Category Archives: Social Media Ethics (Summer 2014)

Breaking: Social media is not your private journal

Um, no.
Um, no.

The golden rule for broadcasters: If you wouldn’t say it on air, don’t tweet it. There have been plenty of examples of well-known people not following this rule.

Chris Packham got in some trouble at work by tweeting his opinions (on his own time) on the beat he covers for BBC. Kanye West made himself look like even more of an ass than usual when he went off on Jimmy Kimmel on Twitter. James Franco almost committed a crime on Instagram.

But journalists and celebrities aren’t the only people who can get themselves in trouble with what they say on social media. That golden rule should really apply to everyone. Social media is a very public space; even if you’re not famous, you can get there quickly (and not in a good way) by making the wrong move on social media.

For example, an Alabama teenager made the news last week for taking a smiling selfie in a Nazi concentration camp. One minute she was a little known small-town teen; then after a poor social media choice, her name was published across the web for reasons no one wants to be internet-famous.

But back to those badly behaving celebrities and journalists. Is it possible for public figures to have freedom on social media? Not completely.

Social media is not a personal journal; actions on social media can have consequences, and being aware of that will help public figures and private individuals avoid them. You can’t just publicly say whatever you want and expect no one to react when you have hundreds or thousands or millions of followers.

With that said, what you can safely say on social media depends on the individual. Gary Vee curses all the time, but that’s just part of his persona. However, Pope Francis would make headlines across the world if he casually dropped an F-bomb.

On a similar note, what journalists can safely say might depend on his or her beat. My news organization doesn’t tell reporters what they can and can’t do with their personal accounts, but I hope that any reporter would realize tweeting strong opinions about a story they cover could compromise their objectivity.

It amazes me that after all the horror stories, people haven’t figured out yet that posting something inappropriate on social media could get you in trouble at work or even land you in the news.

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Graphic photos: Do they tell the story or just aim to shock?

Graphic photos are everywhere online. If you look hard enough (or really not very hard at all) you can find news organizations or bloggers or social media users who have posted photographs showing the bloody, the injured, the gross. Perhaps some publish to shock; others claim they’re pursuing honesty. So what’s the ethical thing to do?

A little warning can go a long way. (Warning: There are no actual graphic photos on this blog post.)
A little warning can go a long way. (Warning: There are no actual graphic photos on this blog post.)

Like most questions of ethics, there’s not a clear-cut answer. After the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, I saw a number of graphic photos on social media and on news websites. Some photos seemed like they had better intentions behind them than others.

1. Tone matters.

News of the bombings was a case in which tone was perhaps even more important than normal. A post with lots of capital letters and exclamation points doesn’t seem as sincere as a post with either straightforward facts or an authentic statement — even if all of the above were accompanied by the same photo. The Boston bombings was not a time to revel in the shock or gore of what happened.

2. Minimize altering of photos.

It seemed media couldn’t quite decide how to best handle the graphic photos from the bombings near the finish line. Some used the original and unaltered photos, while others left some blood in the frame but cropped out the actual wounds. One news organization, The Daily News of New York, actually edited a photo to digitally cover up a wound on a victim’s leg. Most news organizations would probably agree that altering photos to actually change their content is not OK, while cropping is generally acceptable. Photography is one of the most straightforward ways we can communicate something that happened; we need to keep it honest.

3. Let the user decide.

I think the decision to publish graphic photos is up to the particular organization. But I will say, as a user, I prefer to make my own decision whether to view said photos. A photo of a gaping wound or missing limb is not something I expect or want to see when I open up my Facebook or Twitter newsfeed. Although I might sometimes still choose to view such content, I’d rather see something less graphic on social media with the option to see more if I want.

Similarly, if a news website is going to publish graphic photos on their website, I think they should start the gallery with a graphic content warning and let the reader decide if they want to open it or not. I’ve even seen a graphic photo darkened or blurred with the option to click to see the graphic photo; that’s another good way to leave the option in readers’ hands.

