- Internet Ethics Cases
- Markkula Center for Applied Ethics
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- Internet Ethics
Find ethics case studies on topics in Internet ethics including privacy, hacking, social media, the right to be forgotten, and hashtag activism. (For permission to reprint articles, submit requests to [email protected] .)
Ethical questions arise in interactions among students, instructors, administrators, and providers of AI tools.
What can we learn from the Tay experience, about AI and social media ethics more broadly?
Who should be consulted before using emotion-recognition AI to report on constituents’ sentiments?
When 'algorithm alchemy' wrongly accuses people of fraud, who is accountable?
Which stakeholders might benefit from a new age of VR “travel”? Which stakeholders might be harmed?
Ethical questions about data collection, data-sharing, access, use, and privacy.
As PunkSpider is pending re-release, ethical issues are considered about a tool that is able to spot and share vulnerabilities on the web, opening those results to the public.
With URVR recipients can capture and share 360 3D moments and live them out together.
VR rage rooms may provide therapeutic and inexpensive benefits while also raising ethical questions.
A VR dating app intended to help ease the stress and awkwardness of early dating in a safe and comfortable way.
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Ethical Dilemmas of Social Media – and How to Navigate Them
29. July 2020
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:
- 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.
- Tempo Dilemmas occur because the exchanges in social media happen quickly, with an increased risk of making mistakes.
- 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.
- Speech Dilemmas arise in connection with decisions about what it is acceptable to express when being active on a social media platform.
- 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.
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.
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Ethics Ethics Case Studies
The SPJ Code of Ethics is voluntarily embraced by thousands of journalists, regardless of place or platform, and is widely used in newsrooms and classrooms as a guide for ethical behavior. The code is intended not as a set of "rules" but as a resource for ethical decision-making. It is not nor can it be under the First Amendment legally enforceable. For an expanded explanation, please follow this link .
For journalism instructors and others interested in presenting ethical dilemmas for debate and discussion, SPJ has a useful resource. We've been collecting a number of case studies for use in workshops. The Ethics AdviceLine operated by the Chicago Headline Club and Loyola University also has provided a number of examples. There seems to be no shortage of ethical issues in journalism these days. Please feel free to use these examples in your classes, speeches, columns, workshops or other modes of communication.
Kobe Bryants Past: A Tweet Too Soon? On January 26, 2020, Kobe Bryant died at the age of 41 in a helicopter crash in the Los Angeles area. While the majority of social media praised Bryant after his death, within a few hours after the story broke, Felicia Sonmez, a reporter for The Washington Post , tweeted a link to an article from 2003 about the allegations of sexual assault against Bryant. The question: Is there a limit to truth-telling? How long (if at all) should a journalist wait after a persons death before resurfacing sensitive information about their past?
A controversial apology After photographs of a speech and protests at Northwestern University appeared on the university's newspaper's website, some of the participants contacted the newspaper to complain. It became a firestorm, first from students who felt victimized, and then, after the newspaper apologized, from journalists and others who accused the newspaper of apologizing for simply doing its job. The question: Is an apology the appropriate response? Is there something else the student journalists should have done?
Using the Holocaust Metaphor People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, is a nonprofit animal rights organization known for its controversial approach to communications and public relations. In 2003, PETA launched a new campaign, named Holocaust on Your Plate, that compares the slaughter of animals for human use to the murder of 6 million Jews in WWII. The question: Is Holocaust on Your Plate ethically wrong or a truthful comparison?
Aaargh! Pirates! (and the Press) As collections of songs, studio recordings from an upcoming album or merely unreleased demos, are leaked online, these outlets cover the leak with a breaking story or a blog post. But they dont stop there. Rolling Stone and Billboard often also will include a link within the story to listen to the songs that were leaked. The question: If Billboard and Rolling Stone are essentially pointing readers in the right direction, to the leaked music, are they not aiding in helping the Internet community find the material and consume it?
Reigning on the Parade Frank Whelan, a features writer who also wrote a history column for the Allentown, Pennsylvania, Morning Call , took part in a gay rights parade in June 2006 and stirred up a classic ethical dilemma. The situation raises any number of questions about what is and isnt a conflict of interest. The question: What should the consequences be for Frank Whelan?
