons (i.e., acknowledgment of an individual’s autonomy and a need to protect those with diminished autonomy). Existing frameworks on the ethics of social media research, such as the Privacy by Design framework for online health research recruitment ( Bender et al., 2017 ), focus extensively on risk and privacy concerns as they pertain to minimizing harm and maximizing benefits, but fail to center equity or autonomy ( Moreno et al., 2013 ; Townsend & Wallace, 2016 ; Williams et al., 2017 ). Thus, the Belmont Report was selected as the framework for this discussion because ethical use of social media with youth, and in particular youth involved in or at-risk for involvement in the juvenile justice system, requires a framework that addresses not only minimizing risks and maximizing benefits, but also fair treatment for all participants and the preservation of autonomy throughout study participation. Considerations for ethical use of social media in alignment with each principle of the Belmont Report are outlined below, using experiences from Project VOICES to illustrate; specific suggestions for researchers are presented in Table 1 .

Issues to Consider and Potential Recommendations Using the Belmont Report Framework.

According to the Justice principle, no individual or group should disproportionately bear the burden or acquire the benefits of research. Researchers collected youth social media information during the informed consent/assent discussions, and requested updated information at every follow-up time point. Systematically requesting and using youth social media information to assist with retention is one way of creating an equitable opportunity for all youth to participate in the research study. Not every youth in Project VOICES provided social media account information; however, asking all youth to provide social media information at multiple time points throughout the study allowed for the same opportunity to be contacted for the group intervention sessions and survey assessments. Moreover, using social media or providing account information was not eligibility requirements for participation; youth were not pressured to provide this information, and for youth who did not provide social media information, researchers proceeded with standard contact attempts via phone calls, text messages, collaterals, and letters. Of note, social media platforms can be accessed on any electronic device (e.g., computer, tablet, mobile phone) with Wi-Fi capability and therefore served as an additional way of reaching youth with less reliable cellular service for their group sessions and follow-up assessments.

Beneficence

Researchers have an obligation to minimize risks to individuals’ privacy and safety. This can be challenging when using public platforms such as social media as terms of services (e.g., using data for research, targeted advertisements, selling and sharing information to third parties) can change frequently, be difficult to interpret, and inadvertently lead to data/privacy breaches. Unanticipated disclosures (e.g., social media platform selling data to a third party) can have cascading effects with wide-ranging implications for youth (e.g., reputation, discrimination, legal status, employment). Furthermore, connecting with youth over social media potentially gives researchers access to more information than may be necessary for the project. For example, researchers may inadvertently view content over social media that indicates youth are at-risk of harm to themselves or others, which might necessitate mandated reporting (e.g., child abuse) or follow-up (e.g., suicidal ideation). Mandated reporting may then lead to unintended negative consequences (e.g., exacerbating family tensions and mistrust toward adults, out-of-home protective care placement).

To protect the youth’s safety and stability, the following strategies were integrated into the Project VOICES protocol (see Table 1 ). When gathering youth’s social media account information, youth should type their username into the search bar of the social media platform on the researcher’s encrypted work cellphone. Researchers should refrain from clicking on the youth’s profile to respect their privacy and ensure search history has been cleared before and after the youth searches for their social media account. Staff should record the username into a secure research participant enrollment and retention tracking database. Contact with youth over social media should be limited to direct messages (i.e., avoid posting publicly on youth’s accounts and scrolling through youth’s social media posts) and focus on a clear project-related goal (e.g., scheduling follow-up assessment). Researchers should also stress they are reachable only during standard business hours (e.g., 9am to 6pm). This boundary is necessary in case the youth attempt to disclose harm to themselves or others via social media messaging at a time when no licensed clinician is available to help guide the youth to safety. Unless there is reason to suspect the youth is at-risk of harm to themselves or others, researchers must keep all information confidential. Informed consent should clearly explain how researchers will use social media to communicate with youth and describe mandated reporting requirements as they apply to online communication. Given the potential risk of data breaches associated with social media platforms, all social media-based communication were recorded into a Research Electronic Data Capture database and direct messages were cleared from the lab social media account every few weeks.

Respect for Persons

The Belmont Report outlines specific provisions to ensure participants’ autonomy in research by protecting them from coercion and undue influence. For example, youth must be given the opportunity to make informed decisions about participation and to provide assent separately and privately from parental consent. During the informed consent process, researchers should be transparent with youth and caregivers about how they gather and verify social media accounts, and how and when staff engage with them using social media (e.g., via direct messages only). This will allow youth and caregivers to make an informed decision about providing consent for contact through social media.

In Project VOICES, youth were not always willing to share their social media information when caregivers were present. During several informed consent meetings, caregivers reported their youth did not want them to see their social media profiles or know their usernames. It is developmentally appropriate for youth who are expanding their autonomy to want to keep their social media information private from their caregivers; however, depending on age and situation, data also suggest parents should be monitoring social media accounts by, for example, following their youth’s account or becoming their “friends” ( Khurana et al., 2015 ). Researchers must respect the youth’s autonomy and privacy while balancing family’s norms about their youth’s social media use. First, researchers should address caregiver norms for social media involvement (e.g., when do caregivers follow and not follow their child’s accounts, how much access caregivers have to their child’s accounts). Second, explain potential issues of youth privacy and reemphasize the researcher’s role in maintaining participants’ confidentiality. Third, with the caregiver’s approval, ask for youth’s social media accounts during the assent process, when staff have the opportunity to speak to the youth independently from their caregiver. Finally, researchers must respect that even when a youth is active on social media, they may elect not to respond to the researcher’s direct messages. For example, Instagram allows users to see when those they have previously direct messaged are active online. Researchers can recognize this without directly looking at the youth’s profile and may elect to alter the frequency of their contact attempts. In Project VOICES, when youth regularly read messages and did not reply, staff waited a few days before attempting to reach out again, or reached out through a different communication method (e.g., email, parents, backup contacts) to respect the youth’s decision of whether or not to respond on social media. Researchers should strive for an ethical balance between maintaining high retention rates and respecting the autonomy of youth, while also considering family involvement for safety and open parent-child communication.

Social media offers researchers an opportunity to overcome barriers that have previously hindered the retention of youth in longitudinal research. It is imperative researchers remain vigilant to potential threats to safety and its impact on young research participants. In sharing our recommendations, we encourage researchers to evaluate the ethical issues that may arise when using social media as a retention strategy in order to justly expand their reach with youth and other underserved, hard-to-reach populations.

Best Practices

Researchers must create guidelines in accordance with the Belmont Report for ethical use of social media with youth participants at all stages of research (e.g., pre-consent, consent, post-consent; see Table 1 ). They must also ensure all research staff are familiar with rapidly evolving functionality, terms of service, and security level of all social media platforms used to communicate with youth.

Research Agenda

Ethical use of social media to engage and retain hard-to-reach adolescents, such as justice-involved youth, requires considerably more research. Future research should explore the barriers and facilitators to youth ages 13–17 providing social media information to researchers, as well as their attitudes regarding researchers communicating with them over social media. Furthermore, since communicating with minors for research purposes requires parental authorization, researchers must investigate family norms and expectations around parental involvement in teen social media use to ethically protect research subjects while respecting family boundaries.

Educational Implications

Enrolling youth in research requires the informed assent of the youth and the informed consent of their caregiver. Researchers must therefore ensure all staff receive training on how to clearly explain to families the guidelines for social media use in the research study for communicating with the youth, as well as the confidentiality measures in place for doing so. Furthermore, there must be distinct guidelines for explaining social media use during the informed consent (with caregiver) and youth assent processes to preserve autonomy of all parties and address family norms for youth social media use. Finally, researchers should receive training on the history and current context of the juvenile justice system to ensure use of social media in research does not contribute to further exploitation or marginalization of youth and families.

Acknowledgments

The authors thank our study participants, community partners, and justice system partners.

The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This study was supported through funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) under grant numbers R01DA03523, K24DA046569, K23DA050798, and T32DA 007250, and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) under grant number T32MH018261-33. NIDA and NIMH did not have any role in study design; collection analysis, and interpretation of data, writing the report and the decision to submit the report for publication.

Author Biographies

Christopher A. Rodriguez is a Clinical Research Coordinator at the University of California, San Francisco. His main research interest involves addressing health injustices through community-based participatory research. He facilitated recruitment and retention efforts for Project VOICES and led manuscript writing. [email protected]

Lakshmi Gopalakrishnan is a Clinical Research Supervisor at the University of California, San Francisco. Her major research interests include understanding how integrated community-based interventions can promote child and adolescent mental health, improve family functioning, and reduce substance abuse. She facilitated recruitment and retention efforts for Project VOICES, co-led intervention groups, and contributed to manuscript writing. [email protected]

Margareth Del Cid is a clinical psychology postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco. Her research focuses on mitigating behavioral health disparities for underserved youth using digital health tools. She co-facilitated intervention groups for Project VOICES and contributed to manuscript development. [email protected]

Johanna B. Folk is an Assistant Professor at the University of California, San Francisco. Her research focuses on leveraging technology to improve behavioral health outcomes for justice-involved individuals. She supervised recruitment and retention for Project VOICES, facilitated intervention groups, and contributed to conceptualization, writing, and editing of the manuscript. [email protected]

Juliet Yonek is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco. Her research focuses on improving access to equitable behavioral health services for adolescents. She co-facilitated intervention groups for Project VOICES and contributed to manuscript development. [email protected]

Marina Tolou-Shams is a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco and Division Director of Infant, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. She leads the UCSF Juvenile Justice Behavioral Health lab that focuses on research to improve mental health, substance use and sexual and reproductive health outcomes for justice-involved youth. She is the Principal Investigator of the NIDA-funded Project VOICES trial that serves as the basis for this manuscript and contributed to conceptualization, writing and editing of the manuscript. [email protected]

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

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Resources on the ethics of social media research

Guidance from ukrio.

  • Video: Gathering research data online: practical and ethical considerations . Dr Claire Hewson, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at The Open University, shares insights about gathering research data online: practical and ethical considerations. Gathering research data online: practical and ethical considerations. – YouTube
  • Video: Social Media and Ethics . Dr Nicolas Gold, Associate Professor, University College London. The social media data landscape is complex, dynamic, and evolving. This means that it poses particular challenges to researchers wanting to undertake ethically defensible research. In this talk Dr Gold discusses these complexities, drawing out some key aspects that need to be addressed when considering the ethics of an intended investigation. He aimed to offer some principles and approaches for building ethical arguments in this space, drawing on foundational principles and recent research. He will also briefly highlight some key aspects in terms of specific platforms that may impact how researchers approach their investigations. Social Media and Ethics. – YouTube.  To view the slides click here . *Please note for these slides: Except where otherwise licenced as shown, all material is Copyright © Nicolas Gold 2024, unauthorised reproduction is prohibited, and the ingestion and use of this material for training any kind of AI or other algorithmic model is strictly prohibited.
  • Guidance document: Good practice in research: Internet-mediated research

From elsewhere

What is “social media data”.

Does it mean Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, blog sites, etc., i.e. a platform that needs a user name?

Social media definitions vary, but core components are user-generated content and the possibility of many-to-many communication: Julian Hopkins. How to Define Social Media – An Academic Summary . 2017 http://julianhopkins.com/how-to-define-social-media-an-academic-summary/

Definitions are also described in Aichner, T., Grünfelder, M., Maurer, O., & Jegeni, D. (2021). Twenty-Five Years of Social Media: A Review of Social Media Applications and Definitions from 1994 to 2019. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking . 215-222. doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2020.0134

  • The Ethics Working Committee, from the Association of Internet Researchers, has produced three major reports to assist researchers in making ethical decisions in their research , which can be found here: https://aoir.org/ethics/
  • Using Twitter Data in Research Guidance for Researchers and Ethics Reviewers. Dr Nicolas Gold, Department of Computer Science, UCL: using-twitt-research-v1.0 (ucl.ac.uk)
  • Webinar: Research ethics issues with online data. Dr Nicolas Gold, Department of Computer Science, UCL (look at 4 minutes into the video) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QkEXtsYQuU )
  • Resource page from UKRI: https://www.ukri.org/councils/esrc/guidance-for-applicants/research-ethics-guidance/internet-mediated-research/
  • Ethics case study from British Sociological Association: https://www.britsoc.co.uk/media/24899/using-twitter-for-criminology-research.pdf
  • The British Psychological Society’s Supplementary guidance on the use of social media 2012 Ethics committee social media_Layout 1 (bps.org.uk)
  • Ethical guidance on Social media research from the University of St Andrews: Social media research – Research – University of St Andrews (st-andrews.ac.uk)
  • Guidance from the Data Culture Society entitled, Social Media Research, Ethical Guidance for Researchers Social Media Ethics Guidance for Researchers
  • Guidance on the ethical considerations in research involving social media from the University of Wolverhampton: https://www.wlv.ac.uk/media/departments/research/documents/Ethical-Considerations-in-Research-Involving-Social-Media.docx
  • Social Media Research: A Guide to Ethics. Dr Leanne Townsend and Prof. Claire Wallace. https://www.gla.ac.uk/media/Media_487729_smxx.pdf

A Social Media Ethics Framework from the Glasgow guide is shown below:

Further reading:

  • Hemphill, L., Schöpke-Gonzalez, A., & Panda, A. (2022). Comparative sensitivity of social media data and their acceptable use in research. Sci Data. 9(1):643. doi: 10.1038/s41597-022-01773-w
  • Mahoney, J., Le Louvier, K., Lawson, S., Bertel, D., & Ambrosetti, E. (2022). Ethical considerations in social media analytics in the context of migration: lessons learned from a Horizon 2020 project.   Research Ethics ,  18 (3), 226–240.  https://doi.org/10.1177/17470161221087542
  • Samuel, G., & Buchanan, E. (2020). Guest Editorial: Ethical Issues in Social Media Research. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics . 15(1-2):3-11. doi:10.1177/1556264619901215
  • Samuel, G, Derrick, G.E., & van Leeuwen, T. (2019). The Ethics Ecosystem: Personal Ethics, Network Governance and Regulating Actors Governing the Use of Social Media Research Data. Minerva . Sep;57(3):317-343. doi: 10.1007/s11024-019-09368-3
  • Takats, C., Kwan, A., Wormer, R., Goldman, D., Jones, H.E., & Romero, D. (2022). Ethical and Methodological Considerations of Twitter Data for Public Health Research: Systematic Review. J Med Internet Res . 2022 Nov 29;24(11):e40380. doi: 10.2196/40380. 

