The ethics of social media

Is it time to log off?

About the author

Connie Primmer is a senior public relations professional working in the public sector. She wrote this article earlier in the year as part of a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy.

Image by Thomas Ulrich from Pixabay
Image by Thomas Ulrich from Pixabay

If anything summarises our collective naïveté when it came to social media in 2004, it’s the now infamous Mark Zuckerberg quote, featuring his scathing and impolite (to say the least) description of the first Facebook users.

Connie Primmer

He couldn’t believe so many people had willingly uploaded personal information to his website, apparently without giving it a second thought.

That was then and this is now; in 2020, we’re all familiar with the power and danger of social media. Yet we continue to use it.

All local authorities in England and Wales have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and in 2017, social media came 4th out of 21 in the 2019 CIPR State of the Profession Report as the area of practice communications professionals spent most of their time on (it has since dropped to 9th, suggesting we’ve peaked, become more efficient, or both).

Given what we now know about privacy, data, mental health and fake news, is our use of social media in the public sector sustainable, or even defensible, in 2020?

Or does the effectiveness of social media as a communications channel outweigh any potential risks?

The need for public sector communications professionals to consider this dilemma is due to our responsibility to conduct ourselves in an ethical manner, and to contribute to the corporate social responsibility of the organisations for which we work.

The International Public Relations Association recently proposed a new definition of the practice of public relations: “Public relations is a decision-making management practice tasked with building relationships and interests between organisations and their publics based on the delivery of information through trusted and ethical communication methods.”

For public sector organisations, whose responsibility to protect and serve the public is their raison d’être, the question of whether social media is a trusted and ethical communication method is particularly important.

Further to this, after more than a decade of experimentation, is social media the effective communications tool for the public sector it was once considered? At the 1st World Assembly of Public Relations in 1978, public relations was defined as “the art and social science of analysing trends, predicting their consequences, counselling organisation’s leadership, and planned programs of action which will serve both the organisation’s and the public interest.”

Few of us could have predicted the consequences of social media back in the noughties, but two decades on, we can certainly counsel our organisation’s leadership with the knowledge we’ve gained.

Let’s start with the ethical considerations. The concerns about privacy on social media channels have been growing for years, but where the issue of the day was once ‘how to set your profile to private so your employer can’t see your holiday photos’, the fears have grown into how much social media companies and their associates know about you, whether you realise it or not.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal brought the issue of data use into the mainstream, but four years on, it hasn’t caused the dent in Facebook’s influence that some hoped it would.

As the Guardian predicted in 2018, “short attention span” meant the scandal blew over and “inertia” meant people didn’t delete their accounts.

In the public sector, we serve people with a range of vulnerabilities, disadvantages and education levels. Every time we ask residents to ‘follow us on Facebook!’ – are we clear exactly what we are encouraging them to do, and can we be sure they fully understand the consequences?

Ofcom’s 2019 media survey suggests not; it found that although most internet users are aware of at least one of the ways in which their personal data might be collected online, less than four in ten are aware of all the ways they were asked about, and “there has been little change in critical awareness in the past few years”.

Social media companies have attempted to be more transparent about how they use our data, but the information is overwhelming even for digitally savvy users. If the Guardian’s social media writer admits not being “able” to leave Facebook or bothering to change her security settings, what hope is there for the average person?

Of course one of the main reasons we are using social media as a communications tool is because it’s where our audiences already are. More than 67% of the UK population has a social media profile and it’s unlikely anyone would sign up to Facebook solely in order to follow their local council or police. But by using social media networks, and encouraging people to use them to communicate with us, we have endorsed them.

The frightening power technology and social media companies have has been demonstrated by their influence on democracy; from the 2011 revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia which were partly driven by social media activity, to the 2016 US election and EU Referendum, during which, according to whistle-blowers, Facebook may have enabled active interference in the democratic process.

Attempts are now being made to regulate social media networks, with Ofcom recently announcing new powers. Given that some of these platforms are multi-billion dollar companies holding more than 15 years’ worth of data about hundreds of millions of people, this is likely to be a difficult, if not near-impossible, task.

Mark Zuckerberg’s 2018 Congress appearance demonstrated a lack of understanding of social media by people in traditional positions of power. Members of Congress asked, “Is Twitter the same as what you do?”, referred to “emailing within WhatsApp”, and wondered how the Facebook business model could work given users don’t pay for the service.

Communications professionals must ensure this lack of understanding is not reflected in senior teams of our organisations. To return to the earlier definition of public relations, it’s our job to ‘counsel the organisation’s leadership’. We would tell them if they were about to do an interview with a difficult journalist – so we shouldn’t neglect to mention the pitfalls of social media when we want to run a Facebook campaign.

