Average citizens now have the power to make formerly private interactions in a private space extremely public. Journalists have had the ability for many decades through print newspapers and magazines, radio, and, in particular, television. Now, powerful smartphones connected to social media and YouTube mean that anyone can put pictures and video online, sometimes with devastating consequences for someone's marriage, education, job, or future prospects for all three.
In an ideal world, the ethical question a journalist equipped with a notebook, a camera, a video recorder, and access to a front page or a television network had to make in the past and present was whether reporting something served a public interest. In the world we live in, tabloid papers, TMZ, newsletters, and gossip websites seek out information about public figures for commercial gain. Those same outlets and their descendents provide a market for pictures and video of celebrities, along with forums for more sensitive media about non-celebrities, from embarrassing drunken episodes to sensitive issues to even uglier fare.
This past week, I watched an online debate rage across my screen that captured something of the zeitgeist humanity will face as more of us become connected. The firestorm was touched off when Jessica Testa, a staffer at BuzzFeed, reported on a conversation she saw on Twitter between Adele Dazeem and dozens of people, where the survivors of sexual assault shared what they were wearing at the time of the assault. After the post went live, Dazeem and people in her network reacted to the amplification of a huge conversation that had previously only been visible within a much smaller network of people on Twitter.
The episode spawned its own meta conversation, with a sharp divergence between journalists who held that Twitter was public and users who felt that their conversations on the social network weren't intended to be front-page material.
Billions of people know "visible on the web" doesn't always equal "I want this published in the media with ads around it". Respect that.— Anil Dash (@anildash) March 13, 2014
Kelly McBride, a faculty member at the Poynter Institute, wrote about the ethics of the situation, noting that Testa reached out to the people whose tweets she quoted in the story, a step further than many other members of the media might go before embedding a public tweet or Facebook update.
Many people in media say everything on Twitter is public & fair game but can't or won't concede "public" has many meanings.— Anil Dash (@anildash) March 13, 2014
Did Testa act ethically in publishing these tweets? It's complicated. Scott Klein, a ProPublica editor, said at a forum at the Tow Center in New York City last year that "no one should ever be surprised to be in the newspaper." That same standard should be applied to digital-only outlets as well, particularly those that are popular within a given community or that have huge audiences.
The entire episode and the reaction to it captures a dynamic that is profoundly complicated but far from new. There's just a lot more people online now, using social networks, updating them using powerful, video-capable smartphones. Four years ago, I wondered about when we are the media, how it changes us or society.
More cogently, Microsoft researcher danah boyd anticipated many of these issues in a talk on privacy and publicity in the age of big data back in 2010. As she noted then, "people regularly go out of their way to ignore others, to give them privacy in a public setting."
As Hamilton Nolan correctly noted at Gawker, all tweets are public, except those posted to protected accounts.
The trouble is that not everyone thinks of their tweets that way. "Privacy by obscurity" still exists and persists, even on a platform that is profoundly public. Offline, people also may view a public conversation in a park, a cafe, or a train as semi-private. This is true of Facebook as well. For years, I would show audiences at panels or conferences a search for "hungover" on the public Facebook Timeline on a Monday morning as suggestive evidence that people's perception of the forum was not public.
"When you take content produced explicitly or implicitly out of its context, you're violating social norms," said boyd. As she asked, "just because we can rupture obscurity, should we? Just because we can publicize content, should we?"
If you publish conversations from those networks without notice or consent, expect participants to be upset. Just because tweets are public doesn't mean journalists with a huge platform should automatically amplify them, particularly if doing so doesn't serve a newsworthy purpose or serve the public interest—and if the updates touch upon a sensitive subject, as these did.
Given the democratization of recording and publishing, these kinds of ethical decisions are no longer just in the hands of reporters and editors. It's contingent upon all of us to stop and think about whether we should record someone else's experience, particularly if they are in extremis. As I move through the physical world and share what I see or experience with hundreds of thousands of people, I'm trying to keep that in mind.The Golden Rule still applies, albeit in a different context: document and share the lives of others as you yourself would want to be documented, with an eye on the potential harm that could come to them or those they care about should a tweet or video come to the attention of millions of others.
Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.