Last revised March 2024.

Please note  that this list of resources is not intended to be exhaustive and should not be seen as a substitute for advice from suitably qualified persons. UKRIO is not responsible for the content of external websites linked to from this page. If you would like to seek advice from UKRIO, information on our role and remit and on how to contact us  is available here .

UKRIO would like to thank our  Advisory Community  for their help in putting this list together.

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Home > Books > Security and Privacy From a Legal, Ethical, and Technical Perspective

Social Media, Ethics and the Privacy Paradox

Submitted: 11 September 2019 Reviewed: 19 December 2019 Published: 05 February 2020

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.90906

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Security and Privacy From a Legal, Ethical, and Technical Perspective

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Today’s information/digital age offers widespread use of social media. The use of social media is ubiquitous and cuts across all age groups, social classes and cultures. However, the increased use of these media is accompanied by privacy issues and ethical concerns. These privacy issues can have far-reaching professional, personal and security implications. Ultimate privacy in the social media domain is very difficult because these media are designed for sharing information. Participating in social media requires persons to ignore some personal, privacy constraints resulting in some vulnerability. The weak individual privacy safeguards in this space have resulted in unethical and undesirable behaviors resulting in privacy and security breaches, especially for the most vulnerable group of users. An exploratory study was conducted to examine social media usage and the implications for personal privacy. We investigated how some of the requirements for participating in social media and how unethical use of social media can impact users’ privacy. Results indicate that if users of these networks pay attention to privacy settings and the type of information shared and adhere to universal, fundamental, moral values such as mutual respect and kindness, many privacy and unethical issues can be avoided.

  • social media

Author Information

Nadine barrett-maitland *.

  • University of Technology, Jamaica, West Indies

Jenice Lynch

*Address all correspondence to: [email protected]

1. Introduction

The use of social media is growing at a rapid pace and the twenty-first century could be described as the “boom” period for social networking. According to reports provided by Smart Insights, as at February 2019 there were over 3.484 billion social media users. The Smart Insight report indicates that the number of social media users is growing by 9% annually and this trend is estimated to continue. Presently the number of social media users represents 45% of the global population [ 1 ]. The heaviest users of social media are “digital natives”; the group of persons who were born or who have grown up in the digital era and are intimate with the various technologies and systems, and the “Millennial Generation”; those who became adults at the turn of the twenty-first century. These groups of users utilize social media platforms for just about anything ranging from marketing, news acquisition, teaching, health care, civic engagement, and politicking to social engagement.

The unethical use of social media has resulted in the breach of individual privacy and impacts both physical and information security. Reports in 2019 [ 1 ], reveal that persons between the ages 8 and 11 years spend an average 13.5 hours weekly online and 18% of this age group are actively engaged on social media. Those between ages 12 and 15 spend on average 20.5 hours online and 69% of this group are active social media users. While children and teenagers represent the largest Internet user groups, for the most part they do not know how to protect their personal information on the Web and are the most vulnerable to cyber-crimes related to breaches of information privacy [ 2 , 3 ].

In today’s IT-configured society data is one of, if not the most, valuable asset for most businesses/organizations. Organizations and governments collect information via several means including invisible data gathering, marketing platforms and search engines such as Google [ 4 ]. Information can be attained from several sources, which can be fused using technology to develop complete profiles of individuals. The information on social media is very accessible and can be of great value to individuals and organizations for reasons such as marketing, etc.; hence, data is retained by most companies for future use.

Privacy or the right to enjoy freedom from unauthorized intrusion is the negative right of all human beings. Privacy is defined as the right to be left alone, to be free from secret surveillance, or unwanted disclosure of personal data or information by government, corporation, or individual ( dictionary.com ). In this chapter we will define privacy loosely, as the right to control access to personal information. Supporters of privacy posit that it is a necessity for human dignity and individuality and a key element in the quest for happiness. According to Baase [ 5 ] in the book titled “A Gift of Fire: Social, Legal and Ethical Issues for Computing and the Internet,” privacy is the ability to control information about one’ s self as well as the freedom from surveillance from being followed, tracked, watched, and being eavesdropped on. In this regard, ignoring privacy rights often leads to encroachment on natural rights.

Intrusion—this can be viewed as encroachment (physical or otherwise) on ones liberties/solitude in a highly offensive way.

Privacy facts—making public, private information about someone that is of no “legitimate concern” to anyone.

False light—making public false and “highly offensive” information about others.

Appropriation—stealing someone’s identity (name, likeness) to gain advantage without the permission of the individual.

Technology, the digital age, the Internet and social media have redefined privacy however as surveillance is no longer limited to a certain pre-defined space and location. An understanding of the problems and dangers of privacy in the digital space is therefore the first step to privacy control. While there can be clear distinctions between informational privacy and physical privacy, as pointed out earlier, intrusion can be both physical and otherwise.

This chapter will focus on informational privacy which is the ability to control access to personal information. We examine privacy issues in the social media context focusing primarily on personal information and the ability to control external influences. We suggest that breach of informational privacy can impact: solitude (the right to be left alone), intimacy (the right not to be monitored), and anonymity (the right to have no public personal identity and by extension physical privacy impacted). The right to control access to facts or personal information in our view is a natural, inalienable right and everyone should have control over who see their personal information and how it is disseminated.

“Freely given—an individual must be given a genuine choice when providing consent and it should generally be unbundled from other terms and conditions (e.g., access to a service should not be conditional upon consent being given).”

“Specific and informed—this means that data subjects should be provided with information as to the identity of the controller(s), the specific purposes, types of processing, as well as being informed of their right to withdraw consent at any time.”

“Explicit and unambiguous—the data subject must clearly express their consent (e.g., by actively ticking a box which confirms they are giving consent—pre-ticked boxes are insufficient).”

“Under 13s—children under the age of 13 cannot provide consent and it is therefore necessary to obtain consent from their parents.”

Arguments can be made that privacy is a cultural, universal necessity for harmonious relationships among human beings and creates the boundaries for engagement and disengagement. Privacy can also be viewed as instrumental good because it is a requirement for the development of certain kinds of human relationships, intimacy and trust [ 7 ]. However, achieving privacy is much more difficult in light of constant surveillance and the inability to determine the levels of interaction with various publics [ 7 ]. Some critics argue that privacy provides protection against anti-social behaviors such as trickery, disinformation and fraud, and is thought to be a universal right [ 5 ]. However, privacy can also be viewed as relative as privacy rules may differ based on several factors such as “climate, religion, technological advancement and political arrangements” [ 8 , 9 ]. The need for privacy is an objective reality though it can be viewed as “culturally rational” where the need for personal privacy is viewed as relative based on culture. One example is the push by the government, businesses and Singaporeans to make Singapore a smart nation. According to GovTech 2018 reports there is a push by the government in Singapore to harness the data “new gold” to develop systems that can make life easier for its people. The [ 10 ] report points out that Singapore is using sensors robots Smart Water Assessment Network (SWAN) to monitor water quality in its reservoirs, seeking to build smart health system and to build a smart transportation system to name a few. In this example privacy can be describe as “culturally rational” and the rules in general could differ based on technological advancement and political arrangements.

In today’s networked society it is naïve and ill-conceived to think that privacy is over-rated and there is no need to be concerned about privacy if you have done nothing wrong [ 5 ]. The effects of information flow can be complex and may not be simply about protection for people who have something to hide. Inaccurate information flow can have adverse long-term implications for individuals and companies. Consider a scenario where someone’s computer or tablet is stolen. The perpetrator uses identification information stored on the device to access their social media page which could lead to access to their contacts, friends and friends of their “friends” then participate in illegal activities and engage in anti-social activities such as hacking, spreading viruses, fraud and identity theft. The victim is now in danger of being accused of criminal intentions, or worse. These kinds of situations are possible because of technology and networked systems. Users of social media need to be aware of the risks that are associated with participation.

3. Social media

The concept of social networking pre-dates the Internet and mass communication as people are said to be social creatures who when working in groups can achieve results in a value greater than the sun of its parts [ 11 ]. The explosive growth in the use of social media over the past decade has made it one of the most popular Internet services in the world, providing new avenues to “see and be seen” [ 12 , 13 ]. The use of social media has changed the communication landscape resulting in changes in ethical norms and behavior. The unprecedented level of growth in usage has resulted in the reduction in the use of other media and changes in areas including civic and political engagement, privacy and safety [ 14 ]. Alexa, a company that keeps track of traffic on the Web, indicates that as of August, 2019 YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are among the top four (4) most visited sites with only Google, being the most popular search engine, surpassing these social media sites.

Social media sites can be described as online services that allow users to create profiles which are “public, semi-public” or both. Users may create individual profiles and/or become a part of a group of people with whom they may be acquainted offline [ 15 ]. They also provide avenues to create virtual friendships. Through these virtual friendships, people may access details about their contacts ranging from personal background information and interests to location. Social networking sites provide various tools to facilitate communication. These include chat rooms, blogs, private messages, public comments, ways of uploading content external to the site and sharing videos and photographs. Social media is therefore drastically changing the way people communicate and form relationships.

Today social media has proven to be one of the most, if not the most effective medium for the dissemination of information to various audiences. The power of this medium is phenomenal and ranges from its ability to overturn governments (e.g., Moldova), to mobilize protests, assist with getting support for humanitarian aid, organize political campaigns, organize groups to delay the passing of legislation (as in the case with the copyright bill in Canada) to making social media billionaires and millionaires [ 16 , 17 ]. The enabling nature and the structure of the media that social networking offers provide a wide range of opportunities that were nonexistent before technology. Facebook and YouTube marketers and trainers provide two examples. Today people can interact with and learn from people millions of miles away. The global reach of this medium has removed all former pre-defined boundaries including geographical, social and any other that existed previously. Technological advancements such as Web 2.0 and Web 4.0 which provide the framework for collaboration, have given new meaning to life from various perspectives: political, institutional and social.

4. Privacy and social media

Social medial and the information/digital era have “redefined” privacy. In today’s Information Technology—configured societies, where there is continuous monitoring, privacy has taken on a new meaning. Technologies such as closed-circuit cameras (CCTV) are prevalent in public spaces or in some private spaces including our work and home [ 7 , 18 ]. Personal computers and devices such as our smart phones enabled with Global Positioning System (GPS), Geo locations and Geo maps connected to these devices make privacy as we know it, a thing of the past. Recent reports indicate that some of the largest companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook as well as various government agencies are collecting information without consent and storing it in databases for future use. It is almost impossible to say privacy exists in this digital world (@nowthisnews).

The open nature of the social networking sites and the avenues they provide for sharing information in a “public or semi-public” space create privacy concerns by their very construct. Information that is inappropriate for some audiences are many times inadvertently made visible to groups other than those intended and can sometimes result in future negative outcomes. One such example is a well-known case recorded in an article entitled “The Web Means the End of Forgetting” that involved a young woman who was denied her college license because of backlash from photographs posted on social media in her private engagement.

Technology has reduced the gap between professional and personal spaces and often results in information exposure to the wrong audience [ 19 ]. The reduction in the separation of professional and personal spaces can affect image management especially in a professional setting resulting in the erosion of traditional professional image and impression management. Determining the secondary use of personal information and those who have access to this information should be the prerogative of the individual or group to whom the information belongs. However, engaging in social media activities has removed this control.

Privacy on social networking sites (SNSs) is heavily dependent on the users of these networks because sharing information is the primary way of participating in social communities. Privacy in SNSs is “multifaceted.” Users of these platforms are responsible for protecting their information from third-party data collection and managing their personal profiles. However, participants are usually more willing to give personal and more private information in SNSs than anywhere else on the Internet. This can be attributed to the feeling of community, comfort and family that these media provide for the most part. Privacy controls are not the priority of social networking site designers and only a small number of the young adolescent users change the default privacy settings of their accounts [ 20 , 21 ]. This opens the door for breaches especially among the most vulnerable user groups, namely young children, teenagers and the elderly. The nature of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter and other social media platforms cause users to re-evaluate and often change their personal privacy standards in order to participate in these social networked communities [ 13 ].

While there are tremendous benefits that can be derived from the effective use of social media there are some unavoidable risks that are involved in its use. Much attention should therefore be given to what is shared in these forums. Social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are said to be the most effective media to communicate to Generation Y’s (Gen Y’s), as teens and young adults are the largest user groups on these platforms [ 22 ]. However, according to Bolton et al. [ 22 ] Gen Y’s use of social media, if left unabated and unmonitored will have long-term implications for privacy and engagement in civic activities as this continuous use is resulting in changes in behavior and social norms as well as increased levels of cyber-crime.

