New Challenges: Ethical Use of Social Media


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 phoneForbes (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.


17 thoughts on “New Challenges: Ethical Use of Social Media

  1. A year ago, I do not think “fake news” was even in our vocabulary…and now we are seeing questions around social media truth, responsibility and free expression. I find it interesting that one of the MOOC Coursera courses one might take is entitled “Ethical Social Media,” taught by the University of Sydney.

    For me, the big question becomes how we, as leaders, both model and ensure our followers have the digital literacy necessary to understand and practice ethical social media?


    • Dr. Watwood,

      Thank you for your response. Your question is a big question and one difficult to tackle. It seems there are some that clearly understand much of what they read and watch on social media is mostly if not completely marred in questionable information. Others read something and take it as gospel. I find myself continuously asking the question “where did you find this information” every time something is shared with me. My co-workers and wife for that matter, are getting tired of me asking the question but I do think I have succeeded, at least to a point, as others have begun questioning themselves before sharing something. The problem is, there seems to be more “fake news” now than ever before. It has almost gotten to the point that it is difficult to believe anything anymore. If any of us are looking for a new career, fact finders seem to be needed!



      • A few years ago, I heard Lester Holt of NBC News discussing how social media had changed journalism. One point he made that stuck with me – he said NBC was no longer in the business of “breaking news”…that for most part, news broke in social media first. He felt that mainstream media should therefore be in the business of vetting news. If anything, it seems that has become even more important.

        I have been watching how the President first suggested in a rally speech yesterday that one need only look to Sweden to see the difficulty with terrorists…to which the government in Sweden said, “What are you talking about?” Now, he says his remarks were based on a Fox News show. “Unclear to us what President Trump was referring to, have asked US officials for explanation,” the Swedish embassy in Washington tweeted. With the media glare on social media, it is difficult to discern fact from fake.


  2. Another really nice post!

    I really like the imagery of the footprint that you weave throughout. The ethics of how we deal with this data residue are deep and very complex. Like you said, companies are already using this data to improve our lives, as we only hope they’re not doing anything insidious with it! My students are always flabbergasted when we review all the information that Google collects through its network of analytics, adsense, and adwords… As a website owner, this information is very helpful for me so that I can optimize my site and improve my livelihood. At the same time, however, this just helps feed the data beast. We can’t even imagine how large and tangled that beast may grow. I’m reminded of Audrey II from “Little Shop of Horrors”… gobbling up data and getting bigger and increasingly greedier by the day…

    I appreciate the approach that the Institute for Responsible Online and Cell phone Communication (IROC2) takes with their trademark, “public and permanent.” That is, everything you post online is actually public (if someone wants it badly enough), and even if you think you delete it, it could still be out there somewhere. IROC2 is geared toward developing social responsibility in young people, though many of the tips and information they offer is valuable for everyone that’s bouncing around social media these days. I think this is a great start toward developing social media ethics and responsible use.

    Liked by 1 person

    • James,

      Thank you for your response. I am kicking myself. I had a YouTube video a former colleague shared with our staff illustrating how marketers could basically identify us by name based off of our digital searches and comments. If my memory serves me correctly, the video starts with a woman booking a vacation for a warm destination. She searches for a swimsuit and begins getting a host of marketing for weight loss pills and a variety of other things. She is retargeted by various companies on a variety of platforms. She comments on social media about her trip. It goes on and on until all of the various activities leads to all but knowing the person’s name. Since I have changed employers, I realized the video link was in my old email folder. It is an alarming video due to the ease of connecting the everyday scenario to ourselves. It would be an interesting exercise to do with your class! It is amazing and terrifying all at the same time. It blurs the line of ethical practices and privacy, that is for sure.



  3. Good morning,

    I’m glad that you spent a considerable amount of time and space in your post discussing the employer as part of social media ethics. I actually find it quite fascinating when some individuals say that employers should not review the social media of a prospective employee when considering whether or not to offer them a job. In my view, doing so is on par with conducting a standard background or reference check. One does not need to have broken laws (although that certainly wouldn’t help) to have done or said things that may make the employer look in another direction.

    As leaders in our organizations, I think it is incredibly important that we talk to our employees and colleagues (especially younger employees who have a great deal of experience with social media) about the fact that their personal social media and their professional lives are not truly separate. The Wall Street Journal article data you presented should be something all professionals know about and take very seriously.

    Thanks for sharing your post.

    -The Ayes Have It


    • Matt,

      Thank you for your comments. Over the years, I have included the social media footprint subject in many of my presentations to high school and college students. The ethical debate of whether or not it is acceptable for employers to view individuals’ social media pages may still continue you on, but I think it is expected to be the norm more now than ever before. College admission offices are no different than employers. A 2013 New York Times article commented on a Kaplan survey that showed 31 percent of 381 college admission officers that were interviewed, stated they used social media pages to compile more information on a student ( Depending on what is found on the pages, the findings could help or seriously hinder the prospective student. For better or for worse, we all better be aware of what we put out there in our digital worlds effect us.