How do you feel about graphic photos — on social media or elsewhere?

What would you add to or change about my ethical checklist?

Social media lessons learned from the Boston Marathon bombings

On April 15, 2013, two pressure cooker bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring hundreds. People across the country and even the world took to social media to express sympathy and hope for Boston as well as to report and weigh in on updates on the bombings suspects and circumstances.

A lot of unsubstantiated details were flying around in the hours and days after the bombing. News organizations felt the need to report updates on the bombing and its aftermath quickly, and some of them got it wrong.

For example, CNN reported that suspects had been arrested, before they actually had.

Less than an hour later, they tweeted a correction without erasing evidence of their mistake, which was the most ethical thing to do.

Unfortunately, the incorrect information was spread further than the correction. Notice the difference in the retweet counts.

So how do we fix a problem like that?  Justin Kings dreams of a day when Twitter will automatically retweet a correction through all accounts that retweeted the incorrect original. While that would be great for news organizations, I’m afraid some Twitter users might balk at the idea of having something like that automated.

Perhaps a less invasive way to achieve the same result would be for Twitter to show tweet with an official correction hashtag (perhaps only from verified news organizations?) in the newsfeed of every follower of all the accounts that retweeted the original — similarly to how they’d show a promoted tweet, except it could say corrected tweet. That way, they’re still getting the information to people who would have seen the incorrect version without automating anything to people’s accounts.

Another social media problem that arose after the bombings is brands attempting to capitalize on the tragedy. It’s hard to draw the line between appropriate reaction versus taking advantage. Social Media Today examines a post from Ford that perhaps inserts a little too much branding into their sympathy and a post from a local NBC station playing a little too much on emotion. I tend to agree with SMT on both of these examples; keeping it simpler would look more sincere and less desperate.

Social media during the workday: Time waster or mental palate cleanser?

Unless you work in the bat cave, you can probably find a useful way to incorporate social media into your workday.
Unless you work in the bat cave, you can probably find a useful way to incorporate social media into your workday.

I check social media more often than I would care to admit. Facebook and Twitter are the first things I check in the morning after snoozing, then turning off my alarm, and before checking email. Then I keep tabs of different social networks open all day long at work — or at the very least Hootsuite. And when I go home, I’m usually checking in on social using my phone or tablet.

Luckily for me and for my employer, social media is my job. I keep so many social tabs open during my work day because I’m managing our brand’s accounts and I’m looking for story ideas to pass onto reporters.

Because of the nature of my job, it’s hard to classify each action I take on social media as work or personal. I might click on a seemingly mindless Buzzfeed list for a personal reason, but then I could find inspiration in a stupid GIF — a brilliant story idea that I pass on to the appropriate reporter. Not that every listicle inspires me, but I won’t know before clicking.

However, social media is not a part of the job description for every employee in the world checking Facebook during the workday. So how can employers who want efficiency make sure workers aren’t wasting working hours on social media?

I think the answer is the boss needs to give a little to get more. Outlawing social media at the office is not the answer. In fact, Forbes says that social media actually increases productivity. The businesses who reported this social-media-driven efficiency focused their employees’ efforts on productivity using the networks instead of wasting time surfing. However, the Forbes piece also mentions that short social media breaks can act as a “mental palate cleanser.”

On a related note, I think “spying” on employees — searching browser history or time spent on social media sites — is unethical. Even if employers are open about collecting such information — and if they are collecting data, they should definitely disclose it — this practice is bound to breed manager or company distrust and dissatisfaction among employees.

Instead, employers should allow and even encourage those short social media breaks. If some employees start spending a little too much work time on social media, it will likely be reflected in their work, and that should result in an employer-to-employee conversation.

How do you think social media could be incorporated into your work day?

Privacy online? It’s safest to assume it doesn’t exist

Helpful indeed.
Helpful indeed.

I think NPR says it best in their ethics handbook: “We acknowledge that nothing on the web is truly private.”

