Last November, I wrote a piece about selfies for the Atlantic. I wanted to include a couple of great selfies that I'd found on social media. But I hesitated. Was it all right to just pull the images and run them on a mainstream site? Or did I have to get permission? Are posts on social media public, and as such fair game to be quoted and referenced by journalists? Or are they private communications, which can be ethically quoted (like emails) only if you receive permission?
There's no doubt that for many purposes, social media posts are treated as public utterances. Ilana Gershon, an associate professor at Indiana University in the Department of Communication and Culture, told me via email that "I have recently been looking at court cases in which employers dismissed employees for statements posted on social media (regardless of whether employers were allowed access to a profile by employees or not), and it seems to me pretty clear that the courts consider social media a public forum in which one can quote with impunity."
Journalists and bloggers also often "quote with impunity" from social media. For example, the Tumblr "Hello there, Racists" collects racist or homophobic posts from social media accounts, naming the users in question with the express purpose of shaming them. Obviously the people who posted the offending material were not asked for permission to reprint it. This is an extreme instance, but the general practice extends to other, more mainstream publications as well. At ThinkProgress in December, blogger Alyssa Rosenberg wrote a post on allegations about singer R. Kelly's history of abuse of women. In the course of the post, Rosenberg used a series of tweets by hoodfeminism and Guardian writer Mikki Kendall. Inthe tweets, Kendall talked about being approached by Kelly when she was a high school student on Chicago's South Side. Rosenberg did not ask permission to use the tweets. She treated them as public statements, much like other published articles she quotes in her piece.
Rosenberg declined to comment for this essay, but Kendall told me by email that she has objected to having her words used without her permission. "If you're going to treat someone as a source for an article they should know & consent to it. Especially in situations that can open them up to legal or social repercussions," she told me. "Fair use is a lovely concept for re-imagining fiction, not for putting someone's personal experience with a sexual predator into your article to give it a fresh twist without their consent. While it may be legal I don't think it's particularly moral." Slate Senior Editor Emily Bazelon made a parallel point in regard to the Hello there, Racists Tumblr, arguing that many of the people being exposed and shamed are minors who face long-term employment and personal consequences. "Internet vigilantism at the expense of kids is just a terrible idea, given their youth and the evidence that their brains aren’t fully developed, especially in the impulse-control regions," Bazelon argues.
Since lots of kids manage not to spew racist filth online, the argument from brain development seems a little dicey. And, as Kendall noted in her email, there's something uncomfortable about arguing that racists have the right to privacy "given the way so many POC's (people of color) Twitter feeds are treated." Still, while their focus is somewhat different, both Kendall and Bazelon are in agreement that quoting social media posts in a mainstream venue can expose people to unacceptable and even cruel personal and social consequences. According to Gershon, "Facebook, LinkedIn and many other social platforms allow people to have privacy settings that give them an illusion of control over who might be their audiences." When people write on Twitter or Facebook, they feel like they're speaking privately, to a select group. Publishing their words (with names and contact info) can seem like printing an overheard conversation; it's taking advantage of a presumption of privacy.
But should there be that presumption of privacy? Thinking you're speaking in private and actually speaking in private are two different things. When politicians accidentally say uncomfortable things near a live mic, no one thinks it's unethical to reprint it. Admittedly, politicians are public figures, but on the other hand, social media is a kind of constant live mic and that shouldn’t surprise folks who speak on it. As writer Roxane Gay told me in an email, "If someone has an unlocked social media account, I do think it is ethical to quote them without contacting them. The words exist in the public sphere and it is magical thinking to believe that there is some kind of privacy to public statements." Gay added, "It can be so overwhelming to have your words quoted by a major media source, and then have to face a vigorous response. In an ideal world, yes, people would get a heads up but is that an ethical choice? No. It's the polite choice. It is not unethical to forego that notification."
The problem here, I think, is that there isn't any one guide to how you should treat social media accounts. Personally, I'm a writer who uses social media as part of my work — if someone quoted my Twitter account, I wouldn't expect to be notified, any more than I expect to be notified when one of my essays is quoted. From that perspective, Rosenberg quoting Kendall, a widely published author, seems like it wouldn't require notification. But then again, as Kendall says, her tweets in this instance were very personal and very controversial; she was talking about sexual harassment and a public figure. Contacting Kendall seems like it would have been, as Gay says, the polite thing to do — and I'd argue that (contra Gay) politeness and ethics here shade into one another.
Along those lines, in my article on selfies, I did in fact contact the people whose images I used. Both of those people seemed to be posting for a relatively private audience; certainly neither was expecting to have their faces show up on a mainstream news site. In addition, the article was about how I liked and admired their pictures, so I didn't want to post the pictures and then find out that I'd offended. Asking permission seemed like the right choice to make, at least in this instance.
In quoting social media, then, it seems like journalists need to think about a number of factors. Is the person being quoted a public figure? Is the person being quoted a minor or an adult? What is the content of the post, and what negative effects will quotation have on the person who posted it? On the one end, it seems clear you should be able to quote John Boehner's tweets without asking his permission. On the other, quoting the Facebook posts of minors, complete with contact information, in order to ridicule them is very hard to justify. In the middle, the ground is murkier, which means that both folks using social media and journalists quoting social media need to think carefully before they publish.