There are literally hundreds of issues when discussing social media from an ethical perspective with the general majority being very well highlighted by Santa Clara University (whose opinion is especially credible given their location in Silicon Valley; the home of new technology and media) here. I’d personally like to focus on the idea of the ethics of being offensive on social media.
In my past as a dumb teenager I can certainly say that I was guilty of posting (at very best) risque material which was not appropriate or worthwhile. As a dumb teenager I have also been guilty of saying inappropriate things in real life as I’d think is true of all of us. What I’m trying to highlight here is that I didn’t say stupid things because I was on Facebook. I said them because I was a stupid person whose perception of what was right and wrong was, put simply, wrong.
As a less dumb twenty year old I am now a much better judge of what is appropriate as I’ve grown as a human being and in the process I’ve grown into the likes of Twitter and Facebook. Saying that something is less or more offensive as it’s on social media is a complete falsehood and using the examples of both the racial abuse of football player Sammy Ameobi and the very interesting example of Justine Sacco it’s easy to explain. The comments made in these examples would be no less acceptable outside of the internet, it’s simply a case that more people saw them, and there was a permanent record of them taking place. On the basis that what they said was wrong, the individuals were held responsible either through the being prosecuted by the law or by being fired (and criticised by millions) respectively.
Is this to say that ‘offensive’ material has no place on social media? No: the idea that something is offensive is subjective and the idea that you can clear the world of offensive material is the same as clearing the world of opinion. Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I’m a staunch defender of free speech and the idea that people should be banned from social media for subjectively offensive comments is wrong. The followers of Frankie Boyle for example would be the first to tell you that his comments could be perceived as offensive but they still follow him for humour, the same reason they would go to his shows or watch him on TV.
The exceptions to this are when something is misjudged and hence serve no purpose other than to offend. Although Mrs Sacco did not post her tweet to offend for example, her tweet was devoid of any substance other than offence. Her utter failure to identify this was her fault as a person, not the fault of twitter.
I’d like to close on China. I’ve written at length on the topic of China and the internet here but in short, it is a world dominated by the State’s decision of what is appropriate and conversely offensive. If there is anyone who lives in the freedom of a liberal democracy who attempts to argue that greater censorship is desirable on the internet, they need only read of the horrors of Liu Xiabo to realise that it’s a slippery slope no one wants to begin sliding down.
Oh and one last thing: Here is comedian Steve Hughs’ take on being offended. He makes a lot of sense (if being marginally bullish). Its all funny but if you wish to skip to his views on offence it starts at about 3:30.