In my training sessions with reporters on social media, I’ve always urged them not to put anything on the internet — whether you think it’s private or not — that you wouldn’t feel comfortable being broadcast publicly. This is the safest attitude to have online, because something private can be retweeted, shared or even screen-grabbed and spread further than you may have intended.

However, many individuals have an expectation of privacy online, and I believe journalists should respect that to a reasonable degree. I think it’s absolutely ethical for a journalist or employer (or anyone, for that matter) to Google, follow or Facebook-friend request; it’s the responsibility of a social media user to understand and manage their privacy settings and be aware of their digital reputation.

However, I think a journalist should only use content from someone else’s social media space if it’s (a) newsworthy and (b) either shared publicly or the reporter has permission from the user to include privately shared information in a story.

I routinely check my privacy settings and my Google results, and I am cautious about accepting Facebook friend requests since that is the network on which I occasionally share an update intended for my friends rather than the public. Unfortunately, not all social media users are aware of how they appear to the public.

Facebook especially is known for frequently adjusting how privacy settings work — introducing new options and including a default that some users might not choose for themselves. I think Facebook’s Help Center explains these changes as well as older features well, but the same users who are not aware of their own privacy settings are likely also the ones who don’t realize Facebook maintains such a robust help section.

Although maybe not for every single Facebook settings update, Facebook does use little pop-ups to tell users that the look of their profile is changing or there’s something new to adjust in their settings. While that’s helpful, maybe that’s not enough.

According to Consumer Reports, as of 2013, 13 million Facebook users have never even looked at their privacy settings. Perhaps Facebook should give these users a pop-up every time they log in until they at least click over to the privacy settings page. Then they could deliver a pop-up every time there’s a new adjustment to privacy settings. While this might annoy some users, at least no one could say Facebook wasn’t trying to make its users aware of their privacy options.

Data mining: What government spies and Amazon have in common

Is this hotel pager friendly?
Pagers: Not a bad idea, because probably not on the NSA’s to-track list. Or is it?

Whistleblower Edward Snowden has leaked document after document about how intelligence agencies like the NSA mine data. The agencies have even analyzed social media activity — without the consent of the social media companies or the users — to recognize patterns and predict behavior.

When I think about how much I share online, it makes me sweat. Luckily I’m not into the whole criminal thing, but the NSA could paint a pretty accurate picture of me just using my social media activity — not to mention the other data they could mine. In comparison with the characters government spies probably deal with, I’m pretty boring. However, it’s still creepy to think about how easy it would be for the government to not only learn every little detail about me but also predict my behavior based on patterns and my data.

But data mining isn’t only for government spies. As Mashable explains, it’s how many successful internet companies make their money.

You know how Amazon reads your mind and knows exactly what else you want to buy because of what’s in your cart or your history? That’s a type of data mining called association learning. Other customers who bought your thing also bought this other thing, so they recommend it to you and get even more money in their pockets. It may seem a little creepy, but in their privacy policy, Amazon actually tells you exactly what they collect and how they use it.

This  data mining somehow bothers me less. Amazon doesn’t care who I am; they just want to sell me more. And as long as their data mining means a pleasant shopping experience for me and no random charges on my credit card, I think I’m OK with that. It also helps that they attempt to be transparent with their data mining practices as described in the privacy policy.

But the NSA’s reputation is for anything but being transparent, and they have broken their privacy rules so many times at this point that it’s difficult for anyone to trust them. Sure, I’m boring — but how do I really know what they’re doing with my information if they don’t tell me and I can’t trust them?

Speedy accuracy in the internet age: Easier said than done

20140624-191452-69292005.jpgIt’s an interesting time to be in the journalism business. Information and rumors spread so quickly that it can be difficult to determine which is which. PhotoShop has allowed those deft in the program to create their own news events if they so please (see Storyful on why seeing is not always believing). So how do news organizations make sure what they’re reporting is accurate?