Today social networks are becoming the platform of choice for hackers and other perpetrators of antisocial behavior. These media offer large volumes of data/information ranging from an individual’s date of birth, place of residence, place of work/business, to information about family and other personal activities. In many cases users unintentionally disclose information that can be both dangerous and inappropriate. Information regarding activities on social media can have far reaching negative implications for one’s future. A few examples of situations which can, and have been affected are employment, visa acquisition, and college acceptance. Indiscriminate participation has also resulted in situations such identity theft and bank fraud just to list a few. Protecting privacy in today’s networked society can be a great challenge. The digital revolution has indeed distorted our views of privacy, however, there should be clear distinctions between what should be seen by the general public and what should be limited to a selected group. One school of thought is that the only way to have privacy today is not to share information in these networked communities. However, achieving privacy and control over information flows and disclosure in networked communities is an ongoing process in an environment where contexts change quickly and are sometimes blurred. This requires intentional construction of systems that are designed to mitigate privacy issues [ 13 ].

5. Ethics and social media

Can this post be regarded as oversharing?

Has the information in this post been distorted in anyway?

What impact will this post have on others?

As previously mentioned, users within the ages 8–15 represent one of the largest social media user groups. These young persons within the 8–15 age range are still learning how to interact with the people around them and are deciding on the moral values that they will embrace. These moral values will help to dictate how they will interact with the world around them. The ethical values that guide our interactions are usually formulated from some moral principle taught to us by someone or a group of individuals including parents, guardians, religious groups, and teachers just to name a few. Many of the Gen Y’s/“Digital Babies” are “newbies” yet are required to determine for themselves the level of responsibility they will display when using the varying social media platforms. This includes considering the impact a post will have on their lives and/or the lives of other persons. They must also understand that when they join a social media network, they are joining a community in which certain behavior must be exhibited. Such responsibility requires a much greater level of maturity than can be expected from them at that age.

It is not uncommon for individuals to post even the smallest details of their lives from the moment they wake up to when they go to bed. They will openly share their location, what they eat at every meal or details about activities typically considered private and personal. They will also share likes and dislikes, thoughts and emotional states and for the most part this has become an accepted norm. Often times however, these shares do not only contain information about the person sharing but information about others as well. Many times, these details are shared on several social media platforms as individuals attempt to ensure that all persons within their social circle are kept updated on their activities. With this openness of sharing risks and challenges arise that are often not considered but can have serious impacts. The speed and scale with which social media creates information and makes it available—almost instantaneously—on a global scale, added to the fact that once something is posted there is really no way of truly removing it, should prompt individuals to think of the possible impact a post can have. Unfortunately, more often than not, posts are made without any thought of the far-reaching impact they can have on the lives of the person posting or others that may be implicated by the post.

6. Why do people share?

cause related

personal connection to content

to feel more involved in the world

to define who they are

to inform and entertain

People generally share because they believe that what they are sharing is important. It is hoped that the shared content will be deemed important to others which will ultimately result in more shares, likes and followers.

Figure 1 below sums up the findings of Berger and Milkman [ 25 ] which shows that the main reason people feel the need to share content on the varying social media platform is that the content relates to what is deemed as worthy cause. 84% of respondents highlighted this as the primary motivation for sharing. Seventy-eight percent said that they share because they feel a personal connection to the content while 69 and 68%, respectively said the content either made them feel more involved with the world or helped them to define who they were. Forty-nine percent share because of the entertainment or information value of the content. A more in depth look at each reason for sharing follows.

ethics in social media essay

Why people share source: Global Social Media Research. thesocialmediahat.com [ 26 ].

7. Content related to a cause

Social media has provided a platform for people to share their thoughts and express concerns with others for what they regard as a worthy cause. Cause related posts are dependent on the interest of the individual. Some persons might share posts related to causes and issues happening in society. In one example, the parents of a baby with an aggressive form of leukemia, who having been told that their child had only 3 months to live unless a suitable donor for a blood stem cell transplant could be found, made an appeal on social media. The appeal was quickly shared and a suitable donor was soon found. While that was for a good cause, many view social media merely as platforms for freedom of speech because anyone can post any content one creates. People think the expression of their thoughts on social media regarding any topic is permissible. The problem with this is that the content may not be accepted by law or it could violate the rights of someone thus giving rise to ethical questions.

8. Content with a personal connection

When social media users feel a personal connection to their content, they are more inclined to share the content within their social circles. This is true of information regarding family and personal activities. Content created by users also invokes a deep feeling of connection as it allows the users to tell their stories and it is natural to want the world or at least friends to know of the achievement. This natural need to share content is not new as humans have been doing this in some form or the other, starting with oral history to the media of the day; social media. Sharing the self-created content gives the user the opportunity of satisfying some fundamental needs of humans to be heard, to matter, to be understood and emancipated. The problem with this however is that in an effort to gratify the fundamental needs, borders are crossed because the content may not be sharable (can this content be shared within the share network?), it may not be share-worthy (who is the audience that would appreciate this content?) or it may be out of context (does the content fit the situation?).

9. Content that makes them feel more involved in the world

One of the driving factors that pushes users to share content is the need to feel more in tune with the world around them. This desire is many times fueled by jealousy. Many social media users are jealous when their friends’ content gets more attention than their own and so there is a lot of pressure to maintain one’s persona in social circles, even when the information is unrealistic, as long as it gets as much attention as possible. Everything has to be perfect. In the case of a photo, for example, there is lighting, camera angle and background to consider. This need for perfection puts a tremendous amount of pressure on individuals to ensure that posted content is “liked” by friends. They often give very little thought to the amount of their friend’s work that may have gone on behind the scenes to achieve that perfect social post.

Social media platforms have provided everyone with a forum to express views, but, as a whole, conversations are more polarized, tribal and hostile. With Facebook for instance, there has been a huge uptick in fake news, altered images, dangerous health claims and cures, and the proliferation of anti-science information. This is very distressing and disturbing because people are too willing to share and to believe without doing their due diligence and fact-checking first.

10. Content that defines who they are

Establishing one’s individuality in society can be challenging for some persons because not everyone wants to fit in. Some individuals will do all they can to stand out and be noticed. Social media provides the avenue for exposure and many individuals will seek to leverage the media to stand out of the crowd and not just be a fish in the school. Today many young people are currently being brought up in a culture that defines people by their presence on social media where in previous generations, persons were taught to define themselves by their career choices. These lessons would start from childhood by asking children what they wanted to be when they grew up and then rewarding them based on the answers they give [ 27 ]. In today’s digital era, however, social media postings and the number of “likes” or “dislikes” they attract, signal what is appealing to others. Therefore, post that are similar to those that receive a large number of likes but which are largely unrealistic are usually made for self-gratification.

11. Content that informs and entertains

The acquisition of knowledge and skills is a vital part of human survival and social media has made this process much easier. It is not uncommon to hear persons realizing that they need a particular knowledge set that they do not possess say “I need to lean to do this. I’ll just YouTube it.” Learning and adapting to change in as short as possible time is vital in today’s society and social media coupled with the Internet put it all at the finger tips. Entertainment has the ability to bring people together and is a good way for people to bond. It provides a diversion from the demands of life and fills leisure time with amusement. Social media is an outlet for fun, pleasurable and enjoyable activities that are so vital to human survival [ 28 ]. It is now common place to see persons watching a video, viewing images and reading text that is amusing on any of the available social media platforms. Quite often these videos, images and texts can be both informative and entertaining, but there can be problems however as at times they can cross ethical lines that can lead to conflict.

12. Ethical challenges with social media use

The use of modern-day technology has brought several benefits. Social media is no different and chief amongst its benefit is the ability to stay connected easily and quickly as well as build relationships with people with similar interests. As with all technology, there are several challenges that can make the use of social media off putting and unpleasant. Some of these challenges appear to be minor but they can have far reaching effects into the lives of the users of social media and it is therefore advised that care be taken to minimize the challenges associated with the use of social media [ 29 ].

A major challenge with the use of social media is oversharing because when persons share on social media, they tend to share as much as is possible which is often times too much [ 24 ]. When persons are out and about doing exciting things, it is natural to want to share this with the world as many users will post a few times a day when they head to lunch, visit a museum, go out to dinner or other places of interest [ 30 ]. While this all seems relatively harmless, by using location-based services which pinpoint users with surprising accuracy and in real time, users place themselves in danger of laying out a pattern of movement that can be easily traced. While this seems more like a security or privacy issue it stems from an ethical dilemma—“Am I sharing too much?” Oversharing can also lead to damage of user’s reputation especially if the intent is to leverage the platform for business [ 24 ]. Photos of drunken behavior, drug use, partying or other inappropriate content can change how you are viewed by others.

Another ethical challenge users of social media often encounter is that they have no way of authenticating content before sharing, which becomes problematic when the content paints people or establishments negatively. Often times content is shared with them by friends, family and colleagues. The unauthenticated content is then reshared without any thought but sometimes this content may have been maliciously altered so the user unknowingly participates in maligning others. Even if the content is not altered the fact that the content paints someone or something in a bad light should send off warning bells as to whether or not it is right to share the content which is the underlying principle of ethical behavior.

13. Conflicting views

Some of the challenges experienced by social media posts are a result of a lack of understanding and sometimes a lack of respect for the varying ethical and moral standpoints of the people involved. We have established that it is typical for persons to post to social media sites without any thought as to how it can affect other persons, but many times these posts are a cause of conflict because of a difference of opinion that may exist and the effect the post may have. Each individual will have his or her own ethical values and if they differ then this can result in conflict [ 31 ]. When an executive of a British company made an Instagram post with some racial connotations before boarding a plane to South Africa it started a frenzy that resulted in the executive’s immediate dismissal. Although the executive said it was a joke and there was no prejudice intended, this difference in views as to the implications of the post, resulted in an out of work executive and a company scrambling to maintain its public image.

14. Impact on personal development

In this age of sharing, many young persons spend a vast amount of time on social media checking the activities of their “friends” as well as posting on their own activities so their “friends” are aware of what they are up to. Apart from interfering with their academic progress, time spent on these posts at can have long term repercussions. An example is provided by a student of a prominent university who posted pictures of herself having a good time at parties while in school. She was denied employment because of some of her social media posts. While the ethical challenge here is the question of the employee’s right to privacy and whether the individual’s social media profile should affect their ability to fulfill their responsibilities as an employee, the impact on the individual’s long term personal growth is clear.

15. Conclusion

In today’s information age, one’s digital footprint can make or break someone; it can be the deciding factor on whether or not one achieves one’s life-long ambitions. Unethical behavior and interactions on social media can have far reaching implications both professionally and socially. Posting on the Internet means the “end of forgetting,” therefore, responsible use of this medium is critical. The unethical use of social media has implications for privacy and can result in security breaches both physically and virtually. The use of social media can also result in the loss of privacy as many users are required to provide information that they would not divulge otherwise. Social media use can reveal information that can result in privacy breaches if not managed properly by users. Therefore, educating users of the risks and dangers of the exposure of sensitive information in this space, and encouraging vigilance in the protection of individual privacy on these platforms is paramount. This could result in the reduction of unethical and irresponsible use of these media and facilitate a more secure social environment. The use of social media should be governed by moral and ethical principles that can be applied universally and result in harmonious relationships regardless of race, culture, religious persuasion and social status.

Analysis of the literature and the findings of this research suggest achieving acceptable levels of privacy is very difficult in a networked system and will require much effort on the part of individuals. The largest user groups of social media are unaware of the processes that are required to reduce the level of vulnerability of their personal data. Therefore, educating users of the risk of participating in social media is the social responsibility of these social network platforms. Adapting universally ethical behaviors can mitigate the rise in the number of privacy breaches in the social networking space. This recommendation coincides with philosopher Immanuel Kant’s assertion that, the Biblical principle which states “Do unto others as you have them do unto you” can be applied universally and should guide human interactions [ 5 ]. This principle, if adhered to by users of social media and owners of these platforms could raise the awareness of unsuspecting users, reduce unethical interactions and undesirable incidents that could negatively affect privacy, and by extension security in this domain.

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© 2020 The Author(s). Licensee IntechOpen. This chapter is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License , which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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Oxford Handbook of Digital Ethics

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Oxford Handbook of Digital Ethics

34 The Ethics of Quitting Social Media

Rob Simpson, Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, University College London

  • Published: 14 February 2022
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There are prima facie ethical reasons and prudential reasons for people to avoid or withdraw from social media platforms. But in response to pushes for people to quit social media, a number of authors have argued that there is something ethically questionable about quitting social media: that it involves—typically, if not necessarily—an objectionable expression of privilege on the part of the quitter. This chapter contextualizes privilege-based objections to quitting social media and explains the underlying principles and assumptions that feed into these objections. The chapter shows how they misrepresent the kind of act people are performing in quitting, in part by downplaying its role in promoting reforms in communication systems and technologies. And it suggests that this misrepresentation is related to a more widespread, and ultimately insidious, tendency to think of recently established technological states of affairs as permanent fixtures of our society.

