Sunday, February 22, 2009

The "Ethics" of Online Comments

I was recently involved in an interesting discussion about association and individual response to online postings inclusive of misinformation or negative information that could have a counter-point. Specifically, online media reports with public comment sections. Secondarily, blogs of individuals and non-media organizations - recognizing those are frequently "opinion" based and preaching to the choir (or trying to inflame the choir) versus online media sites which deliver "news" to the public.

The discussion included:

1. When an association has information to refute details in a news media article, should corrective info be immediately provided - and if so, under what name?

2. If a group of individuals wants to be alerted that there may be an online news article about their industry/profession that they may want to provide personal comment to - is it entirely appropriate to use a name like all other commenters "Brad from Anywhere" or "Cairn Owner from Chicago" (or even anonymous if that's allowed) versus using a real name?

It also took about 30 seconds of discussion to figure out who in the group routinely uses social media, including reading online comments regularly, and those who only have opinion about it (but don't actually engage in it).

1. Online comments are not print "Letters to the Editors". While print media has rules about specifically identifying who has written a letter to the editor, including their credential if that applies, it definitely doesn't apply in the online world. Many online do not reveal who they are, on purpose. And online media sites don't require it.

2. Ethics, shmethics. One person thought it highly unethical for anyone to not clearly state their name, rank and serial number if they are in the industry commenting on an industry article. It's true the online world includes a mighty smart bunch who can unmask an online name, so pretending to be a member of the public when actually an organizational official doesn't make much sense - BUT a regular, grassroots person wanting to provide personal opinion on an industry topic may not have some random ethical standard on a site where everyone else posting is under an assumed name. Or do they? Are "ethics" for any given site ultimately defined solely by that site's owner (including option of no rules)? I think yes.

3. If you're the expert, then be the expert. If an association has facts that can clarify, refute or support an online media report then it does add to the credibility of the comment to identify the source of the information - and to become recognized by that online community.

4. It's ugly out there. There really isn't much quite as ugly as when a bunch of online commenters all turn on each other inside a comments section. It's surely info-tainment to the readers, but those who have never experienced it may want to start with their fake online name and see what their comfort level is for receiving personal attacks to online comments.

5. Whither thou goest, I will go. If the public is reading comments to online media stories, and online media sites have really large audiences, the rationale for not being in that space escapes me. But a few suggested that.

6. Choosing to ignore online bullies. There are bloggers who try to grow an audience by intentionally being the online equivalent of a high school bully daring you or your organization to respond to some inflammatory remark. Should online bully response mirror real-life bully response: i.e., ignore them? Absolutely no organization needs to engage in responding if they don't want to, or if it's clearly just someone trying to pick a fight. If bullies can't get a reaction then they failed. Even if (just like adolescents) a bunch of others join in to egg it on too - always consider the "so what" test before responding. And yes, there's a difference between a major news program being inflammatory and an individual with their own agenda being inflammatory. Pick your battles wisely.

So the real question is ... when associations discuss approach and policy to participating with online comments, should it matter if those in the discussion are already into social media or does that slant it entirely in a direction that may not be what will ultimately be acceptable if there's a large percentage that wouldn't agree with it (i.e., due to the unknown)?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am not sure what you mean by the last question...I've read it several times, and it's still unclear...

But what I do think is that social media comments are an important insight into what the participants think, which is more important than preserving association's party line with replies. For instance, I just finished "What Would Google Do?", and the chapter on Realtors is unfair and filled with personal bias, not facts. But what is said about transparency in marketing and transaction management far outweighs the author's comments on the performance of real estate salespersons. It's important to consider the value of the observation as well as constructing an association reply. And in some cases, the association's defense can only be seen as self-serving and is better left unsaid.