Controversy over a Concert Three former members of the Eagles rock band came to Denver during the 2004 election campaign to raise money for a U.S. Senate candidate, Democrat Ken Salazar. John Temple, editor and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News, advised his reporters not to go to the fundraising concerts. The question: Is it fair to ask newspaper staffers or employees at other news media, for that matter not to attend events that may have a political purpose? Are the rules different for different jobs at the news outlet?
Deep Throat, and His Motive The Watergate story is considered perhaps American journalisms defining accomplishment. Two intrepid young reporters for The Washington Post , carefully verifying and expanding upon information given to them by sources they went to great lengths to protect, revealed brutally damaging information about one of the most powerful figures on Earth, the American president. The question: Is protecting a source more important than revealing all the relevant information about a news story?
When Sources Wont Talk The SPJ Code of Ethics offers guidance on at least three aspects of this dilemma. Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. One source was not sufficient in revealing this information. The question: How could the editors maintain credibility and remain fair to both sides yet find solid sources for a news tip with inflammatory allegations?
A Suspect Confession John Mark Karr, 41, was arrested in mid-August in Bangkok, Thailand, at the request of Colorado and U.S. officials. During questioning, he confessed to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. Karr was arrested after Michael Tracey, a journalism professor at the University of Colorado, alerted authorities to information he had drawn from e-mails Karr had sent him over the past four years. The question: Do you break a confidence with your source if you think it can solve a murder or protect children half a world away?
Whos the Predator? To Catch a Predator, the ratings-grabbing series on NBCs Dateline, appeared to catch on with the public. But it also raised serious ethical questions for journalists. The question: If your newspaper or television station were approached by Perverted Justice to participate in a sting designed to identify real and potential perverts, should you go along, or say, No thanks? Was NBC reporting the news or creating it?
The Medias Foul Ball The Chicago Cubs in 2003 were five outs from advancing to the World Series for the first time since 1945 when a 26-year-old fan tried to grab a foul ball, preventing outfielder Moises Alou from catching it. The hapless fan's identity was unknown. But he became recognizable through televised replays as the young baby-faced man in glasses, a Cubs baseball cap and earphones who bobbled the ball and was blamed for costing the Cubs a trip to the World Series. The question: Given the potential danger to the man, should he be identified by the media?
Publishing Drunk Drivers Photos When readers of The Anderson News picked up the Dec. 31, 1997, issue of the newspaper, stripped across the top of the front page was a New Years greeting and a warning. HAVE A HAPPY NEW YEAR, the banner read. But please dont drink and drive and risk having your picture published. Readers were referred to the editorial page where White explained that starting in January 1998 the newspaper would publish photographs of all persons convicted of drunken driving in Anderson County. The question: Is this an appropriate policy for a newspaper?
Naming Victims of Sex Crimes On January 8, 2007, 13-year-old Ben Ownby disappeared while walking home from school in Beaufort, Missouri. A tip from a school friend led police on a frantic four-day search that ended unusually happily: the police discovered not only Ben, but another boy as well15-year-old Shawn Hornbeck, who, four years earlier, had disappeared while riding his bike at the age of 11. Media scrutiny on Shawns years of captivity became intense. The question: Question: Should children who are thought to be the victims of sexual abuse ever be named in the media? What should be done about the continued use of names of kidnap victims who are later found to be sexual assault victims? Should use of their names be discontinued at that point?
A Self-Serving Leak San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams were widely praised for their stories about sports figures involved with steroids. They turned their investigation into a very successful book, Game of Shadows . And they won the admiration of fellow journalists because they were willing to go to prison to protect the source who had leaked testimony to them from the grand jury investigating the BALCO sports-and-steroids. Their source, however, was not quite so noble. The question: Should the two reporters have continued to protect this key source even after he admitted to lying? Should they have promised confidentiality in the first place?