Even a spate of sternly worded articles called ‘Guess What: Tech Has an Ethics Problem’ was not making tech have less of an ethics problem. Oh man. If that wasn’t doing it, what would? Patricia Lockwood (2019) , ‘The Communal Mind’

Introduction

‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.’ So said the late philosopher and critic Mark Fisher (2009 : 2), echoing remarks by Slavoj Zizek. Fisher uses the word imagine advisedly. He wasn’t saying that Armageddon is in fact more likely than the end of capitalism. He was saying that when our culture tries to imagine the near future, in speculative fiction and elsewhere, any post-capitalist society that it can envision is simultaneously a state of apocalyptic ruin. Socio-political structures whose origins are still very recent, relative to humanity’s long history, and whose radically globalized incarnations are mere hatchlings, have become, in our minds, integral pillars of human existence.

Something similar has been happening with social media. We are drifting into a mindset on which social media in something like its current form is just a fact of life, and where it is a given that social media companies will organize our relational and informational networks. Pundits say it is a waste of time trying to trigger a social media exodus to change this technological state of affairs. Instead, they say we should ‘embrace the future. At least it won’t be boring’ ( Cox 2018 ). Or they allow that a user exodus could transform the landscape, but then immediately pour cold water on that possibility. Change seems possible, ‘until you realise every single one of these users are just clueless individuals who want to post cat pictures’.

They are not, and never will be a unified mass … even a company that debatably owns the internet [Google] couldn’t pull off enough of a critical mass [with its Google+ service] to make it work … what can individual users do to compel Facebook into behaving properly? Quick answer: sweet f*** all. 1

Such thinking is new to our culture, and it probably doesn’t yet have as tight a grip on our imagination as the capitalism-or-bust mindset. But its grip seems to be tightening. Technologies and practices that bubbled up into existence less than two decades ago are being imaginatively reified as nailed-in, load-bearing structures in humanity’s housing, as opposed to movable cultural furniture. To say that it doesn’t have to be like this is, increasingly, to sound like a hopelessly naïve Luddite.

In this chapter, I examine how this idea colours debates around quitting social media. People can, and do, move away from using social media. If large numbers of people were to do this it would undermine the power of the major platforms (and the sector as a whole) and interrupt the network effects that compel reluctant users to carry on using social media. But regardless of this potential, advocates of quitting are often ethically criticized. They are told that their stance involves an objectionable expression of privilege . The people voicing this complaint generally agree that social media has genuine costs. But they worry that people in disadvantaged positions cannot afford to leave social media, on balance of considerations, and they find it problematic for others to flee the social media arena so long as this is the case.

There are major weaknesses in this kind of objection to quitting social media, although below I will highlight some grains of truth in it too. But what I am most interested in is how this critique helps to make a self-fulfilling prophesy of the idea that social media is an inescapable fact of life. Mass quitting would unravel the network effects that make it costly to avoid using social media. And that would make it easier for disadvantaged people to quit social media in turn, if they wanted to. The privilege-based objection to quitting only makes sense if one assumes from the outset that none of this is possible. The idea that social media just is an inescapable fact of life is thus functioning as a premise in arguments that rebuke and deter the very acts that could make it the case that social media isn’t an inescapable fact of life.

In what follows I survey the main reasons for quitting social media, before explaining the privilege-based objections to quitting, and then criticizing those objections, in a way that expands on the above. My analysis has broader implications for the ethics and politics of technology. Many popular technologies remain widely used, in part due to forces of convention. Roughly, people’s reasons for using a given technology, x , owe partly (sometimes predominantly) to the fact that many others are using x too. Where conventions strongly favour using technology x , there are always going to be some individuals who dislike x and who are willing to flout convention by rejecting x and absorbing the costs of that. The bigger lesson to be learned in dissecting privilege-based objections to quitting social media, is that it is wrong to automatically view this kind of preference-driven technological abstention as being inimical to a public-spirited agenda of trying to make communications technology work in the interests of people, rather than the other way around. Tech refuseniks are not necessarily being selfish, naïve, or politically obtuse. Rather, in at least some cases, they are piloting alternative ways of communicating and using technology, with the potential to ultimately benefit everyone. This is how we should think of the anti-social media vanguard, at any rate.

The case for quitting

I will use the term Quitting to mean totally refraining from posting content on social media or reacting to other people’s content with comments, likes, shares, etc. In short, you can Quit either by not having social media accounts or by leaving your accounts dormant. Quitting is, in essence, a matter of not actively participating in communication or other social interaction through social media platforms.

Of course, there are plenty of stopping places between being an intensive user of social media, on the one hand, and being a full-blown Quitter, on the other. Some people have strong ethical concerns about using social media, but also strong practical reasons to use it for specific purposes, and these people may—quite reasonably—look to limit their usage of social media, or to use alternative social media platforms that are less susceptible to ethical objections. I am focusing on Quitting because, as we will see, a number of authors have argued that Quitting involves an ethically objectionable expression of privilege. My aim is to counter those arguments.

In my definition of Quitting, I make no distinction between withdrawing from social media after using it for a time and never using it in the first place. Having said that, by Quitting I do not mean simply migrating from one social media platform to another. The privilege-based objections to Quitting that I examine in the following sections do not apply to those users who tour around different social media platforms. The choice that is (allegedly) a problematic expression of privilege is to position oneself outside of the whole communicative ecosystem of social media.

General reasons for quitting

Quitting shouldn’t be seen just as a trivial lifestyle preference. It is (at least, it can be) a weighty choice—the kind of choice that it makes sense to seriously wrestle with. To see why, we first need to recognize social media’s transformative potential, and the visionary agenda driving it. Social media has had a huge impact on how people acquire information, conduct their relationships, and manage their public lives (see e.g. van den Eijnden et al. 2016 ; Aalbers et al. 2019 ; Allcott et al. 2019 ). And industry leaders tend to champion these changes, rather than viewing them as a regrettable by-product of their business models. Consider Mark Zuckerberg’s statement to investors, in the run-up to Facebook’s stock market initial public offering (IPO) in 2012.

Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission—to make the world more open and connected … we’re inspired by technologies that have revolutionized how people spread and consume information. We often talk about inventions like the printing press and the television—by simply making communication more efficient, they led to a complete transformation of many important parts of society. 2

Companies like Facebook are partly guided by this kind of lofty techno-revolutionary agenda. They aim to ‘rewire the way people spread and consume information’, to again use words that Zuckerberg put to potential investors. Various insidious undercurrents around these agendas have become more widely recognized, for example, in Shoshana Zuboff’s (2019) analysis of tech-facilitated systems of ‘surveillance capitalism’, or in countless think-pieces which tie social media to the rise of reactionary populism. Quitting social media can be a way of resisting or opposing these agendas of social transformation. It can be a way of voting ‘no’ in our society’s ongoing de facto referendum on whether to embrace some sort of Zuckerbergian vision.

To appreciate the weightiness of Quitting, we also need to recognize the power of the behavioural technologies that Facebook and others are using in pursuit of their agenda. Jaron Lanier (2019) has coined a term to describe these technologies and the business models around them. He calls it Bummer : Behaviours of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent. Most social media platforms have a fairly simple set-up at the surface level. They provide a free, public-facing site through which users can post content and interact with other users. The companies make money through advertising and by gathering and selling data. But beneath this surface-level set-up, most social media platforms also purposefully filter the content that users are exposed to, in order to elicit greater user engagement (thus generating more data). And this filtering is potentially malign. Sites algorithmically monitor the content that elicits more user reactions—quite often, polarizing or inflammatory content—and then show users more of this material. Mark O’Connell neatly summarizes Lanier’s worries about this set-up and its commercial exploitation.

Social-media platforms know what you’re seeing, and they know how you acted in the immediate aftermath of seeing it, and they can decide what you will see next in order to further determine how you act … we, as social-media users, replicate [this] logic at the level of our own activity: we perform market analysis of our own utterances, calculating the reaction a particular post will generate and adjusting our output accordingly. Negative emotions … tend to drive significantly more engagement than positive ones. ( O’Connell 2019 )

The point of this is that compulsive behaviour and increasing acrimony is not ‘an epiphenomenon of social media, but rather the fuel on which it has been engineered to run’ ( O’Connell 2019 ; see also van den Eijnden et al. 2016 ; Alter 2018 ). Quitting social media can be a way of resisting the compulsive pull of this behavioural technology. It isn’t just a trivial lifestyle preference, then, but a choice about guarding oneself against potentially overwhelming psychological influences.

Even setting aside worries about compulsion or addiction, there are plenty of other prudential reasons for Quitting, that is, reasons that are just about the user taking care to look after their own needs and interests. There is evidence that social media makes users unhappy by spurring status anxiety and similar feelings, and that Quitting alleviates this (e.g. Tromholt 2016 ; Shakya and Christakis 2017 ; Hunt et al. 2018 ). There is evidence that social media usage increases one’s risk of falling into delusional beliefs through the effects of echo chambers and filter bubbles (for extended discussion, see Settle 2018 ). And there is a range of worries about how social media usage can compromise the user’s privacy (see ‘Overtly ethical reasons for Quitting’ below).

These are only pro tanto reasons to Quit. There are obviously some pro tanto prudential reasons running the opposite way as well. As Zeynep Tufekci (2018) says, in some regions ‘Facebook and its products simply are the internet’, and there are certain segments of public life ‘that are accessible or organized only via Facebook’. For work purposes, then, and for certain kinds of ‘life administration’, people may have strong prudential reasons to use social media. And on a more run-of-the-mill level, some people just find social media to be more convenient than any other tool for keeping in contact with people, or for engaging in various kinds of group organising, including for purposes of political activism. The difficulties of maintaining relationships via other channels are often exaggerated, but social media wouldn’t have become so widely used if it didn’t offer at least some benefits on this front.

Overtly ethical reasons for Quitting

How someone weighs up the prudential costs and benefits of using social media will depend upon their personal situation. My point in surveying the prudential reasons for Quitting is to orient our thinking as to why people Quit. Generally, people seem to Quit for sensible self-interested reasons, mixed in with a hazy anxiety about their complicity in various social problems to which social media contributes.

The key ethical question, for our purposes, is whether the Quitter, acting on the basis of these sorts of prudential reasons, is thereby abjuring some putative ethical obligation, such that their Quitting can be viewed as somehow wrongfully selfish. 3

Note that in the discussion to follow, relating to ethical arguments for and against Quitting, I will not be presupposing any particular normative theory or framework. The kinds of ethical considerations that I will be adverting to—the attainment of good or bad outcomes, worries about fairness and disadvantage—are ones whose ethical significance can in principle be accounted for within any ethical framework, including deontological, consequentialist, and virtue ethical frameworks.

Given the long rap sheet of ethical problems that have been identified in debates around social media, it may seem odd to view prudentially motivated Quitting as a selfish choice. After all, any qualms about Quitting’s selfishness are likely to be outweighed by ethical worries that favour Quitting. Or so one may think. In fact, things are a little more complicated. Existing debates on the ethics of social media are generally concerned with bad outcomes that are caused or made more likely by social media’s very existence, or by its core operational strategies, for example, the Bummer model. Therefore most of the ethical prescriptions that are offered in these debates are actionable, if at all, not by social media’s individual users, but by power players , that is, actors who can directly affect how social media companies operate, such as senior executives and officers at the companies themselves and lawmakers and regulatory agencies that impose operational constraints on these companies. Indeed, these debates normally position individual users not as perpetrators of the relevant ethical problems, but as the victims if and insofar as the power players fail to intervene.

Consider debates about privacy on social media, for example. These typically begin with observations about the unusually intrusive ways in which social media companies gather and exploit users’ data. They then raise question about what our underlying reasons are for caring about privacy and whether a right to privacy prohibits social media companies’ data-management practices ( Tucker 2014 ; Acquisti et al. 2015 ; Quinn 2016 ). But if we conclude that these practices do infringe the right to privacy, what follows, from a user’s perspective? The upshot is not an ethical injunction, but another prudential recommendation: if you care about your privacy, avoid social media or take special care to guard your privacy in how you use it. Granted, the user has ethical reasons to act prudentially, so this can also be understood as an indirect (banal) ethical injunction. But this is all secondary to what is naturally seen as the main ethical upshot of the privacy worries. And these apply to power players. If the privacy concerns are well founded, the upshot is that power players should institute reforms in social media practices in order to better protect users’ privacy. 4

The same sort of analysis applies, more or less, to all of the other major ethical issues that are canvassed in the social media ethics scholarship to date. There are discussions about whether social media undermines meaningful friendship ( Sharp 2012 ; Elder 2014 ), whether it results in problematic forms of alienation ( Wandel and Beavers 2011 , Bakardjieva and Gaden 2012 ), and whether it impairs people’s competence as democratic citizens ( Helbing et al. 2017 ). For each consideration, to the extent that the worries are well founded, the primary implication for the individual user is that they have prudential reasons to avoid social media, or to use it warily lest they incur the relevant adverse consequences. Again, as with the privacy worries, the implicit addressees of these arguments are power players: actors with the power to directly and significantly influence how social media operates, in order to mitigate its alienating, friendship-jeopardizing, or democracy-undermining effects. 5

The argument from complicity

But this brings us back to worries about complicity. Maybe individual users should Quit to avoid being complicit in the problems noted above. Matthew Liao (2018) considers whether Facebook users are complicit in Facebook’s facilitation of antidemocratic speech, for example, hate propaganda against the Rohingya in Myanmar. He recognizes that most users do not actively collude in these wrongs, but nevertheless, he says, they may still be ‘failing to participate in a collective action (that is, leaving Facebook) that would prevent the deterioration of democracy’. Ultimately, Liao thinks that in order to be complicit in these wrongs, the user has to keep using Facebook while knowing that Facebook intends to facilitate anti-democratic actions. And his take on things is that while Facebook engages in some anti-democratic practices of its own (e.g. hiring public relations firms to push news stories seeking to discredit their critics), it doesn’t intend to sponsor the more egregious anti-democratic acts that it facilitates. Thus, Liao concludes, Facebook does not cross any ‘moral red line’ which obliges users to Quit, on pain of complicity in an anti-democratic agenda.