  4. Jason,

    A great post, and one that highlights the many important issues related to ethics and social media! You make an excellent point about the ethical line of consumer privacy. The story about how Target used marketing data to determine a teenage girl was pregnant is a classic example of unintended consequences ( However, consumers have a lot of power when it comes to privacy, and they can demand that businesses manage ethical boundaries. After receiving complaints, Nordstrom ended an experiment to track customers via their smartphones (

    Panopticlick is a research project designed to better uncover the tools and techniques of online trackers and test the efficacy of privacy add-ons ( A free Panopticlick tool can check your digital fingerprint, and provide tips to avert digital trackers. The dilemmas will rage on, but consumer preferences and tools like Panopticlick will add twists to the conversation!



    • Good evening. The Target article should not have surprised me, but it did. I am amazed every time I read another example of how marketers can use information to make accurate predictions. It makes me want to leave my cell phone at home, pay everything in cash, and never look up anything digitally. It is a reminder to us all that we would have to significantly change our current behaviors if we wished to fall over the digital radar. It is nearly impossible!



  5. Good morning,
    I enjoyed reading your post this week and you highlighted a key challenge employers (including potential employers) face with social media. Social media is prevalent and employees should carefully monitor what they are posting. There is one individual that I know who uses Facebook to post about his frustrations with his job on a daily basis. I am surprised that he still has a job to go to with how forthcoming his posts have been recently. There are other individuals who have lost their jobs based upon what they shared via social media. Ultimately, your post is a wonderful reminder to be aware of what each of us post on social media.
    Thank you,


    • Thank you Keshia. I have heard on more than one occasion of someone being fired due to their social media statements against an organization. It baffles me if people truly feel their social media pages are private. A long time ago, someone told me, if you would not say something in front of your grandmother, you should not say it at all. We might want to suggest to employees, to follow the same rule but take out your grandmother and add boss.



  6. Hi Jason! Thanks for sharing some thoughts on this important topic. I think one of the greatest challenges for leaders and companies in this area will be to have an understanding of ethics and applicable policies that remain relevant given the speed at which our social media uses advance. To do this effectively would seemingly require more robust communication, monitoring, and training in this area. The Institute of Business Ethics ( offered an interesting practical approach, in which one company augments regular policy communications with real-time alerts (presumably updated regularly) when staff navigate to social media sites. The on-screen prompt includes a reminder of current policy and the personnel’s responsibilities.

    This effort would seemingly only apply to access from company assets and not one’s personal devices, but perhaps doing something is better than doing nothing.



    • EA,

      Good evening. I appreciate your comments as well as your suggestions. I do believe we have an obligation to communicate and train our employees on policies and expectations. Having a clear policy is important, but training and communication surrounding the policy is the key. If we have policies buried somewhere on the website or internal pages, no one is going to know about it. Consistent communication and training will be much more effective.



  7. There was an article in the NY Times ( that pointed out that when the telephone was invented, similar worries about it destroying society, were voiced. Most concerns were around the increase in sexual aggression and the damaging of relationships. One funny quote stated, “Men would be calling women and making lascivious comments, and women would be so vulnerable, and we’d never have civilized conversations again.”.
    Although dangers are certainly present around sexting and sexual predators, they also point out that some are starting to see social media as an integral, if risky, part of adolescence, perhaps not unlike driving. So maybe in ten years, getting through adolescence via the internet will be a standard rite of passage.
    I personally had a very real experience with the internet and my son. He was likely looking at something he should not have, and the Russians managed to get a virus on his computer that pretended to be the FBI, promising to send him to jail unless he paid $300. He was very depressed and we didn’t know why (we went down a bunch of rabbit holes trying to figure it out). Eventually, the kid that lent him $300 complained to the school counselor, who then let me know. I took care of the bill, but it took a while for my son to get back on his feet – and I think that the scar is still there for him (he is almost 21 now). Maybe that was his rite of passage.


  8. Good evening, Livingthedream:
    I enjoyed your post this week and agree that completely banning social media in the workplace is unavoidable. I do think that the onus of what is right and wrong over social is the responsibility of the individual. When I worked at an advertising agency, we were always extremely cautious of posting any client news over personal social channels without disclosing our business interest. A few years ago, a multinational agency got in hot water for posting about a client’s new product and asking its employees to promote the product launch through their personal social media channels. As the former leader of a social media department, I always advised by employees to use #sponsored or #clientnews in any social posts about clients and they were NEVER forced to do so.
    I found a great article that outlined some of the “dos and don’ts for social media” Even with all of this advice, it amazes me that people think they can hide from what they have posted!


  9. Pingback: Eight Days a Week. – Cat on the Keyboard

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