digital rhetoric Posthumanism

the ethical obligations of social media

There are no categorical imperatives requiring the use of social media in any way. I.e., we are not under any universal obligation to use social media. We should probably start there.

At the other end of the spectrum, I don’t believe it is controversial to assert that social media platforms (and their corporate owners) seek to maximize our regular engagement with their sites. They do their best, through a variety of means, to entice and persuade us to visit their platform and engage in any number of ways.

Out of habit (mindless or not) and/or because we enjoy the experience of social media, we may desire to engage. We might have FOMO. It’s a very basic human fear to worry that you’ve lost your place in the tribe. The degree to which we might say such desires and fears are inculcated by the platform is matter worthy of reflection, but I’ll set it aside for now.

In short, while there is no absolute requirement to be on social media, social media platforms do their best to entice us to visit them and we may choose to visit them. But none of that suggests any kind of ethical obligation.

As a member of some community, we might identify an ethical obligation to participate in social media: to advocate, explain, defend, disseminate, etc. etc. for or against something. We might feel an obligation to know what is happening in our community. In these cases, we may get little enjoyment from social media but sense an obligation to be there nonetheless. To give an idiosyncratic example, as someone who studies social media, I have a professional ethical obligation to participate and that drives at least some of my engagement.

Of course once we’re on a social media platform, there are ethics that guide our behaviors. We have chosen to be there (as much as we feel comfortable with saying that we choose anything, and I guess if we aren’t comfortable with saying we have agency then there’s not much reason to worry about ethics). As we’ve chosen to be there we also face a set of options for engagement, so how do we act among those options? Here we might confront differences among deontological, consequentialist, and other moral-ethical frameworks. However, before that I think we need to understand what are actions actually are.

The weird and potentially counterintuitive thing about social media is that our actions are much more tightly bound as a population. It’s counterintuitive because our embodied experience of social media is typically isolated. If I yell angrily in my home, no one aside from my family is likely to hear me. If I am yelling on a crowded city street, more people will notice me. Depending on what I’m saying I might be a spectacle or a nuisance. Maybe the cops get called. But it’s still one of those relatively harmless features of urban life. If I’m in a crowd of a thousand on that city street and we’re all yelling the same angry thing, then I am part of a population. That’s something quite different, as we know. And if I am part of an online crowd of millions yelling the same thing? The thing is, with that city protest, I know I am part of a particular population. I can feel the energy and excitement. Online, what do I know? what do I feel? Of course there are online political protests where some of the context is shared with a protest on a street.

The weird part is that when we are on social media, we are always a part of that population of millions. Whether we’re making some overt political statement or sharing a funny video, we are joining a vast population in specific technological ways related to how platforms gather, analyze, and act upon the data generated by our actions. These platforms use that data in a feedback loop to make our experiences more engaging, and they use that data to create market value for themselves. We all know this, but none of us know exactly how it works, exactly how all those clicks come together. What we do know is that these spaces are nothing like the Habermasian public sphere or the idealized town halls of 18th century democracy. To the contrary, to botch a cliche, we’re a million people each putting one straw on a camel’s back each time we click.

So this raises interesting ethical questions. How do we choose to act, not as individuals, but as members of a population when the consequences of our actions are difficult if not impossible to know? That said, while it is hard to trace the implications of individual clicks, we can see the effects of the population, just as it is hard to know the effects of tossing one plastic bottle in the trash but we can see the effects of everyone doing that.

I certainly don’t have an ethical prescription. Just say no? Social media doesn’t kill people? Ask not what FB can do for you? Blessed are the content moderators? We have plenty of available ethical formulae. But for me it does begin with getting better descriptions of what it means to participate as populations on social media and then to start identifying the capacities and ethical obligations of those populations.

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