Ethical Dilemmas of Social Media – and How to Navigate Them

Øyvind Kvalnes

Social media provide opportunities for organizations and employees to publish their opinions, without an editor. But tempo, trolling, and tricky role confusions leave social media officers with digital dilemmas. How should they deal with them?

Increased activities in social media and rapid publication create a range of dilemmas for decisions-makers within organizations, where they must prioritize conflicting ethical considerations.

"The unique thing about social media is that it is not necessary to go through an external editor to publish anything. Subsequently, you have the editorial responsibility and must reflect over the ethical aspects of the publication and not just the legal aspect", says Øyvind Kvalnes, philosopher and associate professor at the Department of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour.

Exchanges happen quickly to a wide audience, and tempo increases the risk of mistakes. Kvalnes recommends slowing down and taking time to reflect on the options at hand.

Real-life Digital Dilemmas

Kvalnes knows what he is talking about after collecting memos from around 250 executive students at BI, each describing a dilemma from their first-hand experience as practitioners responsible for handling social media platforms for their organizations.

The research is made available in the recently published “Digital Dilemma: Exploring Social Media Ethics in Organizations ” - a book that contributes to the emerging research on the ethics of social media use in organizations, and provides practitioners with concepts and tools to cope with digital dilemmas at work. (The book can be downloaded for free here)

Five Types of Dilemmas

The book presents five categories of ethical dilemmas that can arise for practitioners who are responsible for social media accounts in organizations:

  1. Role Dilemmas address how the person in social media can have multiple roles, creating confusion about ethical responsibilities. Such dilemmas occur when it is unclear whether a person is professionally active on a social media platform, or as a friend, client, or competitor.
  2. Tempo Dilemmas occur because the exchanges in social media happen quickly, with an increased risk of making mistakes.
  3. Integrity Dilemmas are concerned with how easy or difficult it is to remain committed to personal values and moral standards when representing one’s organization online and being tempted or pressured to act against these.
  4. Speech Dilemmas arise in connection with decisions about what it is acceptable to express when being active on a social media platform.
  5. Competence Dilemmas occur when the social media experts can exploit competence gaps in their own favor, with little risk of detection. Such dilemmas occur due to the gaps in how well people understand the workings of social media.

"The categories can help people sort out and understand what kind of situation they are in. The concepts in the book can be used to think more clearly about ethical dilemmas in social media", says Kvalnes.

Ethical Navigation on Social Media

Journalists and editors have ethical codes of conduct, while those responsible for social media in their organization have been equipped with little ethical guidance to support their decisions.

Kvalnes offers a solution. He suggests using the Navigation Wheel when people face ethical dilemmas related to social media use. The framework guides decision-makers through a process of considering six questions regarding law, identity, morality, reputation, economy, and ethics.

The priority of questions in the model depends on context and is up to the decision-maker. A process involving the Navigation Wheel can start by identifying the most relevant options available. This is followed by taking the options through the questions in the model before using the answers and arguments that come out of that procedure as a foundation for making a decision.

Kvalnes' ethical wheel

A Troublesome Dilemma

A construction manager takes photos from a tunnel project in the mountains, and the communications advisor in the organization quickly posts them on Facebook. Unfortunately, one of the photos happens to document a serious health, safety and environment violation by one of the employees. Angry users on Facebook rapidly comment the violation.

What should the decision-maker in the construction company do?

Either she can respond to the criticism and risk bringing even more attention to the violation, or she can delete the photo and hope that there will be no further criticism. In this situation, the decision-maker can assess the tempo dilemma through the Navigation wheel.

Reaching an Informed Decision

Starting with the ‘law’ question, both options in the example above are legally acceptable. However, if an option is illegal, it constitutes a reason to avoid choosing it, while if an option is legal, than that in itself does not constitute a reason for choosing it. One must therefore assess the remaining options, such as the identity question that addresses whether the organization has core values that provide guidelines for what to do. If honesty is a part of the identity, then it indicates that openness is the right option.

The morality aspect concerns the decision-maker’s moral beliefs and intuitions in relation to the situation. Moreover, reputation is at stake, in the sense that the decision can affect other stakeholders’ perception of the organization, in light of how they cope with the Facebook posting. In this particular dilemma, economy is not a significant concern, but it can be in other situations. Finally, ethics comes in as a principled consideration about how such dilemmas should be solved.

Published 29. July 2020

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