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The Right to Tweet

by on April 8, 2014

I’d like to draw attention to a very interesting ethical dilemma that occurred last month and relates to media ethics in the new age of social media. A Twitter user, @steenfox, recently asked her followers who had previously been sexually assaulted to post what they were wearing when it happened. The result was an outpouring of tweets in response. BuzzFeed’s Jessica Testa reached out the tweeters directly, asking if she could use their tweets in an article. She then posted the article on the publication’s website. @steenfox, also known as Pariah Carey, then became angry that Testa did not “get her permission” for the tweets, although none of them were her own. Poynter’s Kelly McBride even got involved, adding her two cents in defending Testa and BuzzFeed.

I think this is an important example of how versatile ethical dilemmas can be, especially in the online sphere. I think Testa made the right choice in reaching out to the tweeters specifically and asking for their consent. I think McBride summed it up perfectly in saying,

“But just because these tweets involve sexual assault, there’s no reason to suggest the solicitor has ownership of the answers. If I ask my followers what they thought about online dating or the Sixers losing streak or the Common Core Standards, I wouldn’t have any claim to control their answers, either individually or in the aggregate. In an email to Poynter, @steenfox explained her main objection with BuzzFeed was the use of her image with the story without her permission.”

What do other people think? Where does the “right” to a tweet lie?


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  1. I think this is a really interesting area of ethics, specifically because social media is still relatively new and there are no established norms for its use. In this case, I don’t think @steenfox had any right to be upset about Testa using the tweets of the responders, especially because she reached out to them individually. On Twitter, the notion of “ownership” can’t be claimed (or implied) by someone who simply presents a question to the larger audience or a hashtag into the Twitterverse. I also agree that Testa acted correctly in asking the tweeters if she could use their pictures and stories in her article.
    In response to @steenfox’s complaint about Buzzfeed using her picture without permission, I don’t quite think she has a leg to stand on. What you put onto the internet, including pictures, becomes public domain by simply existing on the internet. It is a place where there is little privacy. Unless her profile was specifically under private settings, which I doubt by the fact that she tweeted a question to people who later poured in responses, something you cannot do under private, she can’t really complain.
    Twitter and other social media sites pose a new area of ethics we will have to navigate as a generation as we attempt to define levels of privacy and ownership and use.

  2. I think that when somebody tweets something, they have the “right” to that tweet and that tweet only. If people respond to that tweet, like in @steenfox’s case, just because @steenfox asks the question doesn’t mean she has ownership of the responses the question produces. She didn’t have any control over the responders thoughts and whatever the responder tweets is essentially that person’s thoughts. I think we all have ownership of our own thoughts, therefore we have ownership over our tweets.
    I think Testa did the right thing by asking the rape victims who responded for permission to use their tweets in an article, especially since the article was about such a touchy subjects. I think @steenfox made a big deal about it because she was upset about the article being written, since it stemmed from a conversation she started with her tweet. She probably felt that Testa owed something to her because without the original question, the idea for the story never would have risen.
    In the end though, Testa wasn’t wrong by not asking @steenfox for permission. However, twitter and other social media networks present different ethical dilemmas for journalists and in the next few years we will begin to develop ground rules for journalism and social media.

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