Well, sometimes they don’t. Remember the media race for information on the Boston Marathon bombing? Even institutions like the Associated Press, Time and the Wall Street Journal fell victim to reporting unverified information in the rush to be the first to provide what readers were looking for. (Mother Jones lists seven false things you heard about the bombing.) At the time, people were gobbling up every little detail and demanding more: Where are the bombers? What did they use? Why did they do it?

As it came out that the media had bungled the reporting of this high interest story, people were unforgiving. Readers don’t cut news organizations any slack for having to navigate this world full of false information disguised as genuine news tips. Readers expect news organizations to check their facts — as they should. But here’s the disconnect: checking takes time, and readers still expect the information just as quickly. It’s a real dilemma for news organizations: Do you get it first, or do you get it right? Obviously, both is ideal, but both is not always possible. I think the only ethical thing to do is to check and check quickly. You’re not always going to be first, but always being right is better.

So what happens when a news organization does get it wrong? I’ve heard arguments on both sides of deleting tweets and posts. Here’s what I think: In almost every situation, incorrect information can be corrected without deleting anything. Rather, news organizations should reply to their own tweet with the correct information in order to connect the two. On Facebook, edit the post to say the previous information was incorrect and include the right information. Correcting rather than deleting is part of being transparent and owning up to mistakes. I, for one, respect the brands that do this much more than those who sweep mistakes under the rug.

Moderating hypothetical complaints on social media (or, how I spend my Tuesday nights)

Short answer: Don't do this.
Short answer: Don’t do this.

This week in my grad school adventures, I’ve been asked to explain how I would moderate these two posts on a company Facebook page. Here we go.

To a fast food chain:

“I am disgusted about the state of your store on 1467 Justin Kings Way. The counter was smeared in what looked like grease and the tables were full of trash and remains of meals. It makes me wonder what the state of your kitchen is?!!! Gross.”

My reply:

That does sound gross. I’m sorry you had to experience anything other than a clean restaurant, and thank you for reporting these conditions. I’ve already contacted the manager of the 1467 Justin Kings Way location, and he is immediately addressing the problems you’ve pointed out. The restaurant never should have been in this condition, but we’re lucky to have customers like you who let us know when something’s not right. The next time you’re craving a burger, you’ll find a much improved store on Justin Kings Way. Thanks again!

I would absolutely not delete the customer’s comment. Customers should empowered to leave feedback — positive or negative — on our Facebook page.

I think the most important thing to do with this response is to own up to the problem. There’s nothing worse than a response from a brand saying something like, “I’m sorry if you were disappointed.” That’s telling the customer their bad experience is their fault.

It’s also important to thank the customer and then actually do something about the problem. In this example, I would immediately contact the manager of that location to get some changes rolling so I could report back to the customer, as I did above, that the manager is working on the problem. That inspires much more confidence in the brand than “We’ll pass your feedback along.”

To a mainstream news network (let us assume the reporting was balanced, with equal time to both sides):

“Your reporting on the Middle East is biased in the extreme. You gave almost all your air time to spokespeople for the Israelis last night and there was no right to reply for the Palestinians. The conflict upsets me so much and your reporting of it, saddens me even more and makes me f**king furious.”

My reply:

The conflict in the Middle East elicits strong emotions for many people. Our news organization realizes this and reports on the topic as fairly and sensitively as possible. Last night’s report allowed equal time for both sides (here’s a link in case you missed part of the report: [LINK]), and I assure you we will continue to allow equal time for each party. Thanks for keeping us on our toes!

Although I do think it’s important for news organizations to apologize when they get something wrong, I think it’s just as important to not apologize for the things we do right. People have always cried bias when they don’t agree with something in the news.

Take for instance AL.com’s Auburn and Alabama football coverage. We have the same number of people staffing each school, same average number of posts on each school. Yet, depending on who you’re talking to, AL.com is either biased against Auburn or Alabama. I’ve always said that as long as we’re getting this complaint from both sides, we’re doing our job.

