Ethics Hero: Twitter


Ethics Alarms has honored some unlikely people as Ethics Heroes—Bill Clinton, Bill Maher, and Terry McAuliffe, for example. Twitter nabbing the distinction may be a record for cognitive dissonance, though. It is an unethical company, with a platform that does more damage than good. And yet…

Twitter announced that it was expanding its private information policy to forbid posting the ” media of private individuals without the permission of the person(s) depicted.


Not that this policy is remotely possible to enforce; it isn’t. “When we are notified by individuals depicted, or by an authorized representative, that they did not consent to having their private image or video shared, we will remove it,” Twitter explains. “This policy is not applicable to media featuring public figures or individuals when media and accompanying tweet text are shared in the public interest or add value to public discourse.”

Yes, the policy goes well beyond any legal restrictions: that’s what makes it ethical rather than compliant. What is ethically admirable about the rule is that it calls attention to an ethical violation so common that few think it is a violation at all. When I allow a friend to take a photo of me, that is consent for that friend to make and have a copy of my likeness. It is not consent for my likeness to be circulated to the world on social media, included in facial recognition databases, be manipulated digitally to embarrass or humiliate me, or any other purpose. No law will help me claim that I did not consent to circulation of my likeness, which is why Naked Teachers have a problem. The law assumes that such use can and should be anticipated when I let myself be photographed. That, however, is a legal fiction. I have seen, online, photos of me when I wasn’t aware that I was in the picture. I hate photos of me.

As some past posts have indicated, I am on the extreme end of this issue. I don’t post photographs of others on social media unless I have explicit permission to do so. Children can’t give informed consent, so I hold that posting photographs or videos of one’s own children online, especially when they are embarrassing, is unethical. People need to think about the privacy, respect, fairness and autonomy issues involved, and right now, most do not.

Twitter’s new rule at least will force people to think before they post…about the Golden Rule, about Kant’s Categorical Imperative, about worst case scenarios and the abuse of power.

I had been thinking about this issue before the Twitter announcement in connection with Allison Stokke. Remember her, and this viral photo?


She was a high school pole-vaulter when a photographer snapped a candid photo of her at a meet. He posted it online, and it went “viral” for some strange reason. Soon she was a national (and underage) pin-up girl, an involuntary celebrity, and a sex symbol. Stokke’s photo was taken while she was out in public, so Twitter’s rules wouldn’t have helped her, but it is still a vivid example of how images circulated without a subjects consent can cause real harm. (Oh, Allison did just fine: she became a model and married a pro-golfer. But that’s moral luck. Her photo might have triggered an obsession by a sheik who had her kidnapped and brought to his harem as a sex slave. You never know.)

4 thoughts on “Ethics Hero: Twitter

  1. This rule is probably in part a response to a lawsuit brought against Twitter in relation to child pornography. I’m working off memory, but there was a kid… 15, male, I think, that was sexually abused and his abuser videotaped the abuse. Years later, the kid found out that the video was circulating on Twitter, and he was getting bullied at school. His mother contacted Twitter to try to get Twitter to remove the child porn her son was in and Twitter refused. The mother sued and I believe Twitter ended up removing the child porn and settling.

    My take was that a bunch of myopic middle managers at Twitter couldn’t find a rule that the (I think) illegal material actually broke, so they opted to leave it up. Those were completely different middle managers, I’m sure, from the ones that make up rules to take down political material they find offensive.

  2. When peaceful protesters, marauding shoplifters and misbehaving politicos insist that posts be taken down and accounts terminated, we’ll see the other side of the coin.

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