Social media – friend or foe?

The mass use of social media and its integration into mainstream life raises some significant questions around ethics which require careful consideration. I’m often advising organisations how to mitigate the risk of empowering staff to use social media as part of their job particularly when it begins to blur the lines between work and personal life. However, this presents a huge reputational risk when, for example, someone talks negatively about their job on Facebook (see “Cisco Fatty” incident http://moremoney.blogs.money.cnn.com/2009/04/21/fired-for-facebook-dont-let-it-happen-to-you/ ) in the privacy of their own network which as we all know is anything but private. Take the “Cisco Fatty” incident as a casing point. I’m sure there are many people who criticise their job or if offered a new job will mull over the pro’s and cons with those around them. Make the same comments online to your friends and you find yourself in hot water if those comments fall into the wrong hands. Is that right? These were still your thoughts albeit written down rather than verbal.

Take this a step further. Is it right for companies who are considering hiring someone to scan their digital profile for reasons not to hire them? I’m not talking Linked in here, this is more about a company seeking a person’s Facebook profile to see how they conduct themselves in private – are they drinking and partying excessively for instance? On the one hand they are perfectly within their rights to seek the best candidate but can they be sure penalising the person who uses social media is the right approach. For all they know other candidates enjoy the same lifestyle but choose not to publicise the fact on Facebook.

Another question I frequently get asked is whether a person has the right over images of them posted on the internet, some of them may be distressing or act as a reminder of an incident they would rather forget. An example of this is Kevin Colvin. Sacked for lying to his boss about a family emergency which only came to light when he posted a picture of himself on Facebook at a party wearing a fairy costume. Search for his name on Google images and this is the picture you will find.

He has no control over how long they will sit there. How does he rebuild his life with that as a constant reminder?

Some people believe social networking sites offer the ultimate in egalitarianism. When we interact with others online, we have no real way of knowing whether they are white or black, male or female, fat or thin, young or old. Will this disembodied quality of the online world lead to greater fairness, or will we lose the ability to engage concretely with others, and therefore truly overcome differences? Will the long term effect of using social media from an early age lead to confusion in older life between the online world and real life?

These are all challenging questions which highlight the complexity of social media. It is not just a platform it is a constantly evolving culture, complete with its risks as well as its opportunities. The empowerment social media has delivered not just individually but for whole nations cannot be underestimated – you only have to witness the Arab spring for that – but for every person enlightened or galvanised will be someone suffering at the hands of a cyber bully or hauled before a disciplinary for comments they made to friends on a Saturday night after a couple of beers.

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