Bowen, Shannon A. (2013). Using classic social media cases to distill ethical guidelines for digital engagement. Journal of Mass Media Ethics: Exploring Questions of Media Morality, 28(2), 119-133.

Through systematic case analyses of much-discussed social media cases, both negative aspects and best practices of social media use are revealed. Ethical theory is applied to these cases as a means of analysis to reveal the moral principles associated with each case. Four cases are analyzed, ranging from bad to arguably innovative. Based upon comparing the moral principles upheld or violated, descriptive ethics are used to infer normative ethical guidelines to govern the use of social media. Fifteen ethical guidelines derived from the cases and normative moral theory are offered as a way to begin a discussion that leads to a deeper understanding of ethics in the burgeoning realm of digital engagement.

Examining some of the best and worst case examples can provide “best practices” and “worst practices” to begin building ethical guidelines for use in social media. Studying exemplars, either positive or negative, is a common way that scholars arrive at best practices for a field (Peters & Waterman, 1982).

This study uses a case analytic approach to closely examine four indicative cases and to draw conclusions from them for developing a set of ethical guidelines.

Key Findings
1) Be fair and prudent. Consider fairness, justice, access, and right to know.
2) Avoid deception. If it is deceptive, even arguably, simply do not do it.
3) Maintain dignity and respect. Ensure that the communication maintains the dignity and respect of the involved publics.
4) Eschew secrecy. Barring trade/competition secrets, if an initiative warrants secrecy, something needs ethical examination.
5) Is it reversible? How would you feel on the receiving end of the message? Is it still ethical then?

Implications for Practice
A crucial aspect of social media use is considering the ethical implications of not only the message but the medium. The rapidly changing communication environment and the speed with which messages move and fragment only heighten the ethical imperative for accuracy, honesty, and full disclosure. Those pressures are felt by journalists, social media experts, and public relations professionals. Neill and Drumright (2012) found that public relations professionals are increasingly being called upon to act as ethics counsels in their organizations, coinciding with Wright and Hinson’s (2012) finding that public relations managers normally direct an organization’s social media strategies.

The social media space should not change journalists’ watchdog responsibilities but rather enhance them by the increased democratization of both information access via the

Internet and information output by publics. Neither journalists nor public relations professionals have control of messages. Publics have become an inextricable part of the communication process by using social media.

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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