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LGBTQ Policy Journal

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

Social Media, Ethics, and Exposing Private Information About LGBT Users

A More Connected World Is a Better World

In a May 2010 opinion post for the Washington Post, Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote in response to the public’s growing concern over user privacy:

Six years ago, we built Facebook around a few simple ideas. People want to share and stay connected with their friends and the people around them. If we give people control over what they share, they will want to share more. If people share more, the world will become more open and connected. And a world that’s more open and connected is a better world. (Zuckerberg 2010)

In theory, Zuckerberg’s notion sounds ideal. However, the content that users share can have unintended consequences for those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities—consequences that can’t be fixed through enhanced privacy settings on social media platforms alone.
An October 2012 article in the Wall Street Journal discussed this phenomenon. Bobbi Duncan, a student at the University of Texas, had her sexual orientation exposed when, after joining the university’s Queer Chorus, she and another classmate were added to the choir’s Facebook page without their consent or knowledge (Fowler 2012). The addition of her name to the group was blasted to Bobbi’s entire Facebook network. Like many people, Duncan had been savvy about her privacy settings, preventing members of her network from seeing content that would expose her LGBT identity. However, a loophole in Facebook’s privacy settings alerted Duncan’s Facebook network that she was added to the group, leading her father to discover that his daughter was a lesbian and causing a significant disruption in their relationship.

Behaving Ethically on Social Networks

Duncan’s experience exposes an issue that goes beyond privacy. As with most new technologies, the rapid evolution of social media has introduced new challenges to which our culture must adapt, including issues not just of privacy but of ethics.
When new technologies are introduced, there is often a delay between the use of such technologies and the development of appropriate standards for their use; for example, the use of cell phones and texting during a movie or dinner date. When these standards are not yet developed, one must rely solely on one’s own judgment, morals, and values to guide behavior.
“Ethics” refers to what we ought to do when it comes to making decisions that are right, fair, and just. The ethics of human communication assess the right and wrong ways to engage in communication with those in our networks. Each of us has the ability to communicate with individuals or groups in our networks, but our communication may have intended or unintended consequences for ourselves, for the person or group we are in communication with, and for the person or group for whom the communication is about.

Our communication becomes more complex and requires more scrutiny when social media is involved. For example, in 2010, Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi took his own life shortly after his sexual encounter with another man was broadcast via Internet video to his peers at school (Foderaro 2010). What it means to use good judgment or to behave ethically is very much in play when discussing social media, a relatively new set of technologies with pitfalls made slowly apparent to its users.
Although social media platforms like Facebook have implemented solutions that protect an individual’s own privacy, they have done little to protect those about whom content is being shared. For instance, a Facebook user has the ability to upload pictures of friends without getting the friends’ consent. Even with increased control of content posted on a user’s wall, select posts on Facebook are often visible to large groups of people before they are vetted or even noticed by the person affected by this information, as in the case of Bobbi Duncan.

Exposing LGBT Identities Without Consent

Exposing private information can have unintended consequences, particularly for the LGBT community, a minority population that frequently faces discrimination but is in the somewhat unusual situation of being able to choose to conceal or disclose their status of belonging to this group.
I conducted a survey to explore the phenomenon of how frequently content that exposes LGBT identities is shared on social networks. More than half of survey respondents, 55 percent, reported that their LGBT identity had been exposed through social media; of those, only 18 percent said that their peer asked for proper consent before posting. Of those who said that proper consent had not been obtained, 4 percent indicated that they had faced negative repercussions, such as damaged family relationships, due to their sexual/gender identity being exposed without consent on social media platforms.
At this time, it is not standard etiquette to request permission from a person before posting content about them. And while this may only affect, or negatively affect, a small percentage of overall users, the consequences of these actions can be, and have been, severe for some LGBT individuals.