Bracketing off Liao’s judgements about that specific issue, we can ask whether this sort of complicity-based rationale for Quitting is compelling in principle. Against this rationale, one may argue (e.g. Henry 2015 ) that social media is just a tool. The fact that a tool is used for invidious ends does not forbid us from using it for good. But this is oversimplistic. It fails to acknowledge that technologies have affordances in a given context— ‘they make certain patterns of use more attractive of convenient for users’ ( Vallor 2016 : s. 3.4)—and that they are thus susceptible to predictable forms of misuse. If social media is a perfect tool for anti-democratic propaganda, then to insist, in reply to calls for stricter regulation, that it can also be used for good, is like arguing against gun controls because M16s can be used by good guys to shoot bad guys. Moreover, the ‘social-media-is-just-a-tool’ reply ignores the way that all social media usage increases the scope of the wrongful ends to which social media can be turned. The power of the major networks derives in part from the fact that people feel they have to use them because everyone else is too. ‘Good users’ reinforce these network effects much the same as any other users ( Lanier 2019 ).

So, the ‘social-media-is-just-a-tool’ reply to the complicity argument is unpersuasive. But it helps us to see that consequences, in addition to intentions, are important for any assessment of how the individual user is implicated in bad outcomes borne of social media. If you have good reason to believe that your Facebook usage makes a real, albeit small, contribution to bad ends, you cannot nullify the ethical ramifications of that simply by arguing that neither you nor Facebook’s directors intended those ends. This is a particularly dubious instance of reasoning based on the doctrine of double effect, that is, the doctrine which says that it’s okay to do something that has a foreseeable, bad side effect, as long as you don’t consciously intend to bring about the bad side effect. We can see how dubious this reasoning is, as applied to the ‘complicity with the evils of social media’-type argument, by noting that the same reasoning could completely nullify any ethical objection to a carbon-intensive lifestyle, or to the consumption of products manufactured by indentured workers. In short, the risk of making a small contribution to seriously bad outcomes through a collective activity with many other people has some bearing on how you ought to act. Any plausible ethical theory—deontological, consequentialist, virtue ethical, or otherwise—assigns some normative weight to the consequences of people’s actions, including unintended and merely contributory consequences.

In general, then, whether an individual user has an ethical reason to Quit, in order to avoid being complicit in problematic outcomes borne of social media, will depend on the extent to which their Quitting will actually have (or can reasonably be expected to have) a tangible impact in changing those outcomes. But then this is precisely why it is difficult to formulate a strong complicity-based ethical argument for Quitting. It is difficult for any individual to say whether and how their Quitting will affect the problems that they are hoping to address, given their tiny individual influence, and given the many other unpredictable factors, including other people’s actions, which causally mediate between their actions and the problems. Quitting in order to mitigate social media’s democracy-eroding effects (for example), is rather like buying organic fruit in order to mitigate colony collapse. It may have a very small positive impact, or it may achieve literally nothing, given all the other causal factors in play. The individual may still have some pro tanto reason to act, then, but their actions are not responsible for the problem in the right way—the causal relationship between their actions and the outcome for the sake of which they are being done is too remote—for them to be under any kind of binding obligation to act.

Privilege-based objections to Quitting

Let us take stock. The idea that we are positively obliged to Quit is implausible because the major ethical problems with social media are mostly ones for power players to address, and insofar as individual users bear some responsibility for those problems, via an argument from complicity, it is hard for any user to tell whether their Quitting is likely to even infinitesimally improve things. Conscientious motives may still be in play for the individual Quitter. They may think of their Quitting as expressing opposition to the problems borne of social media, or to the questionable political agendas that social media is serving. But for most Quitters, prudential reasons for leaving social media—the aim of safeguarding one’s privacy, time, or happiness—are likely to carry more weight. This is not to deny that for many people, on balance, there are net prudential benefits in using social media. But at least for some people, these benefits will be outweighed by the countervailing costs.

The #DeleteFacebook movement that arose in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 saw large numbers of people Quitting—seemingly driven by a mix of prudential and conscientious motives, as just described—and calling for others to follow. But the movement quickly generated a raft of vigorous criticisms, whose main ethical theme was privilege. For instance, April Glaser argues that:

Deleting Facebook is a privilege. The company has become so good at the many things it does that for lots of people, leaving the service would be a self-harming act. And they deserve better from it, too. Which is why the initial answer to Facebook’s failings shouldn’t be to flee Facebook. We need to demand a better Facebook. ( Glaser 2018 )

Along similar lines, Steph Mitesser argues that:

Simply telling consumers to avoid a product demonstrates the inherent privilege required to abandon a technology. Calls to leave the Facebook don’t reckon with the thorniest ways it has entrenched itself in our lives. ( Mitesser 2018 )

This is not the first time it has been noticed that privilege can tilt people towards an anti-technology mindset. In discussing ‘digital detox retreats’ and related fads a few years earlier, Casey Cep (2014) argued that people buying these fads are expressing a bourgeois, pseudo-spiritual impulse. ‘Like Thoreau ignoring the locomotive that passed by his cabin at Walden Pond or the Anabaptists rejecting electricity’, she says, these people ‘scorn technology in the hope of finding the authenticity and the community that they think it obscures’. But the post-#DeleteFacebook objections to Quitting are more pointed. They are not just cocking an eyebrow at the hippy-ish vanity that motivates some neo-Luddites. They are criticizing the way that wider political circumstances apparently fail to register in the Quitters’ motives, and they are pointing to identity-based inequalities to explain this insensitivity, and to explain why it is ethically troubling. Jillian York is especially forthright in this regard.

A certain demographic—namely, white men—love to argue that people worried about data privacy violations should ‘just leave’ Facebook and other social networks … what these tech bros don’t offer are viable alternatives. This is fundamentally an argument made from a position of privilege. Those suggesting that we should simply walk away … fail to understand why leaving is, for many, a luxury they can’t afford … for people with marginalized identities, chronic illnesses, or families spread across the world, walking away means leaving behind a potentially vital safety net of support. ( York 2018 )

Rashad Robinson, the President of the civil rights organization Color of Change, adds an incisive twist to this analysis. He links social media privilege to broader issues of identity-based injustice, by likening Quitters to upwardly mobile residents who move from poor school districts to affluent ones, without doing anything to help those left behind. Quitting is ‘like people opting out of bad schools’, he says: ‘some people are still going to be there and can’t opt out’ ( Ingram 2018 ).

Before turning to criticism, I want to run through some points in these kinds of arguments that seem well founded. First, note that the privilege-based objections are not always condemning Quitting per se , so much as the act of advocating for Quitting while ignoring the unequal costs of Quitting for different people. For instance, Mitesser (2018) objects to those ‘telling people to stop using Facebook, while ignoring the foundational problems that led us here’. This also looks like the best way to read Glaser’s claim that the #DeleteFacebook movement insults people for whom Quitting is costly. To preach the gospel of Quitting—when it is easier for the sermonizer to Quit than the sermonizee—does seem a little insulting because it unfairly implies that the sermonizee lacks the preacher’s moral fibre.

Second, the key descriptive premise in these arguments—that Quitting is generally easier for privileged people and costlier for disadvantaged people—seems plausible. 6 Identity-based hierarchies are correlated with inequalities in social capital. Having an affluent upbringing, attending college, and being geographically mobile, all tend to result in a wider network of relationships that help in gaining employment and other competitive goods. Social media can compensate for deficits in social capital, by enabling easy access to a large (if relatively low-quality) network of connections. Members of disadvantaged groups are more likely to rely upon this compensatory source of social capital. Moreover, relatedly, sustaining a wide social network without social media is time-consuming. Inequalities in leisure time, correlated with demographic privilege, increase the relative costs of maintaining offline social networks for members of disadvantaged groups.

Third, I also want to endorse, at least for argument’s sake, the normative principle that underpins privilege-based objections to Quitting. Call this the Privilege Principle : a person who enjoys a position of unmerited privilege relative to others sometimes ought to act in ways that (a) manifest appropriate recognition of; and (b) where possible, try to compensate for, the unfairness. Consider a person, A, planning to meet a co-worker, B, who has a physical disability. Suppose A suggests meeting somewhere that is harder for physically disabled people to access. But also suppose that matters play out fortuitously for B, such that in practice he is unexpectedly benefited by meeting at this location. The Privilege Principle captures the intuition, liable to be elicited in such a case, that A’s conduct still involves an ethical failing. A has acted in a way that fails to manifest appropriate recognition of the disadvantage that B faces, compared to themselves, and neglects an opportunity to correct or compensate for the positional inequity between themselves and B. 7 This seems either wrong in itself, or vicious, or liable to result in bad consequences in the long run.

Robinson’s analogy between Quitting and opting out of bad schools draws our attention to another important aspect of the social dynamics governed by the Privilege Principle. Some privileged acts not only fail to remedy unjust inequalities, but also in fact amplify them. The upwardly mobile family which contributes to de facto segregation in the education system, by moving to live and study in an affluent community, is not just taking advantage of their privilege to confer a benefit on their children that is unavailable to many others. They are also making an incremental contribution to the concentration of wealth and resources in educationally privileged communities, thereby increasing the magnitude of the positional disadvantages experienced by families who are unable to exercise the same kind of autonomy over where they live and where their children go to school.

This brings us to a fourth point that seems compelling in the privilege-based objections to Quitting. These objections partly express a concern that Quitting detracts from the goal of creating better—less privacy-infringing, happiness-inhibiting, or democracy-undermining—communication systems. Whether this counterproductivity thesis is correct is a further question (see ‘Individual action and systemic change’ below). But the idea that we have some kind of participatory responsibility for trying to make key parts of our society better seems reasonable. Most of us are not power players who can directly act to improve society’s communication systems. But still, plausibly, we should try to be active participants in making those systems functional, fair, and respectful of their users’ rights. We should all do our bit in trying to foster communicative practices that are good for society because if we don’t, then unscrupulous corporations will construct our communication systems in ways that prioritize the interests of the few over the many. The argument can be made by analogy with other social systems. You may not control the school system, but you shouldn’t educate your children in a way that inhibits beneficial education reforms. You may not be a power player in the structures of government, but you should vote and stay informed. If you are wealthy and secure, then maybe you would be better off totally opting out of political engagement as democratic institutions are being torn down. But this seems selfish, and especially so if your retreat makes it harder to repair anything.

The charge against Quitting is that it involves something like this indulgence of privilege. Many of us would be better off not using social media—at any rate, not using the platforms that currently dominate, which infringe upon our privacy, prejudice our information sources, fuel status anxiety, and so on. But people in disadvantaged groups and social positions—relating to their economic status, geographical location, physical abilities, or field of employment—incur greater short-term costs if they Quit, for example, related to the loss of social capital. Relatively privileged people can more easily compensate for these and other proximate disadvantages borne of Quitting. But if privileged people simply retreat from social media, they fail to manifest due recognition of, or in any way compensate for, the unfairness that allows them to do so. And as Robinson’s school analogy suggests, they may increase the unfairness by nudging us towards a two-tiered communicative society, of immiserated Morlocks who cannot afford to unplug from the social media machine, and carefree Eloi who can do as they please. That is the crux of the objection.

Individual action and systemic change

The first point to make, in addressing this charge, is that Quitting doesn’t necessarily mean abjuring the responsibility I identify above, that is, to be an active participant in making our communication systems better. It is at least possible for the Quitter to promote progressive reforms in social media. The Privilege Principle doesn’t condemn the bare fact of a person being privileged. It condemns blithely enjoying the fruits of privilege without trying to improve other people’s lot. The fact that someone Quits doesn’t automatically entail that they are doing this. The more charitable way to interpret the argument, then, is that it is making a claim about typicality, rather than necessity. Typically , Quitters are not doing anything to try to improve the communication systems from which they are distancing themselves. Rather, so the charge goes, they are (typically) just furthering their own immediate interests, and consigning other social media users to their less fortunate fate.

I have already granted that most Quitters will Quit primarily for prudential reasons. But this does not mean that they should be thought of as blithely leaving others to an unhappy fate. In all sorts of contexts, people acting to benefit themselves may be simultaneously changing background conditions that adversely affect others. To take one example, consider how improving safety standards in the car industry generates prudential reasons for motorists to buy state-of-the-art vehicles with enhanced safety features. This is costly, of course, and the costs can be more easily borne by the well off. But does that make it an unethical indulgence of privilege for well-off people to buy safer cars? No, because these purchases are not condemning the less-well-off to driving unsafe vehicles forever. They are expanding the market for safer vehicles and helping to drive industry reforms that ultimately make safer vehicles more affordable for more people. The prudential choices of well-off people in this case do not worsen the position of the badly off. Rather, they contribute to a shift away from the technological conditions that make being badly off so bad.

We can observe similar dynamics in play with social media. The more people who leave social media, to protect their privacy, or to break out of echo chambers, the more we will see alternative practices and technological choices that allow us to communicate and organize our lives without generating the bad effects of the current leading social media platforms. Jaron Lanier argues that it is actually incumbent upon privileged users to Quit, then, because they can more easily bear the short-term disadvantages involved in precipitating this kind of change.

