The Ethics of Ghost-Writing in Social Media

ethics_session Last night I co-hosted a session on social media ethics with Michael O’Connor Clarke at the Talk Is Cheap 2 conference in Toronto.

Ethics is always guaranteed to generate discussion, as much of it comes down to where you draw your own personal line in the sand. To my delight we had a standing room-only crowd, and we got into some interesting discussions around the ethics involved in engaging using social media (slides are at the end of this post).

One of the more interesting discussions arose around the ethics of ghost writing online.

Ghost writing?

In case you’re not familiar with the terms, “ghost” writing in general refers to (usually professional) writers creating content and then attributing it to someone else.

Note: there’s a difference between ghost blogging, astroturfing (bad) and character blogs like Captain Morgan (dodgy execution – in fact they seem to have packed the blog itself in now – but ok ethically).

Undisclosed ghost blogging is unethical

Undisclosed ghost blogging, while tempered somewhat by the intention behind it, is unethical in my opinion.

Unlike ghost-written speeches, where the spokesperson lends their name and approval to the writing by actually saying the words, ghost-written blogs can be published without the named person ever seeing them. Think, for example, of Kanye West’s blog, which kept publishing posts even after he was arrested this year. The result: brand damage.

When you’re online and especially when using social media tools, I think the expectation is that when you see someone’s name on something then it’s actually that person. That’s the point of “social media,” right? It’s social. If I’m not building a relationship with the person I think I am, there’s something very wrong with that. What’s more, when it becomes apparent that you aren’t who you’re pretending to be, you lose all of the trust you’ve built up with me.

One participant asked why, if ghost blogging is bad, is ghost micro-blogging ok? Twitter accounts like Barack Obama and Stephen Harper aren’t written by those individuals (unless Harper likes to write in the third person), but the participant thought people seemed to think it was ok.

My response: it’s not ok.

I don’t think either of these accounts is ethically sound. Neither are the many accounts like them, whether political or non-political. The staffers are pretending to be someone they’re not. They aren’t ‘hurting’ anyone per se, but they are misleading them.

Disclose

The key point for me is simple: disclose what’s going on. Be transparent.

I’m not completely naive. I don’t expect every politician, most of whom are probably cynical about these tools, to use them personally. I’d love it if they did, but I’m ok with other people writing on their behalf. They just need to disclose that fact.

If these accounts, or the many similar ones to them, simply inserted a quick “Written on behalf of PM Harper by [name]” I’d be absolutely fine with it.

If your CEO doesn’t have time to blog, don’t offer to write it for him and pretend he did it. Either be open and have a disclaimer from him that acknowledges “I don’t write these posts, but I do read them and I stand behind them” or just have a company blog. Then again, consider whether blogging is the right forum for you.

Isn’t it obvious?

One argument that I heard last night is that no-one really believes it’s Obama on the other end of the account anyway.

On Twitter, that might be true as it’s still largely early adopters on here. They’re savvy about this kind of thing. However, I don’t think that excuses it. What’s more, if you consider ‘older’ social media platforms such as blogs, you’re not dealing with people who live and breathe this stuff – you’re dealing with people who are much more likely to take things at face value.

As I said earlier, much of this topic is personal. What do you think? Is ghost blogging unethical to you? Is ghost micro-blogging different?

(Image credit: George Saratlic via TwitPic)

Dave Fleet
EVP Digital at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.