According to Statista, there were 2.14 billion social media users in 2015. They estimate that by 2020, there will be a total of 2.95 billion users. It seems social media use by individuals is constant. Some organizations have tried to curtail social media use by blocking employees from accessing social media accounts from company computers. Unfortunately, many individuals access social media platforms by using their cell phone. Forbes (2015) suggested that as a part of the debate of whether or not social media in the workplace is a bad thing, there may be some good aspects such as using social media to improve company communication and brand. Others suggest social media can end an individual’s career if one is not careful as to what they “like” or post. CareerBuilder recently reported that 18 percent of employers have reported firing someone due to something the employee posted on social media. These topics have opened the door for new debates around the topic of ethics and the use of social media.
Terrll Bynum (2015), suggested that the onslaught of computer related ethics is relatively new, becoming a larger topic in the late 1940s. Bynum commented that the topic and research has grown more prevalent in not only in the United States but globally. The emergence of social media usage throughout the world leads to a slew of potential ethical debates. Can differing beliefs and cultures be accepted? Bynum pointed to the Principle of Freedom as a foundation to computer ethics but how can we agree on ethics when not every culture agrees with the concept of freedom? How do we align global ethics within the social media world when there is a difference in laws and what is viewed as right and wrong? With the global use of Facebook, for example, using others contributions, pictures, and music might be considered breaking copyright or infringement laws in the United States but may not be considered breaking the law in other countries.
In addition to the challenges of competing ideas of what is ethical globally, Forbes (2011) illustrated five ethical dilemmas companies and organizations need to be aware of in regards to social media usage. The ethical issues range from paying individuals and organizations to endorse company goods and services to accessing consumer information and perhaps compromising the privacy of the consumer. The conversations of what personal or consumer information should be considered free game and what should be private have become increasing blurred. Ethical questions arise from not only what companies should have access to but also what ethically (and perhaps lawfully) they should be able to use. Each of us leaves a digital footprint when we access various websites and access social media. It is common for companies to use social media activities to better understand our needs and wants and then market to those needs and wants. For consumers, in some ways, this can be wonderful. You might find helpful products or services being offered to you because of your footprint, but the ethical line of your privacy is also in question. Is it right that anyone could have access to your information? As mentioned previously, employers have accesses to your information, thoughts, and feelings as well.
The Wall Street Journal (2014) presented interesting perspectives on the employer and employee relationship with social media. In 2013, a CareerBuilder survey indicated 39 percent of employers utilized search social media pages to research potential candidates. In the same survey, it was reported 43 percent found something in their social media search that convinced the employer not to pursue the candidate. Companies and organizations may argue that the information is public and should be used to not only ensure good hiring but also assist in monitoring current employees. In the Wall Street Journal article, Nancy Flynn commented that monitoring employee’s social media is a necessity. Flynn stated that is necessary to avoid serious issues such as lawsuits. She also mentioned that social media submission could be subpoenaed and used as evidence in cases.
The digital media and the social footprint we all leave are nearly unavoidable. Today, the access to our personal information, thoughts, and feelings are available to nearly anyone that wants to view the information or use it. If it is available, does it make it ethical to use it? That is the ongoing debate. Pew Research reported in 2016, 86 percent of Internet users have taken some steps to try to remove or hide some of their footprints. A portion of the concern is many of us are not even aware of the extent or depth of the footprint we are leaving and how it could help us, or more importantly hurt us. With the increasing use of social media, it is difficult to imagine ever being able to turn around and reduce or eliminate our footprints. And with the continued growth of social media, the ethical discussions and dilemmas will rage on.