If you’re privileged enough to have the option of walking away from social media, and yet you don’t, you’re failing to use your privilege to defeat a system that traps other people who are less fortunate than you … You have even more of a responsibility to see if you can get out of it than someone who genuinely is dependent on it. ( Johnson 2018 )

Thus, he argues, privilege-based objections to Quitting have things backwards. Being a privileged individual actually gives you additional ethical reasons to Quit.

We’re wealthier than ever. We have more options. That puts a moral onus on us to make some decisions that do what little we can to help those who are less fortunate, and [leaving social media] is one of those things. ( Johnson 2018 )

The moral logic Lanier is appealing to here is in fact more persuasive in the social media case, compared to something like the automobile safety case, given how conventional forces are involved in promoting social media usage. By conventions , here, I mean regularities of conduct that people have reason to conform to primarily because others are also conforming. 8 To act against a widely followed convention can be costly. But if conformity around some once-conventional practice breaks down, then each individual’s primary reason for carrying on in the practice dissolves. And while conventions can be resilient in some cases, they can be surprisingly fragile in others. Sometimes, a small number of conspicuous non-conformists are enough to unravel a convention ( Bicchieri 2017 ).

To see how this applies to our context, consider that many of the major downsides of Quitting that crop up in debates on this issue—for example, missing out on information about social events or not having a searchable web presence—are only disadvantageous if a majority of other people are taking advantage of the putative benefit that the Quitter is forgoing. If social media use were much less commonplace, then the default expectation that any person will have an easily searchable web presence will dissolve, and so too will most of the putative disadvantages of not having an easily searchable web presence. Similarly, if social media use were much less common, people would be less likely to think that posting information about an event on Facebook was enough to inform most people about it. This would lead people to advertise events via other means, and therefore one’s not being on social media would be less likely to result in one missing out on such information.

Given the role that forces of convention play in social media networks, it is wrongheaded to complain, as several authors do, that those who endorse Quitting are treating essentially political problems as individualistic ethical quandaries. Mitesser (2018) objects to the way that pro-Quitting movements ‘emphasize personal choice and discipline as solutions to systemic problems caused by the profit motivations of large corporations’. She suggests that this framing is adopted because a structural perspective on social problems is harder to grasp. Glaser (2018) expresses similar worries about framing the problems of social media as if the whole thing is ‘an issue of individual consumer choice’. So far as they want communication systems to improve, Quitters think the issue is essentially about users making bad choices. ‘But it’s really a problem in search of a solution either from Facebook itself—changing its service so that its users really can feel safe—or from the government, which may need to step in and blow the whistle on Facebook’s entire business model’ ( Glaser 2018 ).

These are false dichotomies. 9 Individual and collective ways of addressing social problems are not essentially opposed, especially when the problems are borne of practices that are partly conventional. Consider the way that individual consumer activism dovetails with collective action in relation to renewable energies. Some of the impetus driving growth in renewable energies has come from individual consumers demanding, and thus incentivizing the provision of, renewable options from home electricity providers. The shift towards renewables would obviously be going slower if this were the only mechanism driving change. Collective political action, via parliamentary democratic processes and various kinds of group campaigning, has been a powerful driver of change. But individualized drivers of change have helped as well. Individuals who install solar panels on their house and pay a premium for renewably sourced energy are not undermining collective political action. They are creating parallel streams in a tide of social change. The same is true with Quitting social media. Each individual that Quits weakens the conventional forces that compel others to continue using social media. It seems worse than futile for someone to stay on social media because of worries about ‘individualizing’ structural problems. This actor is worsening their own lot, and helping sustain social media’s hold on others, while awaiting a top-down intervention to achieve the same sort of changes that they themselves could, by acting now, be helping to precipitate.

What about the worry that Quitting is one of those ‘acts of privilege’ that not only fails to remedy inequality, but in fact amplifies it? Consider again Rashad Robinson’s suggestion that Quitters are like affluent people who opt out of disadvantaged public schools. Part of what is occurring in the education arms-race scenario is that the advantage acquired by the affluent family is ipso facto a positional disadvantage for those unable to move. The public school quitter is not just enjoying the fruits of privilege while failing to help others. They are contributing to a concentration of resources in privileged pockets of the education system, and thereby entrenching divides in that system that stand in the way of a fair, across-the-board realization of our educational aims. One way to understand the wrong is in terms of something like a Kantian formula of a universal law. The public school quitter cannot universalize the maxim they are acting on because what they are trying to do—give their children a better-than-average education—is of its essence something that isn’t universally willable. But Quitting is unlike this. Quitters are not chasing an advantage whose attainment necessitates a positional disadvantage for others. What they are doing is more aptly likened to norm entrepreneurship: absorbing some short-term costs in order to try to upend harmful conventional practices. Quitters are seeking to withdraw from a system that is harmful, and whose pro tanto upsides are reliant upon a convention-driven expectation of universal participation. In this, the Quitters are acting on a maxim that is fairly straightforwardly universalizable.

Why, then, have so many progressive critics reached for a tenuous interpretation of the social significance of Quitting, which casts it in such a negative light, and downplays its positive potential? As I suggested above, I think this has happened in part because critics have prematurely concluded that social media is irreversibly a permanent fixture in our society, and therefore that leading-edge Quitters will simply be unable to precipitate a shift in the communications landscape. They have assumed that social media in something much like its current form is already a fact of life, and that Quitting will thus always be prohibitively costly for most people. At least some of the critical responses to Quitting come right out and say this.

Perhaps you joined the #DeleteFacebook movement to deal a blow to multibillionaire Mark Zuckerberg’s sprawling enterprise. You might have hoped that by joining a collective crusade you’d be partially responsible for slaying the beast, and making the world a fairer place. It’s a nice idea, but it’s unrealistic. Facebook has over two billion users, and even if a throng of disgruntled westerners appalled by the prospect of their data being shared decides to sulkily throw in the towel, that won’t offset the daily wave of new subscribers, particularly stemming from parts of Asia and Africa. ( Cox 2018 ) 10

As I suggested in opening, we should try to retrieve our sense of the contingency of social media’s present-day position and influence. Today’s leading social media sites are enjoying a longer ascendance than the online platforms that they succeeded, and as Cox rightly observes, they are working hard to cement their place in the global communications terrain. But the future—technologically, socio-politically, and culturally—is uncertain. For one thing, telecommunications technology has developed rapidly in recent years. As it becomes possible for tech hardware to be more biologically integrated into our bodies, this is likely to have an impact on people’s choices and preferences around telecommunication software platforms. And whether this will reinforce the pre-eminence of leading social media services, or instead trigger a migration to other services, or perhaps even a wider backlash against the escalating system of hyper-connectedness, is, at this point, anyone’s guess.

This uncertainty should make us averse to confident claims about the permanence of the status quo. If we can predict anything about how the world will appear to our descendants, it is that it will not look the same to them as it looks to us now. In the years ahead, new communicative technologies have as much potential to supersede today’s leading technologies as those technologies themselves had before they started making landline telephones and fax machines obsolete. Of course, it is possible that today’s tech giants will manage to ‘lock in’ their position in the telecommunications landscape. But any such stasis seems unlikely, so long as we are viewing things from a moderately sceptical, historically minded vantage point.

Conclusion: the machine stops

The arguments I have been considering are all premised on a negative view of social media. Those who make privileged-based objections to Quitting tend to agree with Quitters that what Facebook and others are doing and facilitating is, on balance, bad for users and for society. The dispute is about how we assess avoidance and retreat as responses to this. I have argued that Quitting should not be seen as a way of consigning people for whom it is costly to Quit to an unhappy fate. Instead, it can be understood as a way of increasing the likelihood of structural change in a system that has costs for most of us, however privileged. We are not obliged to Quit, but we should be doing our part—whether we are working inside or outside of the social media ecosystem—to try to make our communications technology and practices better in the future. Quitting can be a way to push in this direction, and while the impact of any individual’s Quitting is tiny, it is, by the same token, commensurate with each individual’s rightful share of control over our shared conditions. The critics who see Quitters as selfishly ducking away from a problem that calls for a collective remedy cannot make this allegation stick unless they prematurely conclude that individually precipitated change is unachievable. But we have no grounds for being doggedly sceptical about the possibility of change, or credulous about the idea that social media in its current form is here to stay, with all its problems. There is no conclusive reason to believe that change in this area is unachievable. But an ongoing widespread belief that it is unachievable will mean that it may as well be.

It is easy to deride people who reject the ascendant technologies of the day. We can psychologize their justifications and ascribe to them various kinds of dubious motives: nostalgia, pastoral romance, wishfulness, vanity. But the ones doing the deriding can be psychologized as well. E. M. Forster’s 1909 story The Machine Stops —a prescient, if ultra-pessimistic depiction of an internet-like technology—is an illuminating touchstone here. Forster envisages a dystopia in which humanity lives in a giant mechanized network of self-sufficient, single-occupancy living pods. These are wired up for instantaneous screen-and-audio communication with other pods, a function that is mostly used for discussing culture and ideas, with the occupants rarely venturing outside their pods. Eventually, the maintenance system for the entire world-machine starts to falter, and it transpires that humanity is doomed because all know-how for mending the ‘mending apparatus’ has long been lost.

Forster is a little heavy-handed in some of his remarks about the alienating nature of technology. But he succeeds in illustrating how people who become reliant upon a technology can start to begrudge any effort to get by without it. The protagonist, Vashti, has a son who sets out on dangerous and unauthorized explorations outside the machine. Vashti feels her son is being not just foolish and uppity, but somehow treacherous in his ventures. More than anything else, she resents his dogged refusal to accept the reality of the machine’s central position in human affairs, for good or ill. In Vashti, we see a portrayal of how people who have lost all perspective on the technologies that rule their lives can convince themselves that it is in fact those who are trying to regain perspective—recapturing a sense of the possibilities for acting contrary to the machine’s affordances—who are being unrealistic or naïve.

There probably is a dash of bourgeois piety in the motivational stew that is fuelling some Quitters. But there may also be a dash of piety, with a different flavour profile, in the anti-Quitters’ stew of motives too. No one is claiming that Quitting will enable us to magically wind back the clock on communications technology. The point is that we should be trying to make communication technology work in humanity’s collective interests, more than it is currently, and that withdrawing from social media is one way to spur change—at least as good a way as petitioning power players to benevolently intervene. Quitters are not ipso facto opting out of the collective task of trying to improve our communicative systems, and in their Quitting they are weakening the network effects that have enabled certain platforms to acquire a momentary stranglehold on society. There is nothing untoward about taking steps that help to ready the soil in which a new—and we may hope, less centralized, uniform, and destructive—set of communicative systems can take root.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Polly Mitchell, Carissa Véliz, and several anonymous referees for feedback and comments on earlier versions of this chapter.

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This assumes that privacy is essentially an individual good. But if privacy is in fact a public good, if we have a duty protect our privacy not just for our own sake, but for the sake of others, as Véliz (2019) argues, then the worries about privacy can be seen as being addressed not just to power players, but to individual users as well. Even so, much ethical criticism about privacy issues around social media positions the individual social media user not as the culpable perpetrator of the problem, but as the potential victim of the problem.

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Note that a number of authors who defend quitting nevertheless readily concede this premise (e.g. Helfrich 2018 ; Johnson 2018 ).

The way I have formulated the Privilege Principle incorporates two kinds of requirements. Early work on privilege, particularly McIntosh (2005) , stresses the importance of cultivating sensitivity to privilege and its concrete manifestations. More recent work on privilege (e.g. Dunham and Lawford-Smith 2017 ) puts more stress on the importance of practical action aimed at compensating for the unfair implications of privilege. Some recent work (e.g. Podosky 2021 ) suggests how these two kinds of requirements can be brought together: the active cultivation of certain patterns of awareness and thought, related to identity-based privilege, can conduce to social changes that rectify the injustices borne of privilege.

This roughly encapsulates the main distinctive feature of a convention, as per the philosophical understanding of convention that has been widely espoused since Lewis (1969) .

Notice also the false dichotomy in Vaidhyanathan’s (2018) op-ed piece on quitting: ‘Don’t Delete Facebook. Do Something About It’. This tendentiously presupposes that deleting Facebook isn’t itself a way of ‘doing something about it’.

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Véliz, Carissa (2019), ‘Privacy Is a Collective Concern’, New Statesman , 22 October, http://newstatesman.com/science-tech/privacy/2019/10/privacy-collective-concern , accessed 11 October 2021.

Wandel, Tamara , and Beavers, Anthony ( 2011 ), ‘Playing Around with Identity’, in D. E. Wittkower , ed., Facebook and Philosophy: What’s on Your Mind? (Chicago: Open Court), 89–96.

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ethics in social media essay

Ethical Storytelling on Social Media

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Are your social media stories aligned with your mission?

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Anita Varma is the assistant director of Social Sector Ethics, as well as Journalism & Media Ethics. Views are her own.

On social media, images and hashtags can spread like wildfire. Posts that go viral are usually those that prompt a visceral reaction from users who feel moved to reshare and, in the best cases, take action based on a post. The scale, reach, and free nature of social media make it lucrative for nonprofits on tight budgets to leverage it as a platform for soliciting donations and raising awareness through storytelling.