Note: If the above post actually contained the full F-word, our general practice on AL.com’s Facebook page would be to remove it. I would, however, reach out to the person via private message to explain why the post was removed and still address their complaint.

Social media moderation: You can’t please them all, but you can try

How some of the most epic comments fights get started.
How some of the most epic comments fights get started.

Moderation ain’t easy; it’s impossible to please everyone.

At AL.com, we use a third-party team of moderators for the comments on our site. There, we hold users to our community rules, which they agree to follow upon signing up for an AL.com account. On the same day, one person may send me an email about their comments being deleted unfairly, and another will send me an email about how awful and inappropriate the comments are under that very same story. But our moderators weigh comments against our rules and approve and remove as necessary.

On our social media accounts, it’s a little more complicated. Our site moderators do not participate in any moderation on our social accounts; it’s up to us. We don’t have specific rules of engagement posted on any of those accounts. When I’m on duty, I try to very lightly apply our standard community rules to the comments and posts left on our page. When I see spam, I report it as such. When we get angry posts or comments or tweets, I let a little more language slide than we might on our site and I do my best to respond to them.

In moderating on our social media accounts, I try to keep in mind that it’s not “our” space in the same way that our site is. People use social media differently, and I allow them that freedom, as long as their “freedom” is not hurting others (like making libelous comments).

We often curate content from Facebook and Twitter. We are increasingly elevating opinions, observations, question and jokes from social media in posts on AL.com. It’s positive reinforcement for our best commenters, and it also shows our followers that we are listening and appreciate their participation.

It’s interesting to see the differences in each network’s communities and etiquette. We often see more heated exchanges on Facebook, and it can get very personal. On Twitter, we see the occasional personal tweet war, but our @mentions are mostly questions and general observations or jokes. In general, Facebook requires much more moderation than Twitter.

What are your social communities like? Which networks require your brand to do more moderation?

United Breaks Guitars? How I’d handle this creative complaint as an airline reputation manager

United Airlines’ customer service policy looks great. They have a whole page that links to other pages that are all dedicated to how much the company values and respects and serves their customers.

But there are those who claim United breaks guitars.

It’s hard to tell exactly where the complaint ends and the artistic license begins. Or maybe the whole video is true right down to the bag-kicking airline employees. I can’t say I’d be that surprised (and that’s not necessarily directed at United, just a comment on airlines in general).

But let’s put our past airline luggage issues aside and think about how one would manage United’s reputation when a video such as this is released.

Well, ideally the situation never gets to this point. Someone along the customer service line should have helped this poor gentleman repair or replace his guitar that was broken in transit from Halifax to Chicago when he originally reported it. (Unfortunately, in real life, they didn’t.) But let’s assume we’re past that, and the video is already published.

  1. We would likely have to do some research since Dave says he was bounced around to so many different people. It’s going to take more than a few minutes to fully resolve the situation, so the first thing we do is reply to acknowledge we’re listening. Something like, “Creative video, @DaveCarroll! But we know a broken guitar is no laughing matter. We’re looking into it immediately and will be in touch.” (I purposefully didn’t start with his handle, because since the video is going viral, we want to address it publicly instead of limiting the audience by putting his handle first.)
  2. So we find an answer (quickly!). It’s our fault, and we have the OK to offer Dave money to repair his guitar. We reach out to him again with more information: “@DaveCarroll, we’re sorry. We take responsibility for the broken guitar and want to make it right. Please DM your email so we can talk more.”
  3. At this point, we’ve paid Dave and apologized privately as well as publicly, and now we offer him an incentive to come back — he and his band fly free to their next event in exchange for a sequel song. This incentive paired with a lighthearted request repairs the relationship with this particular customer as well as creates new marketing material. We don’t try to cover this whole situation up. We accept that it’s happened, we’re proud that we’ve handled it well, and we use it as a “we’ve learned our lesson” slash “look how we fixed it” story in our marketing plan.

That’s what I’d do. How about you?