The Times and Jayson Blair Jayson Blair advanced quickly during his tenure at The New York Times , where he was hired as a full-time staff writer after his internship there and others at The Boston Globe and The Washington Post . Even accusations of inaccuracy and a series of corrections to his reports on Washington, D.C.-area sniper attacks did not stop Blair from moving on to national coverage of the war in Iraq. But when suspicions arose over his reports on military families, an internal review found that he was fabricating material and communicating with editors from his Brooklyn apartment or within the Times building rather than from outside New York. The question: How does the Times investigate problems and correct policies that allowed the Blair scandal to happen?
Cooperating with the Government It began on Jan. 18, 2005, and ended two weeks later after the longest prison standoff in recent U.S. history. The question: Should your media outlet go along with the states request not to release the information?
Offensive Images Caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad didnt cause much of a stir when they were first published in September 2005. But when they were republished in early 2006, after Muslim leaders called attention to the 12 images, it set off rioting throughout the Islamic world. Embassies were burned; people were killed. After the rioting and killing started, it was difficult to ignore the cartoons. Question: Do we publish the cartoons or not?
The Sting Perverted-Justice.com is a Web site that can be very convenient for a reporter looking for a good story. But the tactic raises some ethical questions. The Web site scans Internet chat rooms looking for men who can be lured into sexually explicit conversations with invented underage correspondents. Perverted-Justice posts the mens pictures on its Web site. Is it ethically defensible to employ such a sting tactic? Should you buy into the agenda of an advocacy group even if its an agenda as worthy as this one?
A Media-Savvy Killer Since his first murder in 1974, the BTK killer his own acronym, for bind, torture, kill has sent the Wichita Eagle four letters and one poem. How should a newspaper, or other media outlet, handle communications from someone who says hes guilty of multiple sensational crimes? And how much should it cooperate with law enforcement authorities?
A Congressmans Past The (Portland) Oregonian learned that a Democratic member of the U.S. Congress, up for re-election to his fourth term, had been accused by an ex-girlfriend of a sexual assault some 28 years previously. But criminal charges never were filed, and neither the congressman, David Wu, nor his accuser wanted to discuss the case now, only weeks before the 2004 election. Question: Should The Oregonian publish this story?
Using this Process to Craft a Policy It used to be that a reporter would absolutely NEVER let a source check out a story before it appeared. But there has been growing acceptance of the idea that its more important to be accurate than to be independent. Do we let sources see what were planning to write? And if we do, when?
SPJ News E.W. Scripps School of Journalism named Historic Site in Journalism ProPublica, The Texas Tribune, The Marshall Project, Military Times, City Bureau, The Maine Monitor honored with SPJ Sunshine Award Austin American-Statesman, Chicago Tribune, ProPublica and The Washington Post earn SPJ Ethics in Journalism Awards
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Case Studies UT Star Icon
More than 60 cases pair ethics concepts with real world situations. From journalism, performing arts, and scientific research to sports, law, and business, these case studies explore current and historic ethical dilemmas, their motivating biases, and their consequences. Each case includes discussion questions, related videos, and a bibliography.
A Million Little Pieces
James Frey’s popular memoir stirred controversy and media attention after it was revealed to contain numerous exaggerations and fabrications.
Abramoff: Lobbying Congress
Super-lobbyist Abramoff was caught in a scheme to lobby against his own clients. Was a corrupt individual or a corrupt system – or both – to blame?
Apple Suppliers & Labor Practices
Is tech company Apple, Inc. ethically obligated to oversee the questionable working conditions of other companies further down their supply chain?
Approaching the Presidency: Roosevelt & Taft
Some presidents view their responsibilities in strictly legal terms, others according to duty. Roosevelt and Taft took two extreme approaches.
Fairey’s portrait of Barack Obama raised debate over the extent to which an artist can use and modify another’s artistic work, yet still call it one’s own.
Arctic Offshore Drilling
Competing groups frame the debate over oil drilling off Alaska’s coast in varying ways depending on their environmental and economic interests.
Banning Burkas: Freedom or Discrimination?
The French law banning women from wearing burkas in public sparked debate about discrimination and freedom of religion.
Birthing Vaccine Skepticism
Wakefield published an article riddled with inaccuracies and conflicts of interest that created significant vaccine hesitancy regarding the MMR vaccine.