The (questionable) value of a “Like” or click

On social media, campaigns often “do well” from the perspective of metrics like click rates and “Likes” when they ignore ethical considerations altogether in favor of slogans, woeful poster children, and sensationalism. Much of the time, these campaigns only capture a tiny sliver of a nonprofit’s story.  At this point, it is worth asking: what is the value of clicks and “Likes” if it comes at the expense of faithfully representing the communities your nonprofit serves? Furthermore, if the answer is that these clicks and “Likes” are cheap, we should pause to consider the higher long-term (non-monetary) costs of alienating the communities a nonprofit has a mission to serve.

A common strategy for capturing attention and cutting through the noise is to use social media to tell personal stories about real people who have struggled and been helped by a nonprofit. Certainly, glimpses of people’s personal pain can fit neatly into a Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter post and attract attention in the form of “Likes” and reshares, but these stories also risk reinforcing stereotypes of people receiving services from the nonprofit sector with an implied takeaway that communities served are dependent and helpless.

Partnering with communities to tell their stories

The biggest question that nonprofits need to ask themselves is who is being given a voice in social media stories, and how ? Across nonprofit and for-profit media, members of marginalized communities are often talked about , not with . And when members of marginalized communities are quoted, it is frequently for an emotionally stirring story of pain that ends with improvement thanks, in part, to a nonprofit’s services. Far less frequently do they have a chance to offer their stories in their own words and on their own terms.

Nonprofit storytelling on social media takes strides in an ethical direction whenever the people represented have a chance to provide input to shape how they are represented. If someone is uncomfortable with a portrayal, it is in the nonprofit’s best interest to give them a chance to voice this discomfort, and for the nonprofit to incorporate this feedback in revisions. Otherwise, social media “success” may come at the expense of maintaining a respectful relationship with communities served – which surely flies in the face of any reputable nonprofit’s mission.

Mythbusting: Countering reductive stereotypes

One concern about involving community members in producing social media campaigns might be that it will impose on their time and become onerous. To mitigate this concern (particularly if your nonprofit is running multiple social media campaigns in tight succession), consider using social media posts for “mythbusting.” Myths about marginalized communities are easily traced in popular media, and easy to debunk based on your insight into the issue your nonprofit seeks to solve. Acknowledging the elephant in the room is a tried and true way to address it, and helps situate your nonprofit as not only serving a community but also well-versed in why there may be resistance or suspicion from others.

A final note on the history of nonprofit appeals

As a final note, these ethical considerations for social media are not unique to digital settings. On the contrary, the history of nonprofit storytelling includes decades of appeals that range from reductive to substantive. Unlike print brochures and annual reports, however, social media posts are often posted without a lengthy editing or review process, which makes it more timely but also poses risks. As nonprofits strategize their social media presence and use, we encourage incorporating time for ethical reflection to ensure that posts are aligned with advancing your mission, above all else.

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91 Media Ethics Essay Topic Ideas & Examples

🏆 best media ethics topic ideas & essay examples, 👍 good research topics about media ethics, 🎓 interesting topics to write about media ethics, ❓ media ethics questions.

  • Social Media Ethics Essay: Examples & Definition In the initial stages of social media, it was easy fro companies to brush aside the idea of social media and have nothing to do with it, hence, risk being victims of the two risks.
  • Journalism: Media Law and Ethics Exploring the dynamics of media, journalists are the link between the legal authorities and the greater society. And this is against the dynamics of journalism.
  • Ethics in Mass Media Regarding Pepsi’s Commercial The media practitioner at the center of the dilemma is the company’s public relations and marketing professionals who created and produced the commercial.
  • Media Law and Ethics: Integrity in Media Broadcasting The concept of integrity makes one earn the respect of the society, while the opposite draws insolence and ridicule from the members of the community.
  • The Ethical Implication of Social Media in Healthcare Social media may increase the profitable interaction between healthcare providers and their clients. Social media may increase the profitable interaction between healthcare providers and their clients.
  • Ethics in Mass Media: Kobe Bryant’s Sexual Assault Articles On the contrary, there is a code of journalism to tell the truth and minimize harm, which implies that the negative aspects of Kobe Bryant’s career should be addressed as the truth, and the harm […]
  • Aspects of Media Ethical Dilemmas While all three sources have a goal of informing the audience of Burrous’s passing, the extent to which they unveil the details differs depending on the context, the source’s relation to the anchor, and the […]
  • Media Law and Ethics in Kentucky University In regard to the case of H.-L.vs.the Kentucky University, one must mention that the right to publish the information related to the students and the educational institution in question aligns with the principles of freedom […]
  • Social Media Ethics and Patient Privacy Breaches Part of nurses’ ethical duty is to maintain patient privacy and confidentiality, and thus by posting protected patient information on social media, nurses act unethically and may lose patients’ trust.
  • Media Code of Ethics in New Zealand The purpose of this report is to evaluate the eight principles that are used to assess the code of conduct of corporate bodies based on the Global Business Standards Codex.
  • Media Ethics in the United Arab Emirates The authors and editors must be moral in keeping the balance of morality and ethics. The ethical theory of virtue can be applied to both the content of books and media in the UAE.
  • Media Advertising Ethics and Self-Regulation This section uses the social learning theory, in-group bias theory, and the cultivation theory as three prominent schools of thought, which describe the process of how stereotypes create imagery among people and groups.
  • Media Ethics: Fake Online News The end of the article states one simple truth and the necessity not to ignore “the elephant in the room” and not to be stupid because the Internet and truth are two incompatible concepts.
  • Ethics, Media and Criminal Justice The reporting should be handled by the media and not by the punishing governmental body due to the fact that the influence of criminal justice on the news may become a new case of bias […]
  • Ethical Concerns: Social Media and Rehabilitation Counselors Even though the counselors may use social media to interact and share ideas with their colleagues, they should avoid discussing their patients.
  • Ethical Issues Associated with Social Media Because of the nature of information and transactions that take place in social media, hackers and other criminals have identified it as a suitable avenue to perpetuate their crimes.
  • Global Media Ethics Influence The representatives of various media are supposed to follow certain ethical norms that affect the way in which they describe or discuss various individuals, social groups, and the trends that influence the life of the […]
  • Ethics in Media: Theories and Practices In journalism, a story with significance to the news organization changes the roles of the media from that of informing, educating, and entertaining to that of making people bored.
  • Societies’ Concern about Sensationalism, Media Ethics, and Practices The loss of trust in the media, the unethical broadcasts, and the ignorance that prevails in all the affected people has degraded the societal values.
  • Media Ethics: Beavis and Butthead Overall, this case raises several ethical questions that are related to the education of children as well as the role of media in the modern society.
  • Ethics and Media: Censorship in the UAE In this case, it is possible to apply the harm principle, according to which the task of the state is to minimize potential threats to the entire community.
  • Is it Ethical for Employers to Search Social Media for Information about Applicants for a Job? In the context of the codes of ethics of the ACS, using social media to acquire information about a given job applicant implies that the recruiting team would use the media to draw inferences and […]
  • Media Ethics and Law – Free Expression This paper discusses the aspects of freedom of speech and censorship in regard to media ethics and law. This is a critical provision in the context of media ethics and law.
  • Media Ethics: Towards Employing Utilitarianism and Kantian Theory in Examining Practical Ethical Issues In the claim, it is clearly evident that the author would choose the action that has a greater impact and helps more people that of continuing to film instead of lending a hand.
  • News Media and Journalists Ethical Code One of the ethical considerations is that the journalist should keep off from distortion of facts since providing inaccurate information would discredit the performance of the journalist, as well the news agency.
  • Big Business and How It Affects Media Ethics
  • The Relationships Between Entertainment Law and Media Ethics
  • The Link Between Media Ethics and Hidden Cameras
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  • Correlation Between Media Ethics and the Misrepresentation of Muslims
  • Media Ethics’ Decline and Postmodernity
  • Overview of John Penn’s Violation of Media Ethics
  • Linking Media Law and Media Ethics
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  • Postmodernity and the Decline of Media Ethics
  • Media Ethics as the Unattainable Ideal
  • Social Media Ethics for a Working Professional in the IT Sector
  • The Concept and Definition of Media Ethics
  • The Phenomenon of Ethics in the Entertainment and Media
  • Media Ethics in Professional Photojournalism
  • Communication and Media Ethics: Situation Definition and Analysis
  • Media Ethics: Sexual Gestures and Expressions
  • The Link Between Media Ethics and the Rapidly Changing Media Environment
  • Solutions on How Media Ethics Can Be Maintained
  • Media Ethics and Global Justice in the Digital Age
  • Overview and Analysis of Media Ethics in Films
  • Media Ethics: The Future of American Democracy
  • The Concept of Harm in the Context of Media Ethics
  • Parallels Between Internationally Practices Media Ethics and PEMRA
  • The Formal Theory of Media Ethics
  • Media Ethics Beyond Borders: A Global Perspective
  • The Issues in Ethics in Media and Entertainment
  • Media Ethics in a New Democracy: South African Perspective
  • Kantian Roots of a Key Element in Media Ethics Practice
  • Media Ethics: Reality or Myth?
  • Australian Perception, Media Ethics, and Law
  • Media Ethics: Current Issues and Cases
  • Overview of Media Ethics in Education
  • Media Ethics: Journalism, Controversies, Problems, Dilemmas
  • An Intellectual History of Media Ethics
  • Media Ethics: Opening Social Dialogue
  • Utilitarianism in Media Ethics and Its Discontents
  • Media Ethics: Cases and Moral Reasoning
  • Role of the Media Ethics Course in the Education of Journalists
  • What Is the Importance of Media Ethics in Today’s Digital World?
  • Is There a Formal Theory of Media Ethics?
  • Why Is Media Ethics Considered the Best Division of Applied Ethics?
  • What Is the Code of Media Ethics?
  • Is Media Ethics a Myth or Reality?
  • Why Is It Important to Have Media Ethics in News?
  • What Are the Theories of Media Ethics?
  • Does Media Also Need to Have a Code of Ethics?
  • What Is the Difference Between Media Laws and Media Ethics?
  • What Are the Current Problems in Media Ethics?
  • Is There a Relationship Between Business and Media Ethics?
  • What Is the Golden Rule in Media Ethics?
  • Does Social Media Require Ethics?
  • What Are the Levels of Media Ethics?
  • What Are the Main Principles of Social Media Ethics?
  • How Important Is Media Ethics in Mass Communication?
  • What Is Social Responsibility in Media Ethics?
  • Should Journalists Follow Media Ethics in Making Hot News?
  • What Is the Importance of Social Media Ethics in a Business?
  • How Are Ethical News Media Companies in the US?
  • Why Is Media Ethics a Required Course for All Journalism Majors?
  • What Is the Importance of Ethics in the Pakistani Media?
  • Do Media Ethics Have a Place in the Age of Social Media?
  • Why Don’t American Broadcasters Seem to Practice Media Ethics?
  • What Is the Importance of Media Ethics in Journalism Practice?
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Essay on Social Media for School Students and Children

500+ words essay on social media.

Social media is a tool that is becoming quite popular these days because of its user-friendly features. Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and more are giving people a chance to connect with each other across distances. In other words, the whole world is at our fingertips all thanks to social media. The youth is especially one of the most dominant users of social media. All this makes you wonder that something so powerful and with such a massive reach cannot be all good. Like how there are always two sides to a coin, the same goes for social media. Subsequently, different people have different opinions on this debatable topic. So, in this essay on Social Media, we will see the advantages and disadvantages of social media.

Essay on Social Media

Advantages of Social Media

When we look at the positive aspect of social media, we find numerous advantages. The most important being a great device for education . All the information one requires is just a click away. Students can educate themselves on various topics using social media.

Moreover, live lectures are now possible because of social media. You can attend a lecture happening in America while sitting in India.

Furthermore, as more and more people are distancing themselves from newspapers, they are depending on social media for news. You are always updated on the latest happenings of the world through it. A person becomes more socially aware of the issues of the world.

In addition, it strengthens bonds with your loved ones. Distance is not a barrier anymore because of social media. For instance, you can easily communicate with your friends and relatives overseas.

Most importantly, it also provides a great platform for young budding artists to showcase their talent for free. You can get great opportunities for employment through social media too.

Another advantage definitely benefits companies who wish to promote their brands. Social media has become a hub for advertising and offers you great opportunities for connecting with the customer.

Get the huge list of more than 500 Essay Topics and Ideas

Disadvantages of Social Media

Despite having such unique advantages, social media is considered to be one of the most harmful elements of society. If the use of social media is not monitored, it can lead to grave consequences.

ethics in social media essay

Thus, the sharing on social media especially by children must be monitored at all times. Next up is the addition of social media which is quite common amongst the youth.

This addiction hampers with the academic performance of a student as they waste their time on social media instead of studying. Social media also creates communal rifts. Fake news is spread with the use of it, which poisons the mind of peace-loving citizens.

In short, surely social media has both advantages and disadvantages. But, it all depends on the user at the end. The youth must particularly create a balance between their academic performances, physical activities, and social media. Excess use of anything is harmful and the same thing applies to social media. Therefore, we must strive to live a satisfying life with the right balance.

ethics in social media essay

FAQs on Social Media

Q.1 Is social media beneficial? If yes, then how?

A.1 Social media is quite beneficial. Social Media offers information, news, educational material, a platform for talented youth and brands.

Q.2 What is a disadvantage of Social Media?

A.2 Social media invades your privacy. It makes you addicted and causes health problems. It also results in cyberbullying and scams as well as communal hatred.

