Facebook and Business Ethics: Five Questions to Ponder

By Todd Bacile, Ph.D. | January 21, 2014

Five Ethics Questions about the Social Giant

Ethical business practices are imperative for today’s business leaders. So, how does our social media giant, Facebook, fare in the ethics department? Let’s examine these five questions to find out.

#1: What am I agreeing to in Facebook’s user agreement?

Facebook

For the users of Facebook’s mobile app you should know the following. First, Facebook can monitor you by microphone at any time. Second, Facebook has the right to take videos and pictures using the phone’s camera at any time without permission. Third, Facebook has the right to read your phone’s call log and capture data about your contacts, such as the frequency you have called, emailed or communicated with each.

Mobile aside, the Facebook user agreement at one time or another has stated things such as Facebook does not guarantee that its site is safe or secure; Facebook owns a worldwide licensing right to any content you share; and Facebook may use your name or images in ads.

#2: Will Facebook use my likeness in advertisements without my explicit permission?

Starbucks Sponsored Story ExampleBuilding on that last point, Sponsored Stories was one of several types of Facebook’s advertising models. The engagement rate with these types of ads outperformed competing models. Why? Because your friends and family members were depicted in an ad-like format as if they were promoting certain products.

By the way: your friends and family members often had no idea Facebook was using their name and / or image in association with product promotion. Of course this led to lawsuits against Facebook. Legal pressure “persuaded” Facebook to discontinue Sponsored Stories. Yet, one must wonder if these types of ads will resurface at a later date.

#3: Have we seen the last of our deceased friends and relatives used in Facebook’s advertisements?

Facebook and Deceased UsersI’ve written before about Facebook “accidentally” using deceased persons in ads such as Sponsored Stories. How could this happen you may ask? Well, a friend/family member with a Facebook profile dies. It is not uncommon for people to post positive messages and tag the deceased in posts/pictures for peace of mind and a type of memorial. Facebook’s algorithms would notice increased engagement surrounding the deceased’s user account.

And like any advertiser, if someone is influential, popular, or being talked about then an effort must be made to promote products associated with that person. Sure enough, Facebook would serve up Sponsored Stories featuring the deceased to friends and families. Facebook claims it did not serve up these ads on purpose; and it has since tweaked its algorithms to prevent this from recurring.

#4: How private are my “private” messages sent to other Facebook users?

Facebook’s algorithms read your private messages that you send to other Facebook users. Facebook claims it does so to detect criminal behavior. Oddly enough, though, if you send a private message which includes a hyperlink, Facebook may automatically assign a “Like” for the hyperlinked page! It makes you wonder what else is happening to your so-called “private” messages.

#5: Will Facebook crack down on fake “Likes”?

Facebook LikesItem #4 points to another problem: “Like” Fraud. There are two distinct fraud activities happening on Facebook. The first is “Like” scams. This occurs when a page posts provocative images or offers prizes in an effort to gain a lot of likes. The owner of the page then attempts to sell the page to a third-party.

Why? It takes time and effort to build a social following. Some unscrupulous companies want to avoid the work and simply buy a page with a “following”. In fact, there are online markets to facilitate such sales. At the time of this writing, it appears the asking price of a Facebook page with 42,000 likes is $50!

The second type of like fraud is when a page decides to purchase likes in bulk. The practice of buying a large following has been popular on Twitter for years. Well, it is also happening on Facebook. One reason is that a like count is a vanity metric. It looks nice to have a larger following, but there is a debate as to what likes actually mean.

To its credit, Facebook has claimed it is cracking down on all fraudulent “Like” activities.

Ethical Social Media?

These five questions and answers raise serious concerns about ethical business practices used at Facebook. Many consumers are skeptical that their information and privacy are safe within Facebook’s servers. Facebook is the king of social media at the moment, but this may change as social technologies progress and consumers are presented with other social networking options.

Dr. Todd Bacile (@toddbacile) is a Marketing Professor at Loyola University New Orleans and holds a Ph.D. in Marketing from Florida State University. Social Media Marketing Magazine ranks him as one of the Top 100 Marketing Professors on Twitter. Have a question or comment? Post it here and you will receive a response.

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