Sunday, July 24, 2011

Trust, Authenticity and the Ethics of Social Media

On January 8, 2006, America took a collective gasp when an article in The Smoking Gun exposed the nationally acclaimed memoir A Million Little Pieces as fictional, contrary to representations by the author, James Frey, that is was a factual account of his struggle with addiction and rehabilitation. Controversy ensued around the fabrications presented in the emotional memoir and Oprah Winfrey, whose endorsement was largely responsible for the book’s exponential success, voiced the feelings of betrayal from millions of American readers when it became apparent that we had been duped by false authenticity.
The national outcry against Frey is indicative of the simple fact that we just don’t like to be lied to. Our tolerance for deception is low and we expect, often demand, transparency in the media. However, the advent of social media has unleashed a world where identities, authorship and claims often lack verification, a world which beseeches trust at your own risk.
Every day, we read blogs, Tweets and Facebook posts from personalities we admire and feel as if they are speaking directly to us (even if you are one of Kim Kardashian’s 8.5 million followers). We imagine our favorite politician, journalist, or celebrity seated in front of his or her laptop, just like us, pouring personal thoughts and feelings into the keys. If you discovered that the words you devoutly follow were actually written by a PR professional, would you feel deceived?

For years, PR professionals have been ghost-writing speeches, op-eds, newsletters and internal memos for executives without ethical repercussions. So why the concern when it comes to social media? The reason could be that social media represents a personal interaction and followers expect an authentic voice.

A recent post by blogger Melodie Seble discusses ghost tweeting, updating someone else’s Twitter account on their behalf. The author advocates full transparency yet recognizes the ethical gray area of corporate social media accounts. Since most executives don’t have the time required to maintain a social media presence, Seble suggests a note that discloses the author of the account. This tactic was adopted by President Obama’s Twitter account which clarifies that it is run by campaign staff and states that only Tweets signed “BO” are written by the President.
Barack Obama's Twitter account clearly states authorship.
As we continue to navigate the social media landscape, discussions of ethics are increasing in intensity. Most recently, Facebook was exposed for hiring PR firm Burson-Marsteller to pitch anti-Google stories to bloggers and traditional media without disclosing who was behind the campaign. When exposed, Facebook and Burson-Marsteller were publicly flogged for their ethical lapse.  Numerous cases involving false online identities, illustrated in the 2010 documentary Catfish, draw attention to the minefield of social media and the broad opportunities for deception.

At the end of the day, we expect and deserve full disclosure. Whether it’s a celebrity’s Facebook account or a CEO’s corporate blog, fans and followers respect and appreciate knowing who is speaking to us. Falsifying authorship can be detrimental to one’s reputation and isn’t easily forgotten. Remember when Milli Vanilli was exposed for lip syncing? We’re still talking about it.


  1. Very good points made. It's apparent which celebrities are really posting their own updates on social media sites and which ones have hired help. I don't want to follow the ones who use ghostwriters. The best athletes to follow on twitter, like Shaq and Paul Bissonnette, are the ones whose unique personalities come out in the tweets. If someone is going to "ghost tweet" for a celebrity or athlete then he or she needs to understand that person's personality. More celebrities should follow the Obama Twitter model and fully disclose the authorship of the account.

  2. I agree with Mike. I don't have an issue with ghostwriting as long as it is disclosed. I think it is unethical for celebrities, CEOs etc. to claim to be tweeting when the tweets are actually managed by someone else. This ties into the discussion we had in class this week. As we know blogging is very time consuming, and if someone is unable to blog frequently and thoughtfully then they should make it a team effort such as the Architecture firm we Jacqueline mentioned in class which promotes tweeting by various employees. The audience will value the diverse opinions rather than feel betrayed by ghostwriting.

  3. Great topic! Ghostwritten biographies have been around for decades. But in the age of social media it's an issue for two major reasons: 1) It's easier to ghost write electronically and few checks and balances are in place to prevent someone from assuming someone else's persona or writing lies.
    2) Authenticity is that much more important in the social media space, where the emphasis is on real people being social. I agree with Mike that the Obama approach works, and hopefully he is enforcing a norm that others feel obligated to follow, always identifying the speaker/sources.