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Ethics of Social Media

Ethics of Social Media

Technology grows at an exponential rate and moral law cannot evolve and accommodate its pace, leaving the ethicalness of new innovations up for debate. Throughout human history, communication was vital for technological advancement to take place. In recent decades though, the trend has reversed; technological advancements now serve as a medium for human interaction. The internet has engulfed aspects of human life, such as social networking.

MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and other sites that work to serve as social networking sites are highly accessible and are used by a copious amount of people in modern society. The problem is that online social interaction is used blindly and widely without regards to ethical theories established by philosophers of the past. When applied to these theories, this new form of social networking can be determined as either ethically viable or morally unsound. Before the advent of actual social media sites, online interaction was viewed with disdain by modern philosophers.

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Philosophers such as Albert Borgmann critiqued what he called “hyperreality”, a social reality in which one can create a glorified and distorted version of him/herself. Borgmann asserts that hyperreality leaves us disappointed and defeated when we are forced to face organic reality once again. Philosopher Hubert Dreyfus joins Borgann’s criticism of online interaction and adds that communication through the internet lacks the risk of communicating in person. Without risk, Dreyfus further explains, there is no commitment within online interaction and consequently, no meaning.

Both of these criticisms attack the consequences of online interaction, claiming that in essence, social interaction via internet dilutes social bonds, challenges the premise of traditional interaction, and dehumanizes society as a whole. Borgmann and Dreyfus approach the idea of online social networking as consequentialists and claim that interacting on this new medium is morally wrong because of what the consequences harbor. By highlighting consequences, Borgmann and Dreyfus, at least with this issue, adopt a Utilitarian point of view, but do not follow through with their assessment of online socializing.

The utilitarian point of view takes in account every consequence, weighs the good against the bad using a process called hedonic calculation, and applies the final product to society. Good and bad is measured in terms of pleasure or pain; if an action causes more pleasure than pain, it is deemed morally good. If an action is predicted to bring about more pain than pleasure, then the action is unethical. The driving ideology behind Utilitarianism is to dispute the “misconception that morality has nothing to do with usefulness or utility or utility or that morality is opposed to pleasure”(Mackinnon).

This means that just because something is functional and pleasurable doesn’t mean that it is immoral. Social media is a good example of this, for it is both resourceful and enjoyable. Borgmann and Dreyfus criticize the negative potential aspects of online social interaction, but their claims have little substance. Borgmann’s assertion that “hyperreality” devalues organic reality is only hypothetical. The idea that one who participates in socializing online loses appreciation for person to person interaction cannot be viably proven and is therefore potentially fictitious.

Even if Borgmann’s theory is right, one can equally argue that the use of a “hyperreality” highlights the difference between digital communication and organic communication, leading to an ascended form of appreciation for traditional, in person interaction. Dreyfus’ criticism of the lack of risk and commitment that internet interaction allows stems from the anonymity that the internet can provide. When identity is obscured through the veil of online socialization, accountability is lost.

Users in online forums can say whatever they wish to say and they’re output is never fully attached to their identity, thus eliminating risk and commitment to opinions. That might be true in a broad sense, but social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, sites that dominate modern social culture, solve Dreyfus’ problem by attaching users’ identity to what is posted. Granted, online identities are created and are completely controlled by participating users who may be completely different in reality compared to who is presented online. In that sense, one may still hide in ambiguity when using the internet as a means for socialization.

But isn’t every identity, organic or digital, created and built? A person who creates a false persona online can just as easily adopt a fake personality in public. So how is online social interaction any less than real life socialization, in regards to faulty identity? And with accountability established with online identification through Facebook and Twitter, risk and commitment is actually increased. With organic socialization, there is always a chance of an accidental outburst that doesn’t reflect one’s true perspective and doesn’t characterize identity.

Online socializers present themselves however they wish to be perceived with greater extent than how they could do so in person. On social media sites, everything is deliberate; every post is completely controlled by the user. That means that since complete control can exist in an online realm, accountability is increased, putting Dreyfus’ concerns to rest. On the opposite side of the criticism stands the practicality and usefulness that social media can have. Socializing online is the evolved form of interacting with other humans.

These digital outlets serve the people as a means to connect with society on a scale larger than ever possible. LinkedIn expands professional personas, YouTube allows people to see what others see, Twitter spreads our words quicker and farther across our social domains, Facebook connects us with “friends” from all across the world. Each of these social media sites have their own distinct agenda, but as a whole they promote social cohesiveness, connection, that could not be otherwise achieved. But social media is not only beneficial to its participants, it offers benefits to those outside society as well.

Sites like Twitter act as a social database and can be used to measure society’s attitudes and beliefs, reactions to current events, and public opinion. These sites are also a new frontier for businesses looking to connect with their consumers, expand based on demand, and provide a product better suited for the public. Current events or broad information spreads as quickly as possible and is easily accessible. If Kant’s reasoning test was applied to social media, if everyone were to participate with good intention, everyone would benefit from the knowledge and cohesiveness and harmony would be established, information wise.

Borgmann and Dreyfus criticize potential negative consequences of social media, but do not focus on the potential and practical positive possibilities that social media carries. When both negative and positive factors are weighed against each other, it becomes evident that social media is simply part of the evolution that traditional interaction has undergone. While online socialization has not replaced traditional interaction, it has established itself as a peripheral tool in a networking society. Social media is also becoming more and more accessible as technology further advances.

Now, users do not need a computer to access online social networks, they can simply use their mobile phones. This has aroused new contemporary concerns of human detachment. People can be so wrapped up in online networking that they will ignore their immediate surroundings. While this is a viable concern, it can be solved through temperance. Aristotle’s view on virtue is based on moderation. Too much or too little of something results in vices, moderation and temperance results in virtue. Blaming social media is like blaming food if someone is obese. The food is not the problem, it is a necessity, but gluttony is.

Social media isn’t what is immoral, it is exuberance that acts as a vice. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, hesitation to socialize would be the opposing vice, meaning that those who are completely opposed to socialization, even when the tides are turning in the favor of online socialization, are just as immoral as those who are constantly absorbed by social media. There is nothing wrong with challenging the advent of online sites that promote socialization. They are new and unfamiliar, and as with all things unfamiliar, have the potential to be threatening.

Philosophers who oppose online interaction are justified in that right, but their weariness can end. When applied to ethics, when held under the light of the theories formed by history’s most renowned philosophers, social media is proven to be ethically sound. Albert Borgmann, Hubert Dreyfus, and other contemporary philosophers must acknowledge that Immanuel Kant, Utilitarian leaders like John Stuart Mill, and even Aristotle would view social media as a transcended, critical accessory to human interaction that is morally safe and sound.

Works Cited Borgmann, A. , 1984, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. MacKinnon, Barbara. Ethics, Theory And Contemporary Issues. 7th . Boston: Wadsworth Pub Co, 2012. Print. Vallor, Shannon, “Social Networking and Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed. ), forthcoming URL = <http://plato. stanford. edu/archives/win2012/entries/ethics-social-networking/>.

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  1. Ethics in Social Media

    Abstract. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media have radically changed the ways in which organizations, groups, and individuals spread, share, and discuss ideas and information. They provide platforms for expressing opinions very rapidly to a wide audience, without interference from an editor or a group of editors.

  2. Social Media Ethics Essay

    This report presents a synthetic study on ethical issues in social media. Social media is an emerging media that has revolutionized the sharing of information taking it to a different level. It is being deployed in various areas to bring unfathomable profits. One of the major areas where it has being used is in business.

  3. Morality in social media: A scoping review

    Abstract. Social media platforms have been adopted rapidly into our current culture and affect nearly all areas of our everyday lives. Their prevalence has raised questions about the influence of new communication technologies on moral reasoning, judgments, and behaviors. The present scoping review identified 80 articles providing an overview ...

  4. Ethical Dilemmas of Social Media

    Role Dilemmas address how the person in social media can have multiple roles, creating confusion about ethical responsibilities. Such dilemmas occur when it is unclear whether a person is professionally active on a social media platform, or as a friend, client, or competitor. Tempo Dilemmas occur because the exchanges in social media happen ...

  5. Social Networking and Ethics

    Social Networking and Ethics. First published Fri Aug 3, 2012; substantive revision Mon Aug 30, 2021. In the 21 st century, new media technologies for social networking such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and YouTube began to transform the social, political and informational practices of individuals and institutions across the globe, inviting ...

  6. PDF ETHICS AND SOCIAL MEDIA

    ETHICS AND SOCIAL MEDIA ethical with ISSUE: Social media, and its varying channels, is a defining element in today's culture, now intricately woven into everyday society. With billions of regular users and new programs emerging often, social media ... While creating content (e.g., blogs, white papers, case studies, etc.) and taking part in ...

  7. The Ethical Implications of Using Social Media to Engage and Retain

    Research involving social media is, in general, lacking in discussions about ethics (Henderson et al., 2013) and much of the existing literature on social media research ethics focuses on adult or researcher perspectives on how to ethically use social media for research purposes (Golder et al., 2017; Samuel & Buchanan, 2020; Weller & Kinder ...

  8. Ethical issues in research using social media

    A Social Media Ethics Framework from the Glasgow guide is shown below: Further reading: Hemphill, L., Schöpke-Gonzalez, A., & Panda, A. (2022). Comparative sensitivity of social media data and their acceptable use in research. Sci Data. 9(1):643. doi: 10.1038/s41597-022-01773-w .

  9. Social media ethics in the data economy: Issues of social

    The current study is a critical essay that addresses ethical implications for social media use for public relations that go beyond the current focus on social media ethics in our discipline, which have focused exclusively on organizational messages. ... Social Media Ethics and Standards of the Profession. Sebastião, Zulato, ...

  10. Social Media, Ethics and the Privacy Paradox

    The unethical use of social media has resulted in the breach of individual privacy and impacts both physical and information security. Reports in 2019 [ 1 ], reveal that persons between the ages 8 and 11 years spend an average 13.5 hours weekly online and 18% of this age group are actively engaged on social media.

  11. (PDF) Current Ethical Issues in Social Media

    Current Ethical Issues in Social Media. July 2022. Conference: The 2022 World Congress in Computer Science, Computer Engineering, & Applied Computing (CSCE) At: Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. Authors ...

  12. Full article: Ethical concerns about social media privacy policies: do

    Introduction. With 4.76 billion (59.4%) of the global population using social media (Petrosyan, Citation 2023) and over 46% of the world's population logging on to a Meta Footnote 1 product monthly (Meta, Citation 2022), social media is ubiquitous and habitual (Bartoli et al., Citation 2022; Geeling & Brown, Citation 2019).In 2022 alone, there were over 500 million downloads of the image ...

  13. Essay on Ethical Issues with Social Media

    1505 Words. 7 Pages. Open Document. Current Ethical Issues with Social Media. People are increasingly sharing their lives online through social networking sites with little concern for who may be viewing their information. This has become an issue in current times and is up for debate based on the ethical issues associated with Social Media.

  14. 34 The Ethics of Quitting Social Media

    Abstract. There are prima facie ethical reasons and prudential reasons for people to avoid or withdraw from social media platforms. But in response to pushes for people to quit social media, a number of authors have argued that there is something ethically questionable about quitting social media: that it involves—typically, if not ...

  15. Ethical Storytelling on Social Media

    Anita Varma is the assistant director of Social Sector Ethics, as well as Journalism & Media Ethics. Views are her own. On social media, images and hashtags can spread like wildfire. Posts that go viral are usually those that prompt a visceral reaction from users who feel moved to reshare and, in the best cases, take action based on a post.

  16. (Pdf) Digital Ethics in Utilization of Social Media by The

    This study is about digital ethics among Generation Z in the city of Surabaya, facing the era of digitalization and society 5.0 with various challenges on various social media platforms, so that ...

  17. PDF Negotiating morality and ethics: the social media user's perspective on

    Specifically, the role of social media in cultivating moral judgement among users inexorably increases questions about the context of mediation. Therefore, an analysis of how users reflect on moral reasoning would improve and shape our understanding of the conditions of ethical judgment that are mediated via social media.

  18. 91 Media Ethics Essay Topic Ideas & Examples

    The ethics of the media becomes necessary in order to address the above issues. The issue of "media ethics" seeks to promote the best standards in the industry. Exploring the dynamics of media, journalists are the link between the legal authorities and the greater society. And this is against the dynamics of journalism.

  19. THE STUDY AND IMPORTANCE OF MEDIA ETHICS

    The media et hics are. values like trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, truth and self-restraint to be practiced by. the media people voluntarily, to preserve and promot e the trust ...

  20. Essay on Social Media

    Advantages of Social Media. When we look at the positive aspect of social media, we find numerous advantages. The most important being a great device for education. All the information one requires is just a click away. Students can educate themselves on various topics using social media. Moreover, live lectures are now possible because of ...

  21. PDF Ethics in Lawyer Advertising, Websites and Social Media

    American Bar Association 35th Annual Forum on Franchising. ETHICS IN LAWYER ADVERTISING, WEBSITES AND SOCIAL MEDIA. Constantine T. Fournaris Wiggin and Dana LLP Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Kat Tidd Law Offices of Kat Tidd, P.C. Addison, Texas. October 3 - 5, 2012 Los Angeles, CA.

  22. Ethics of Social Media

    Get help on 【 Ethics of Social Media 】 on Graduateway A huge assortment of FREE essays & assignments Find an idea for your paper! Get help now. Essay Samples. Menu; Art 487 papers; American Dream 131 papers; Business 135 papers; Culture 626 papers; Economics 445 papers; Education 962 papers;