The Social Ethics of Social Media

It is critical that we are intentional about developing the social ethics of social media. The chaos at Twitter over the past few months highlights the importance of asking the question, “What is the social good of social media?” With billions of persons investing so much of their time and lives into their presence on social media and getting so much of their information from social media, how can it be used in ways that benefit rather than harm the well-being of the human community?

There are aspects of social media that seem to bring out the worst in us, or perhaps in some cases the worst in us has been looking for a way to express itself, and social media has provided the opportunity that the worst in us has been searching for. It is not that most of us are doing anything illegal on social media, but just because something is legal does not mean it is moral, and this also applies to our actions and speech on social media.

As is the case with so many of our incredible technological advances, the technology of social media seems to have advanced more quickly than our moral and spiritual capabilities to use it in responsible ways for the good of all persons and the well-being of all life.

There is a tendency for the social/physical distance that we experience on social media to create a context in which we are less civil and simply more mean to one another. Perhaps we should attempt to apply the “face to face” rule in our social media interactions with others. If we would not say something to other persons or about them if we were in the same room with them, we usually ought not to say it on social media. As with everything, there are exceptions to this rule, and there are times when power differentials, safety, and privacy make social media one of the only places where some things can be said that must be said, but for the most part the “face to face” principle is a helpful guide for social media interaction.

I often think of my social media profiles as my digital home or my digital living room. I am happy to have guests, even guests with opposing views, but if you begin to mistreat me or the other guests in my digital home, I will not hesitate to show you the digital door.

As is the case in our lives outside of social media, our goals for our speech and action on social media should always be to do no harm and to do actual good. This does not mean that we are not to speak difficult truths to power and to each other, but we ought to do so in ways that will create Beloved Community rather than cultivate continued chaos. On social media and in the rest of our lives, it is good and right to speak and act in truth for love and justice.

As problematic as some of our personal interactions may be on social media, when we look at the social ethics of social media, the practices and behaviors of corporate social media and the economic and political powers behind those practices and behaviors are of exponentially greater moral and social consequence. These powers have used our desire for self expression and social participation against us for the acquisition, maintenance, and expansion of their own economic and political power.

The very worst expressions of this have come from a global network of autocrats who have used social media to spread misinformation and disinformation to manipulate people to become more nationalistic, more xenophobic, and less democratic. Autocrats like Vladimir Putin have managed to do much more damage to the well being and stability of democratic societies through a relatively small investment in social media than the Soviet Union ever managed to do through massive military expenditures. And of course we have all seen what damage an autocrat with a tweeting machine can do within our country. The increase in autocratic nationalism in Europe, the United States, India, Turkey, and Brazil has been strengthened by the systematic spread of propaganda, disinformation, and conspiracy theories promulgated through social media.

And now with Twitter, one of the largest social media platforms, being taken over by Elon Musk, a self-proclaimed free speech absolutist, who has himself used Twitter to spread misinformation and disinformation about the pandemic and other important social and political issues and who has re-platformed numerous neo-Nazis and white supremacists; we are experiencing a particularly dangerous phase in social media’s evolution. What Mr. Musk either does not understand or chooses not to understand is that respecting freedom of speech within a democratic society does not mean that a social media company cannot or should not put certain restrictions on harmful, hateful, and violent speech on their platform.

When a social media platform allows and even encourages the spread of disinformation and hate speech, one appropriate response would be to boycott that social media platform. This is especially the case when the social media company is making its profits from advertisements that bring in more revenue when more persons are participating on the social media site in question. If enough advertisers and users boycott Twitter to the point where it is no longer profitable to provide a platform to disseminate hate and disinformation, then perhaps some reform or change will be be possible. This does not rule out the possibility of some government oversight and regulation when it comes to issues of health and safety.

Of course Twitter is not the only morally problematic social media platform. Facebook uses our activity on their site to make money though advertising and uses algorithms for controlling our experience such that we tend only to see perspectives and news with which we agree, using outrage as a driving emotion to hook us fo make more clicks and create more interaction with the platform, which in turn brings in more advertising dollars.

And then there is TiKTok, which is essentially controlled and monitored by the Chinese government. When it was confirmed though irrefutable evidence that TiKTok was using IP addresses it collected to monitor journalists, that ended my brief use of the app. And don’t get me started on social media sites like Parler and Truth Social, both of which were created so that those who were breaking the relatively loose rules of Facebook and Twitter could spread disinformation and hate elsewhere with no consequences.

Ultimately, the moral failures we see, experience, and to which we sadly sometimes contribute in the social media universe are the same moral failures we experience within society as a whole. Over and over again we see evidence that these moral failures and the systems which perpetuate and exacerbate these moral failures are addressed most adequately by societies that are the most fully democratic, societies in which the people have the greatest access to full participation in political processes. In such societies it is much less likely that autocrats and narcissistic billionaires will come to have so much economic and political power that they will be able to acquire as much control and power over the social media landscape as they currently possess.

In the end, perhaps our social media problem is primarily a problem with the weakness and corruption of our democracy that allows for the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the few who then exert control over not only what happens on social media but who also perpetuate systems of injustice and inequality in society as a whole that they use for continued personal gain, most often to the detriment of a just and participatory beloved community. If we want more ethics in our social media, it requires more justice in our society, and more justice in our society requires a more vibrant democracy, and looking at the current state of our democracy, it looks like we all have some work to do.

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