It must be OK. Everyone does it, right? There are no writing rules, much less ethical norms for tweeters, posters, instant grammars, tik-tockers, or other keyboarders with too much time on their hands. According to Stastia.com, we have one of the highest social network penetration rates in the world. They say, “In 2020, over 223 million Americans were using social networks to post pictures, like and comment on content by others, or send private messages. With over 70 percent of the U.S. population holding a social media account, these platforms and services have become some of the most popular online activities of the past decades.” This is astonishing given that we only have 332,915,073 people living here. Indeed, it boggles the mind since according to the U.S. Department of Education, 54% of adults in the United States have prose literacy below the 6th-grade level. So, we start there, with commonly used phraseology not unique or original by users, like, ya know, ah, awesome, dude, LOL 😊.
The ethics of social media posting is grammar-free, non-literary, and devoid of the constraints of twentieth century norms. But the nagging, lagging, sagging reality of most of what passes for content on social media is plagiarized. That reality can be overlooked by ethicists, right?
One debatable source put it this way. “Third-party blogs or posts — is a spot that can get dicey with regard to ethical behavior. Essentially you are sharing other people’s work. How do you do that without getting yourself into trouble? The key is “sharing” not “stealing. If you are using someone’s posts in the correct way, they’re going to be happy because you are getting more eyes on them. Sharing someone’s content on Facebook, linking to a blog, Re-Pinning on Pinterest or Retweeting on Twitter is good. People expect, and even hope, to have their work shared.”
Now Marketing Group contrasted social media posting and reposting with non-posting actives, like “Grabbing an infographic, or a photo, or a design you’ve found to support a post you’ve written? You didn’t “share” it, you didn’t create it, you swiped it without attribution or linking. This can get you into trouble, lawsuit-type trouble.” It doesn’t evaluate ethics, just law-suit type trouble.
Infographics are graphic visual representations of information, data, or knowledge. Madame Wikipedia says they can improve cognition by utilizing graphics to enhance the human visual system’s ability to see patterns and trends. Doesn’t sound like writing, so perhaps it is not constrained by the written word’s ethical norms.
Using someone else’s photo on your social media post is legally problematic and potentially unethical. Legally speaking, most photographs found via an Internet browser are copyrighted by the photographer. That gives the photographer the exclusive right to use or reproduce what they shoot. It’s the same body of law that covers writing. Copyright is a legal protection on all original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium. You can buy the right to use a “stock” photo on the Internet. As a practical matter, the ethics of borrowing someone else’s photo to repost or retweet is at best, subjective, contextual, and debatable. In the wide-wide world of social media, ethical norms vary from one dude to another, and from one fifteen-year-old girl to an old woman in her late twenties. The not-so-harsh reality is that ethics, like politics, ebb and flow depending on life experience, personal values, and socio-economic variances.
There is a “Code of Ethics for Bloggers, Social Media and Content Creators.” It does not have the force of law, much less a following in literary or academic circles. But it is something. The site applies to bloggers, video bloggers, podcasters, micro-bloggers and general social media participants. They say the role “Carries with it a responsibility to be fair, honest and respectful not only toward your fellow members of society but also toward fact. The content you create today will more than likely outlast both the content’s relevance and your own lifetime and it is of vital importance that it be a truthful representation of the topic at hand not only for those who access it today but for those who access it in the distant future. Above all else your job as a Content Creator is to present fact as fact and opinion as opinion.”
One of America’s most read print media businesses is The Washington Post. Its reporters, journalists, columnists, and editors write for their paper in print and online. And they have social media accounts. They also have social media rules and standards. “When using networks such as Facebook, Twitter, etc., for reporting or for our personal lives, we must protect our professional integrity . . . Social media accounts maintained by Washington Post journalists reflect upon the reputation and credibility of the newsroom. Even as we express ourselves in more personal and informal ways to forge better connections with our readers, we must be ever mindful of preserving the reputation of The Washington Post for journalistic excellence, fairness, and independence. Every comment or link we share should be considered public information, regardless of privacy settings. Post journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting, or posting anything — including photographs or video — that could objectively be perceived as reflecting political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism.”
So, there you have it. Make up your own ethical norms but be fair, honest, respectful, and present fact as fact and opinion as opinion. And if you are a journalist, make sure your posts do not reflect political, racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism. If you’re not a journalist, just a lowly social media user, you’re on your own. Great start!
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
If you have an important story you want told, you can commission me to write it for you. Learn how.