It’s a great time for reflection as we look back on last year and forward to 2024. A colleague recently shared on LinkedIn Pew Research Center’s “Striking findings from 2023.” What stood out to me was the significant increase in calls for restricting false information on social media – 55% believe government and 65% believe tech companies should (up from just 39% and 56% in 2018).
In 2022 Pew Research found 65% believe social media makes us more informed on current events, but 85% were concerned with how easily social media can manipulate people with false information.
In 2015, the year the first edition of Social Media Strategy was published social was fairly new. I didn’t have a chapter on law or ethics. A professor asked that I cover law, ethics, and etiquette in the next edition.
I created a Social Media Ethics & Etiquette Guide on this blog in 2016.
In creating the guide I found social media needs a unique approach as it brings our personal, professional, and working lives together in ways mass media could not. Social media is highly interactive, easily scalable, nearly real-time, and blurs the lines between personal and professional.
This is where ethics and etiquette become important. Ethics studies ideas about good and bad behavior and Etiquette is the proper way to behave. Both are important in Professionalism, or the skill, good judgment, and polite behavior expected from a person trained to do a job.
I found it useful to look at actions from three perspectives: Personal (as an individual), Professional (as an employee or perspective employee), and Brand (as a social media manager). I created questions to consider for each category in the 2016 Social Media Etiquette and Ethics Guide.
What to Consider for Personal Posting.
- Is it all about me? No one likes someone who only talks about themselves.
- Am I stalking someone? Be driven and persistent but not too aggressive.
- Am I spamming them? Don’t make everything self-serving.
- Am I venting or ranting? Don’t post negative comments or gossip. It doesn’t look or feel good.
- Did I ask before I tagged? People have different comfort levels so check before you tag.
- Did I read before commenting or sharing? Don’t assume – fully review posts, people, and articles.
- Am I grateful and respectful? Respond and thank those who engage with you.
- Is this the right medium for the message? Consider people’s feelings before saying it on social.
- Am I on the right account? Don’t post personal information on brand accounts.
What To Consider For Professional Posting.
- Does it meet the social media policy? Know and follow employer or client policy requirements.
- Does it hurt my company’s reputation? Certain content/behavior may have a negative impact.
- Does it help my company’s marketing? Have a positive impact and consider employee advocacy.
- Would my boss/client be happy to see it? Even private accounts are never fully private and could be shared.
- Am I being open about who I work for? Be transparent about financial connections when sharing opinions.
- Am I being fair and accurate? Constructive criticism is best and so is opinion backed by evidence.
- Am I being respectful and not malicious? Don’t post what you wouldn’t say to someone in person.
- Does it respect intellectual property? Not everything on the internet or social media is free.
- Is this confidential information? Ensure you don’t disclose nonpublic company or client information.
What to Consider for Brand Posting.
- Does it speak to my target market? Focus on your target audience’s wants and needs, not yours.
- Does it add value? Make your content educational, insightful, or entertaining to grab audience interest.
- Does it fit the social channel? Don’t post content ideal for Twitter/X on Instagram, Reddit or Pinterest.
- Is it authentic and transparent? Don’t trick people into clicking or hide important relevant information.
- Is it real and unique? Don’t use canned responses, create spam, or pass off AI content as your own.
- Is it positive and respectful? Don’t belittle competitors or customers (unless you’re Wendy’s and roasting is your brand).
- Does it meet codes of conduct? Consider AMA’s, AAAA’s, or PRSA’s Code of Ethics.
- Does it meet all laws and regulations? See the FTC and other government guides on social media requirements.
- Does it meet the social media policy? Ensure you follow company and client policy standards.
Do I listen twice as much as I talk? Make sure you fully understand what you’re commenting and posting about.
(Click on the template image to download a PDF)
Are social media ethics and etiquette outdated today?
Much has changed in 7 years, and I sometimes wonder if some of these questions may appear naïve or outdated. After all, clients want results and increasingly studies tell us lies and negativity raise engagement which typically leads to sales.
Research in the journal Science on Twitter/X found falsehoods were 70% more likely to be retweeted/reposted than the truth. Verified truth posts took 6 times longer to reach 1,500 people than verified false posts.
In the journal Nature research found negative words in headlines increased consumption. Each additional negative word increased the click-through rate by 2.3%.
The Wall Street Journal reports companies frequently use fake reviews to sell more products fooling even seasoned shoppers. And it looks like Sports Illustrated may have been publishing AI-generated articles by fake writers to keep up with content and engagement demands.
Are lies and negativity simply the way you do business on social media?
I believe Advertising Hall of Fame member Bill Bernbach would disagree. He understood the power of media and the responsibility of those who create it.
Bernbach said, “All of us who professionally use the mass media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.”
Social media marketing only works if it’s seen as credible.
When we abuse our professions by not following the law, by being unethical, or by not following good etiquette, credibility is lost. Once you lose credibility, people stop listening. If people stop listening, we won’t have a profession.
This past semester a colleague wrote about an ethical situation a student faced. An internship employer wanted social media customer questions and responses to highlight company products as solutions, but they didn’t have any real customer questions.
The possible future employer asked the student to create the questions and fake customers to ask them. The solutions would be real, but the customers and questions would be lies. Is this okay?
Unfortunately, ethical dilemmas aren’t rare. A 2020 survey published in Harvard Business Review found 23% of U.S. employees feel pressure to do things they know are wrong. More witness unethical behavior like rule violations (29%) and lying (27%). Employees describe ethically questionable actions as being specifically demanded of them or implied to meet time pressures, productivity goals, or make the company look better.
Perhaps we need a “we’re lying” disclaimer on social media.
I used to teach a law and ethics course required for students in an advertising program. An example I used in class was the famous Joe Isuzu ads from the late 1980’s and early 2000’s. The brand spokesperson gave false claims about Isuzu’s car and trucks.
The false information was okay because everyone knew he was lying. It was done as a joke with outlandish claims such as the Impulse Turbo was as fast as a speeding bullet (915 mph). The ads even told you in big bold type “Sounds like a lie,” and “He’s lying.” No one truly believed it.
Just because you can or because others are doesn’t mean you should.
As a social media professional, we can’t restrict false information on social media. We also don’t control the algorithms that may emphasize negative posts. But we do have a choice to hold ourselves to a higher standard.
What are our professional responsibilities in using social media? If current incentives are to vulgarize and brutalize it, should we follow? Or should we follow Bernbach’s advice and strive to lift it onto a higher level?