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Tweeting to Topple Tyranny

By news editor, on 18 November 2011

Anna Donovan, a UCL Laws PhD candidate, reports on the third UCL Centre for Ethics & Law Annual Lecture, “Tweeting to Topple Tyranny: Social Media and Corporate Social Responsibility” (live-tweeted by @UCLethicsandlaw). The lecture was presented on 15 November by Professor Erika George (S. J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah) together with Dr Nina Seppala (Department of Management Science and Innovation, UCL) and chaired by the Dean of UCL Laws, Professor Dame Hazel Genn.

Given the use of social media to mobilise the UK riots this summer, this was a timely as well as highly engaging lecture during which Professor George discussed the emerging (and fast changing) issues arising from the special relationship that we all have with social media.

Professor George discussed a number of key considerations regarding our relationship with social media, although the central question of the lecture asked whether this special relationship gave rise to particular obligations of corporate social responsibility for social media companies. The large audience from a wide range of backgrounds including academia, practice, regulation and industry was a testament to the relevance of the subject matter and the interest in Professor George’s thoughts on this complex issue.

It was a salutary reminder of the pace at which social media has become embedded into our lives when Professor George noted that in 2003 Facebook did not exist; today there are more than 800 million active users of Facebook with over 250 million photographs being uploaded each day. Furthermore, social media is now used for purposes that were unimaginable when it was first established.

For example, Facebook was created to enable university students to connect with each other; today social media has become a powerful tool to disseminate political information and organise demonstrations. One example of the potentially revolutionary impact of social media is the use of Facebook to mobilise a march of thousands on Tahrir Square in Cairo. Notwithstanding government attempts to stop the protest, the protestors remained in the square until President Mubarak resigned.

This expansion of the role and use of social media puts into sharp focus the potential conflict between the use of social media by individuals and its use by governments, who tend to use social media either for surveillance (of individuals or groups) and/or censorship (of certain information). It is this divergence that raises the question of social responsibility for social media organisations. For example, how should an organisation respond when faced with an information request by a local government regarding an individual user, knowing that the provision of such information may lead to the incarceration of the individual concerned (as was the case for Yahoo! when responding to a request by the Chinese government)?

The conventional view of corporate responsibility (that companies are simply required to make a profit within the boundaries of the law) does not easily accommodate the concerns raised by the use and impact of social media. However, corporate social responsibility has provided a new framework in which to consider corporate responsibility. Professor George suggested that corporations need to think about collaborating around common shared values and that it is the creation of shared values that will make corporate responsibility sustainable.

Dr Seppala closed the debate by considering the role that social media organisations play in democracy and politics, and their responsibility for site content, highlighting the tension between freedom of expression and the prevention of hate propaganda.

A debate as topical as this one generated numerous questions from the floor. Questions from the audience included considerations of content censorship, whether access to the internet was a ‘right’ and whether social media companies could be victims of their own success.

This lecture raised important questions of both personal and corporate responsibility. By engaging with social media as end-users we must necessarily accept responsibility for choosing to post personal information and images on the internet. That said, by understanding the very powerful and persuasive role that social media plays in political and human rights issues on a global scale, we can start to understand the questions of corporate responsibility that this raises. In particular, given that government policy will never be able to keep pace with these technological developments, it becomes even more imperative that social media organisations engage voluntarily with the question of their own corporate responsibility.

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