Blurred Lines of Copyright
Marvin Gaye’s Estate won a lawsuit against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for the hit song “Blurred Lines,” which had a similar feel to one of his songs.
Bullfighting: Art or Not?
Bullfighting has been a prominent cultural and artistic event for centuries, but in recent decades it has faced increasing criticism for animal rights’ abuse.
Buying Green: Consumer Behavior
Do purchasing green products, such as organic foods and electric cars, give consumers the moral license to indulge in unethical behavior?
Cadavers in Car Safety Research
Engineers at Heidelberg University insist that the use of human cadavers in car safety research is ethical because their research can save lives.
Cheating: Atlanta’s School Scandal
Teachers and administrators at Parks Middle School adjust struggling students’ test scores in an effort to save their school from closure.
Cheney v. U.S. District Court
A controversial case focuses on Justice Scalia’s personal friendship with Vice President Cheney and the possible conflict of interest it poses to the case.
Christina Fallin: “Appropriate Culturation?”
After Fallin posted a picture of herself wearing a Plain’s headdress on social media, uproar emerged over cultural appropriation and Fallin’s intentions.
Climate Change & the Paris Deal
While climate change poses many abstract problems, the actions (or inactions) of today’s populations will have tangible effects on future generations.
Covering Female Athletes
Sports Illustrated stirs controversy when their cover photo of an Olympic skier seems to focus more on her physical appearance than her athletic abilities.
Covering Yourself? Journalists and the Bowl Championship
Can news outlets covering the Bowl Championship Series fairly report sports news if their own polls were used to create the news?
After a student defames a middle school teacher on social media, the teacher confronts the student in class and posts a video of the confrontation online.
Defending Freedom of Tweets?
Running back Rashard Mendenhall receives backlash from fans after criticizing the celebration of the assassination of Osama Bin Laden in a tweet.
Dennis Kozlowski: Living Large
Dennis Kozlowski was an effective leader for Tyco in his first few years as CEO, but eventually faced criminal charges over his use of company assets.
File-sharing program Napster sparked debate over the legal and ethical dimensions of downloading unauthorized copies of copyrighted music.
Dr. V’s Magical Putter
Journalist Caleb Hannan outed Dr. V as a trans woman, sparking debate over the ethics of Hannan’s reporting, as well its role in Dr. V’s suicide.
Ebola & American Intervention
Did the dispatch of U.S. military units to Liberia to aid in humanitarian relief during the Ebola epidemic help or hinder the process?
Edward Snowden: Traitor or Hero?
Was Edward Snowden’s release of confidential government documents ethically justifiable?
Ethical Use of Home DNA Testing
The rising popularity of at-home DNA testing kits raises questions about privacy and consumer rights.
Flying the Confederate Flag
A heated debate ensues over whether or not the Confederate flag should be removed from the South Carolina State House grounds.
Freedom of Speech on Campus
In the wake of racially motivated offenses, student protests sparked debate over the roles of free speech, deliberation, and tolerance on campus.
Freedom vs. Duty in Clinical Social Work
What should social workers do when their personal values come in conflict with the clients they are meant to serve?
Full Disclosure: Manipulating Donors
When an intern witnesses a donor making a large gift to a non-profit organization under misleading circumstances, she struggles with what to do.
Gaming the System: The VA Scandal
The Veterans Administration’s incentives were meant to spur more efficient and productive healthcare, but not all administrators complied as intended.
German Police Battalion 101
During the Holocaust, ordinary Germans became willing killers even though they could have opted out from murdering their Jewish neighbors.
Head Injuries & American Football
Many studies have linked traumatic brain injuries and related conditions to American football, creating controversy around the safety of the sport.
Healthcare Obligations: Personal vs. Institutional
A medical doctor must make a difficult decision when informing patients of the effectiveness of flu shots while upholding institutional recommendations.
High Stakes Testing
In the wake of the No Child Left Behind Act, parents, teachers, and school administrators take different positions on how to assess student achievement.
In-FUR-mercials: Advertising & Adoption
When the Lied Animal Shelter faces a spike in animal intake, an advertising agency uses its moral imagination to increase pet adoptions.