Another ethical concern social media presents is the impact on mental health.  The death of television presenter Caroline Flack earlier this year brought this issue into sharp focus once again.

Many people, particularly those in the public eye, report receiving abuse and threats of rape, violence and death, on a daily basis, via social media.  Even for those not receiving abuse, evidence suggests social media use is strongly associated with anxiety, loneliness and depression. Of course there can be benefits to social media – research has also found it can in some cases reduce loneliness, boost self-esteem and be used as a tool for seeking help – but we can’t ignore the existing evidence of the negative impact of social media use, particularly on younger people.

Therefore acknowledgment and analysis of the risks of social media should be included in all communications planning.

The wellbeing of communications professionals should also be considered. Monitoring social media means exposure to criticism and occasionally abuse, which even if not personal, can be tough. Requiring staff to use social media for work should mean they are automatically given support to do so.

Is it worth it?

Having considered some of the ethical concerns around using social media, the second area to consider is how effective it is as a communications tool.

The Edelman 2019 Trust Barometer found declining trust in social media and that it is now viewed as a “corrupt channel”, with concern about fake news and the business model of Facebook itself. If distrust of the channel continues, that could result in distrust of the message being shared on it.

However, in terms of speed and reach, social media has clear advantages over other methods. A message can be delivered directly to the public and media immediately and for free. During a crisis, this can save lives. The London Bridge terror attack in June 2017 was an example of the positive power of social media; police were able to get messages directly to people’s phones to tell them to leave the area. On the other hand, there is the potential for the spread of misinformation; in November 2017, singer Olly Murs tweeted (in good faith) to millions of followers that there was a gunman in John Lewis in London’s Oxford Street, causing widespread panic and potentially hampering the police’s efforts to establish what was happening; it turned out to be a false alarm.

Social media has a history of raising awareness and fundraising; for example, the Me Too hashtag sparked a global movement about sexual harassment and assault, and the ice bucket challenge raised millions of dollars for motor neurone disease research – five times the amount raised the previous year. However, without clear objectives in day-to-day communications, particularly for the public sector, a positive response on social media or a high number of video views don’t always translate into outcomes.

Furthermore, it’s worth remembering 13% percent of UK adults do not use the internet at all, unchanged since 2014. Social media is never going to reach these people, no matter how great the content is.

Should we quit?

The concept of individuals quitting social media is nothing new; ‘digital detoxes’ are fashionable and TED Talks on the subject receive millions of views, but for a myriad of reasons, the figures show not many people have actually taken the leap and disconnected.

Some prominent organisations have changed their approach; cosmetics company Lush announced they would focus and invest in their owned platforms where they have stronger engagement, rather than rely so heavily on third parties like Facebook, where they had to pay for reach and engagement. The public sector, with limited budgets, might benefit from exploring this approach.

However, for all the concerns about the ethics of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and similar platforms, I am mindful that ethics have to be applied realistically to the world we live in. If there’s a vulnerable person whose only means of contacting the council is via its Facebook page, it could be irresponsible to cut off that means of communication.

That doesn’t mean we should ignore the dangers. Now we’re aware of the issues with social media, we need to be more pragmatic. There are a few things we can all do.

Firstly, ensure senior management fully understand the hazards of social media and include a risk assessment in every communications strategy.

Next, educate your audiences. Use every appropriate opportunity to raise awareness, and make it easy for them use alternative means of contact. Often people use Twitter because it’s a public forum and spurs the organisation into action, but a resident shouldn’t have to resort to social media to get a suitable response.

This brings us to the next point; don’t neglect other methods of communication. Information should be accessible to all residents regardless of whether they use Facebook. Use audience research to decide if other methods of communication could be more effective.

Focus on outcomes, not vanity metrics. Concerns about ethics and trust could be offset if there is proof social media is achieving essential outcomes.

Act on the social media health warnings and protect staff; abuse on social media should be taken as seriously as abuse in a physical space.

Finally, acknowledge the positives of social media. In the past few weeks, the world has changed dramatically and as I finish writing this article it would be remiss not to mention the coronavirus crisis, and the support networks that have sprung up on social media.

Churches live-streaming services on Facebook to a self-isolated congregation, neighbours organising community response, and of course communications professionals helping each other through this unprecedented situation.

Social media certainly shows its strengths during a crisis, and for that reason alone, the benefits may well still outweigh the risks. Even so, each organisation should conduct regular social media health checks, to ensure its use of social media is both ethical and effective.