Misunderstandings of State-Level LGBT Rights

Not only are some users of social media cavalier about sharing content, but few are informed about the laws that exist to protect the LGBT community. Users are often misinformed about the legal protections that exist—at times assuming wrongly that there are existing protections, while just as often assuming wrongly that there are not.
Respondents were asked about several basic rights and laws that affect the LGBT community, including workplace nondiscrimination, hate crimes and protections from acts of violence, nondiscrimination and anti-bullying laws in schools, and relationship recognition, including marriage, civil unions, and domestic partnerships. There were notable numbers of people who incorrectly assumed that their home state did or did not have protections within each of these key areas (see Table 1).
Protections for transgender persons

Stated “I have these protections” when their state does not
Stated “I do not have these protections” when their state does
Stated “I have these protections” when their state does not
Stated “I do not have these protections” when their state does

Workplace protection laws

Hate crimes laws

Anti-bullying or safe school laws

Same-sex marriage rights laws

Table 1: Respondents’ understanding of LGBT rights in their current state of residence. This survey was conducted before Maine, Maryland, and Washington passed same-sex marriage.
While at first review these statistics may appear minimal, they bring to light the limited awareness and inaccurate understandings surrounding legal protections for members of the LGBT community. For instance, a user in New York, where residents are protected by many LGB rights (not including transgender rights), may share content that exposes the LGBT identity of a user in Alabama, where these rights do not exist, potentially causing the individual in Alabama to have her safety, job, family ties, or other important life areas put at risk. This scenario highlights the significance of encouraging users of social media to think about the content that they are sharing as well as the negative consequences that the exposing content may have on their LGBT peers, even if they live in a state where LGBT rights are the norm.
Is a More Connected World a Better World?
Let’s recall Zuckerberg’s quote in the Washington Post, where he states, “If people share more, the world will become more open and connected. And a world that’s more open and connected is a better world” (Zuckerberg 2010). In many ways, this idea does hold true. Content that is shared on social platforms serves as a communication tool, which can in turn educate others on cultural and societal differences within their networks. However, as we’re reminded by Tyler Clementi, Bobbi Duncan, and the limited state of LGBT rights across all fifty states, we do not live in a completely tolerant society and much more still needs to be done in order to increase acceptance of those in the LGBT community. Even though social media users may be exposed to LGBT messaging via photos, events, comments, shared news articles, and so on, it does not mean that society at large is ready to protect those who identify as LGBT.
Because of this, two critical solutions need to be explored:
Beyond robust privacy settings for users, social media platforms need to provide ethical guidelines at time of sign-up and at various touchpoints so users are continuously exposed when they use the platforms. These guidelines should encourage users to question whether or not they have permission to post content that may expose private information about their peers. This could be in the form of prompting questions such as, “Does this piece of content expose something about someone that you’re not sure is public information?” or “Do you know all the people you’re sharing in this content, whether tagged or not tagged? Does the piece of content you’re about to share violate someone’s privacy?”

While this will not remove the issue completely, the continuous exposure to guidelines and messaging surrounding the importance of thinking about how your post may affect others could, over time, lead users to think more about their actions.
Users of social media need to understand more deeply the ramifications of what it means to expose the LGBT identities of their peers and need to question whether or not posting content that would expose their peer’s identity is ethical. The violation of privacy is not solely a platform issue, it is also a user issue. By deepening the understanding of ethical behavior on social platforms, we may see a decrease in instances where private information is shared without consent. This could be done by putting an emphasis in schools’ curriculums or offering a series of workshops and webinars that more broadly exposes users to the implications of unintended content shares. Also, social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr could host informative webinars that cover the ethics surrounding posting content that violates a user’s privacy by exposing LGBT identities.
By exposing users to the ethical ramifications, both in their daily life and on social platforms, we may begin to see a shift in how users share content that may expose the LGBT identities of their peers and the people around them.
Because social media platforms are evolving to allow users to share more information, not less, with their online communities, putting the risk of exposing private information of LGBT users at the forefront, it is critical that solutions to this growing phenomenon come to life. The exposure of private information, as it pertains to being LGBT in the United States, could cost individuals their job and home and be a threat to their overall safety and security, but that exposure could also have even more damaging effects for those who live internationally in areas where being LGBT could cost you your life. Our social technology has grown rapidly, but the development of these platforms and the education and ethics of how users behave needs to catch up.

Foderaro, Lisa W. 2010. Private moment made public, then a fatal jump. New York Times, 29 September.
Fowler, Geoffrey A. 2012. When the most personal secrets get outed on Facebook. Wall Street Journal, 13 October.
Zuckerberg, Mark. 2010. From Facebook, answering privacy concerns with new settings. Washington Post, 24 May.

There were 320 survey respondents, with 278 indicating state of residency in the United States (no one responded from Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming). Of the respondents, 50 percent were male, 44 percent were female, and 6 percent were transgender/gender variant. Just under 60 percent stated they were gay/lesbian, 24 percent were heterosexual, 9 percent were bisexual, and 8 percent chose “other.”