Kietzmann (2011) describes social media as the use of mobile and web-based technologies to create highly interactive platforms via which individuals and communities share, create, discuss, and modify user-generated content.
Social Media is a relatively new medium; Facebook and Myspace being less than ten years old. Individuals and businesses have been quick to embrace all that Social Media has to offer but, in their haste, many have been slow to process the potential ethical issues that come with this new technology.
Social media differs from traditional media, as the content is user generated. This content, when published, is instantly available to a global audience, which can be a blessing or a curse. Businesses & individuals can instantly reach a huge target audience, which is a marketers dream. However, social media is often interactive in a way that traditional media is not. Thus, users can comment on and edit published material, making it difficult, if not impossible, to control content. Over social media, it seems people can say anything about an individual or business with few repercussions.
According to a survey by the Institute of Ethics (2011), one of the main ethical challenges that companies highlighted, with regards to social media, was integrity risk. When business use social media, employees act on behalf of the company to publish content. Employees can then, through personal social media accounts, comment on this content. If any employees post irresponsible content it can undermine the company’s commitment to ethical practice and expose it to integrity risk, potentially damaging the companies reputation. A great example of this was in 2010 when an employee managing Nestle Facebook page went on the offensive. See the link below:
Social media is an effective medium through which brands can market themselves and engage with customers directly. This poses new ethical challenges. It has become common practice for companies to create profiles on social networking sites to advertise their goods and services but it is here that they need to be careful not to mislead customers. Dave Kerpen (2011) recalls an incident where he received a message from a New York state senator. The senator struck up a conversation encouraging Dave to contribute to his campaign. Dave, a social media guru, somewhat suspiciously replied “Wow, it’s great you’re using social media for your own campaign. ” To which he received the reply, “Thanks allot. We have an event next week too. It would be great if you could support me.” As it turns out, after some probing, it was a volunteer impersonating the senator on his behalf. This was misleading and potential damaging, coaxing people into giving money under false pretences. To avoid misleading consumers, employees and individuals should declare that they are being represented.
Reviews and comments on social media sites have come under question recently, with a number of companies being found to purposefully mislead customers. A review by Mashable discusses research by Gartner that suggests that by 2014, 10-15% of social media reviews will be falsified by the companies. Is this ethical? In my opinion no, but it doesn’t seem to be a crime. Personally, I would boycott a company if I became aware of such practices.
Another ethical issue raised by educational and business use of social media is the screening of applicants. Many feel this is too deep an invasion of privacy. In a recent article from Scientific America, it is suggested that this practice could drive away-qualified applicants.
Social media raises a host of ethical issues. In order to fully address these issues, companies need to fully assess the risks and be aware of the challenges presented by social media before using it. Companies must be aware that any unethical practice that comes to light can be published instantly and globally, and the damage done could be irreparable.
Kietzmann, J. H., Hermkens, K., McCarthy, I. P., & Silvestre, B. S. (2011). Social media? Get serious! Understanding the functional building blocks of social media. Business Horizons, 54(3), 241–251. doi:10.1016/j.bushor.2011.01.005
Institute for Ethics, (2011). The Ethical Challenges of Social Media (pp. 22–25).
Kerpen, Dave (2011) Likeable Social Media. MeGraw Hill. Pg(107)
Cbsnews.com. 2014. Nestle’s Facebook Page: How a Company Can Really Screw Up Social Media. [online] Available at: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/nestles-facebook-page-how-a-company-can-really-screw-up-social-media/ [Accessed: 23 Mar 2014]