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Gossip Websites Cross the Ethical Line

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Posted At: December 9, 2010 9:43 AM
by Laura Rabushka

Personal image management is a form of public relations that is becoming more and more necessary with the growth of the online business and networking sphere. Future PR professionals are aware that preserving a positive online image is crucial in achieving their ideal jobs because many businesses utilize the Internet to search for information regarding their applicants. Therefore, most future professionals view websites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn as advantageous to their reputations because individuals have the ability to manage and maintain their own personal images.

Other websites act more as hindrances than advantages in personal reputation development. Particular social websites don’t give the power to the individual to maintain his or her own image. Contrarily, these social websites, or gossip websites, allow users to publish information anonymously about other individuals. Though negative gossiping is the current and most popular use, the original intent of such websites was to create an anonymous free flow of information about topics students would otherwise be embarrassed or uncomfortable to address.

Websites such as the College ACB, Textsfromlastnight and many more were not originally created to prompt individuals to publish potentially harmful information about others. These websites were constructed to offer an outlet for predominantly college students to anonymously publish experiences, thoughts and questions regarding any topic.

Peter Frank, founder and operator of the College ACB, stated in a press release, “The College ACB or College Anonymous Confession Board seeks to give students a place to vent, rant, and talk to college peers in an environment free from social constraints and about subjects that might otherwise be taboo.” These websites are used to communicate, share, inform and entertain.

Because of college students’ natural impulses to gossip and share embarrassing stories, they gravitate toward these websites. Frank said the College ACB website “is the campus center, the dorm room, the cafeteria, and the lecture hall, all combined into a single, easily accessible forum where everyone is invited to converse openly, without fear of reprisal or reprimand.”

The anonymity of these sites shifts the power away from the individual and gives the commenter all of the control over another individual’s reputation — no blame, no consequences. It is impossible to prove whether information on the College ACB is true or not, thus providing an outlet for any individual to spread false or defamatory information about another person. This act can be life-altering for any future professional trying to maintain a respectable personal image, especially if the information published is false.

Many companies’ sole purpose is defending the reputations of individuals slandered on the Internet. John Tozzi, contributing writer for Businessweek.com, stated in anarticle about reputation management services, “Online reputation management evolved in the past two or three years in response to the explosion of social media that amplified the voices of individual Internet users.”

An example of one of these companies is ReputationDefender, founded by Michael Fertik. “Fertik and others are establishing a trade group, the Online Reputation Management Assn., to certify members and promote best practices, because no clear standards exist for what is and is not acceptable,” said Tozzi in the Businessweek.com article.

One form of clear standards do exist for what is and is not acceptable in the PR world. Social websites like Collete ACB are considered by many to be unethical. According to the PRSA Code of Ethics, successful public relations is dependent on the “ethics of its practitioners.” Although the people who run websites like CollegeACB are not PR professionals, the websites attack individuals’ reputations, and personal image management is a fundamental practice of public relations.

The PRSA Code of Ethics describes principles of ethical practice and advises professionals to abide by the following principles:

  • Protect and advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information.
  • Foster informed decision making through open communication.
  • Protect confidential and private information.
  • Promote healthy and fair competition among professionals.
  • Avoid conflicts of interest.
  • Work to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession.

A well-known goal for every public relations practitioner is to provide a positive image for his or her business or organization. But should businesses, specifically websites and social media, also keep these ethical practices in mind?

According to Tom Eppes, chairman of the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards, the PRSA Code of Ethics is essentially only for public relations practitioners; however, it would be beneficial for an organization to abide by these ethics if that organization is interested in ethical development.

“The PRSA Code of Ethics sets a standard for those who value and want to abide by the highest ethical standards in public relations,” Eppes said. “Those who have no interest in professional standards will not be concerned with it. Effective public relations practitioners build trust — and relationships — between an organization and its various stakeholders. Trust occurs as a result of open, truthful, two-way dialogue that respects the interests of all parties to the discussion.”

According to Ohio Wesleyan University’s newspaper, The Transcript, OWU students have been victims of slander on the College ACB, claiming that students were publishing false information about other students on the website.

“Ohio Wesleyan students are slandering their peers on [College ACB] made for college gossip,” reporter Kailey Miller said in the article. “Students are fully named and discriminated against for their sexual orientation, weight, race and promiscuity. Some students said they are regularly checking the sites and searching for their names to make sure they haven’t been labeled a slut or that their sexual orientation isn’t up for discussion. The website also serves as a place to find drugs from prescription medication to Cocaine and identifies the ‘druggies’ on campus.”

In the examples reported in the Transcript article, the College ACB violated principles one, three and five of the PRSA Code of Ethics. Because of the anonymous nature of many of the posts, a student’s good reputation and image can be discredited — truthfully or not — by anyone with little to no consequence. This ethical dilemma not only affects Ohio Wesleyan students, but also students everywhere.

The College ACB does seek to regulate the defamatory information. According to a College ACB representative, “College ACB does not have any legal obligation to remove offensive posts. However, we sincerely seek to raise the level of discourse on the site and, therefore, we voluntarily offer to remove offensive posts.”

The person seeking a deletion can submit the post number and reason for deletion.

According to Eppes, ethical qualities are hard to come by in this day and time.

“I can say without reservation that trust in all institutions is at historic lows, often because there is too little regard for truth and transparency,” Eppes said. “We would encourage any communicator to work with facts, with no shades of gray, at the same time recognizing that different interpretations of facts are possible but that neither trust nor relationships can form without honest and respectful dialogue about those different views.”

Gossip websites like the College ACB present many positive and negative uses to college students, communicators and institutions like universities. If used positively, these websites can provide an outlet to promote a positive image about an individual, an organization or an idea. They can also be used for genuine exchanges of information, such as identifying a common place to socialize on Friday nights or debating about which football team will win an upcoming game.

Gossip websites can also be used to slander others and spread false information about anyone or any organization. They can be damaging to a future professional’s image, an image they have spent years building and perfecting and one that only takes seconds to destroy.

What are other examples of social websites crossing the ethical line?

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