Where Is Responsibility Bought & Rumor Sold? The Ethics, Influence and Responsibility of Social Networks.

As the tech world trumps itself daily and information spreads faster then you can send an email, we must ask ourselves where have social ‘net’ ethics gone? The days of major news outlets feeding the public piece meal drabs of selected stories are over. Finally, we choose where to have our news delivered from, not simple prime time television news or the available newspaper, but rather information tailored to our interests – globally distributed site by site, update by update, tweet by tweet. We undoubtedly enjoy this freedom. The analytic junky in me must wonder what ethics, if any, do these story providers have? Where is responsibility bought and rumor sold?

The integrity and ethics in journalism have long been up for debate. The ideal of honest unbiased reporting was once a priority for the public and held the news organizations and media accountable. Today, that hot news is at the bottom of your phone, tablet or computer screen in moments, as a fleeting blurb of forgotten-about twittered information. These fleeting online tid-bits are how we read today. Our ultra personal world of facts, news, rumors, opinions and footnotes are delivered right to our hands. Which brings me to brand managers, public relation professionals, marketers and publicists passing along messages to the masses in newly shared social networks. The social ‘net’ ethics in these fields are utterly important as they continue to shape public opinion.

In my recent ‘search’ for perspective on media ethics I came across a published debate within Google Books, in The Rotarian magazine of 1953, which argued a great point – if it was necessary to, “License the Public Relations Councilor.” Weighing in on this was The Father of Spin, Edward L. Bernays and Joseph W. Hicks, a notable public relations pro and former newspaper reporter of the time. The two commented on the idea of a public relations licensing program, freedom and social responsibility of the public relations professional – all still very relevant today. Bernays felt that the public relations profession should be required to obtain a license because of the influence on public opinion and social commitment.

“A profession is an art applied to a science in which the broad public interest and not profit is the primary consideration. …The public relations profession must define and adhere to its social responsibility or it may go under. Regrettably, under present conditions it is impossible for public relations voluntary organizations to exert sanctions against charlatans. The only solution for the problem of maintaining the profession is licensing.” p50

Hick’s side of the debate explored applied examples of public relations in action and the daily efforts of the PR professional. Hick’s did not agree with Bernays support of licensing public relation professionals and defined the new industry as:

“Public relations is any effort designed to improve the stature and dignity of an industry, an organization, a product, a service, a cause, or an individual. … Remember that public relations is not a well defined field…It is as broad as the elements that help people form opinions and the practices and devices it employs are varied…. Licensing any profession just because it is effective in molding opinion cuts across the very grain of our democratic way of thinking. We need the rivalry of counsels and the competition of many voices not only to get at the truth, but to elicit and to propagate these new ideas from which progress comes.” p51 & p52

Since that articles publication date through today there are no licenses for public relations professionals. This debate sought to answer questions that still loom about the public relations field, can be directly related to news outlets and those responsible for “propagating new ideas.” Today, those responsible are you and me.

The individual voice has never been so powerful. The excitement and possibilities of having a voice have many clamoring to achieve notoriety. I still wonder what, if any, ethics are implied with the start of these endeavors. Google’s motto, “don’t be evil” is a law enforced by public opinion, readership, listeners, followers, friends, etc. I continue to mention Google because currently, they are the most influential way people get there information. Is the individuals underlying code to be honest while passing along and posting information? Yes, absolutely. Groups, especially in the online world of interpersonal communication, must be honest. Fakers and frauds are called out in no time. This personal and rather rosy picture is something, as stated in the beginning of this blog, I continue to question albeit support.

I believe the internet has a way of policing it’s ethics. I very much feel it is also high-time for the common social networking enthusiast (I would like to use some other profane description but for validity purposes I’ll refrain) to understand they are part of a crowd. More so, groups and public opinion sway leaving many to follow, or stay current – whatever you would like to call it – with the new trends. Alluding to the questions I raised earlier, how do these people come to their “opinions?” Well, more research on Google Books brought me to a well known book, the 95 year old work by surgeon and sociologist, Wilfred Trotter INSTINCTS OF THE HERD IN PEACE AND WAR. By further bastardizing this blog and making it a hackneyed collegiate piece, I will highlight a few points in this work that still ring true today. In Trotter’s book there is an essay, Characters Of The Gregarious Animal Displayed By Man, and he explains:

“He is subject to the passions of the pack in his mob violence and the passions of the herd in his panics. These activities are by no means limited to the outbursts of actual crowds, but are to be seen equally clearly in the hue and cry of newspapers and public after some notorious criminal or scapegoat, and in the success of scaremongering by the same agencies.”p115

This quote moves the idea of a peer group, or crowd influencing a person’s opinions just the same as the printed word. Today’s streams of information greatly influence on the social networking enthusiast. Where does a person find their identity today? Where will it be found in the future? Just, a few more Trotter quotes and I’m almost done:

“The capacity for free intercommunication between individuals of the species has meant so much in the evolution of man, and will certainly come in the future to mean so incalculably more, that it cannot be regarded as anything less than a master element in the shaping of his destiny.”p120

“His relations with his fellows are dependent upon the recognition of him as a member of the herd. To show that the marvel of human communion began, perhaps, as a very humble function, and yet retains traces of its origin…The capacity for free intercommunication between individuals of the species has meant so much in the evolution of man, and will certainly come in the future to mean so incalculably more, that it cannot be regarded as anything less than a master element in the shaping of his destiny.” p118

“The flock, the herd, the pack, the swarm, new creatures all, flourished and ranged the world. Their power depended on the capacity for intercommunication amongst their members and expanded until the limits of this were reached. As long as intercommunication was limited the full possibilities of the new experiment were concealed, but at length appeared a creature in whom which this capacity could develop indefinitely. At once a power of a new magnitude was manifest. To-day he is fighting his way towards that goal, fighting for the perfect unit which Nature has so long foreshadowed, in which there shall be a complete communion of its members, unobstructed by egoism or hatred, by harshness or arrogance or the wolfish lust for blood. That perfect unit will be a new creature, recognizable as a single entity; to its million-minded power and knowledge no barrier will be insurmountable, no gulf impassable, no task too great.” p212

Trotter explores the human want for belonging, the want for communication and search for identity. These wants are bound by the social ethics of those sculpting groups, trends, art and communication. We are those people. The ones contributing blogs like this and creating content. We have a great responsibility that is inherent and held with the utmost importance. My question is, are people even aware of the power they hold?

This entry was posted in ethics, Influence, public relations, Responsibility, Social Network. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Where Is Responsibility Bought & Rumor Sold? The Ethics, Influence and Responsibility of Social Networks.

  1. Cat Cafarelli says:

    Great points raised.
    I’m still not sure about the licensing of PR people.
    I bet the Father of Spin is spinning today !

  2. rtcpublicity says:

    JQ–great post. Ethics should really rule the world and there are days I see unethical behavior and do wonder if some sort of license should be necessary in the PR field. But it is true, now, with blogging and other forms of social media the consumer holds the key. It’s a powerful and beautiful thing and I believe it is putting PR professionals in a position to go back to their roots, like Bernays, and work hard to get results–but this time in favor of the consumer.

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