Krogh & the Watergate Scandal
Egil Krogh was a young lawyer working for the Nixon Administration whose ethics faded from view when asked to play a part in the Watergate break-in.
Limbaugh on Drug Addiction
Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh argued that drug abuse was a choice, not a disease. He later became addicted to painkillers.
Meet Me at Starbucks
Two black men were arrested after an employee called the police on them, prompting Starbucks to implement “racial-bias” training across all its stores.
Buying amber could potentially fund an ethnic civil war, but refraining allows collectors to acquire important specimens that could be used for research.
Bankruptcy lawyer Gellene successfully represented a mining company during a major reorganization, but failed to disclose potential conflicts of interest.
Pao & Gender Bias
Ellen Pao stirred debate in the venture capital and tech industries when she filed a lawsuit against her employer on grounds of gender discrimination.
One month after Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency, Gerald Ford made the controversial decision to issue Nixon a full pardon.
Patient Autonomy & Informed Consent
Nursing staff and family members struggle with informed consent when taking care of a patient who has been deemed legally incompetent.
Prenatal Diagnosis & Parental Choice
Debate has emerged over the ethics of prenatal diagnosis and reproductive freedom in instances where testing has revealed genetic abnormalities.
Reporting on Robin Williams
After Robin Williams took his own life, news media covered the story in great detail, leading many to argue that such reporting violated the family’s privacy.
Responding to Child Migration
An influx of children migrants posed logistical and ethical dilemmas for U.S. authorities while intensifying ongoing debate about immigration.
Retracting Research: The Case of Chandok v. Klessig
A researcher makes the difficult decision to retract a published, peer-reviewed article after the original research results cannot be reproduced.
Sacking Social Media in College Sports
In the wake of questionable social media use by college athletes, the head coach at University of South Carolina bans his players from using Twitter.
Following the deregulation of electricity markets in California, private energy company Enron profited greatly, but at a dire cost.
Snyder v. Phelps
Freedom of speech was put on trial in a case involving the Westboro Baptist Church and their protesting at the funeral of U.S. Marine Matthew Snyder.
Something Fishy at the Paralympics
Rampant cheating has plagued the Paralympics over the years, compromising the credibility and sportsmanship of Paralympian athletes.
Sports Blogs: The Wild West of Sports Journalism?
Deadspin pays an anonymous source for information related to NFL star Brett Favre, sparking debate over the ethics of “checkbook journalism.”
Stangl & the Holocaust
Franz Stangl was the most effective Nazi administrator in Poland, killing nearly one million Jews at Treblinka, but he claimed he was simply following orders.
Teaching Blackface: A Lesson on Stereotypes
A teacher was put on leave for showing a blackface video during a lesson on racial segregation, sparking discussion over how to teach about stereotypes.
The Astros’ Sign-Stealing Scandal
The Houston Astros rode a wave of success, culminating in a World Series win, but it all came crashing down when their sign-stealing scheme was revealed.
The Central Park Five
Despite the indisputable and overwhelming evidence of the innocence of the Central Park Five, some involved in the case refuse to believe it.
The CIA Leak
Legal and political fallout follows from the leak of classified information that led to the identification of CIA agent Valerie Plame.
The Collapse of Barings Bank
When faced with growing losses, investment banker Nick Leeson took big risks in an attempt to get out from under the losses. He lost.
The Costco Model
How can companies promote positive treatment of employees and benefit from leading with the best practices? Costco offers a model.
The FBI & Apple Security vs. Privacy
How can tech companies and government organizations strike a balance between maintaining national security and protecting user privacy?
The Miss Saigon Controversy
When a white actor was cast for the half-French, half-Vietnamese character in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon , debate ensued.
Providing radiation therapy to cancer patients, Therac-25 had malfunctions that resulted in 6 deaths. Who is accountable when technology causes harm?
The Welfare Reform Act changed how welfare operated, intensifying debate over the government’s role in supporting the poor through direct aid.
Wells Fargo and Moral Emotions
In a settlement with regulators, Wells Fargo Bank admitted that it had created as many as two million accounts for customers without their permission.
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