Ethics part 4: Ethical duties and commitments on social media

It is not all about you! Generosity and the obligations scientists have to others on social media

I have talked about the functions and utilities of social media. The vast majority of participants on my workshops sign up because they know social media are useful. As a scientist, social platforms can help you communicate, network and ideate.

I have also talked about the mindful, self-caring application of social media for scientists. This is how you can ‘exploit’ the platforms so that you can communicate, network, and ideate, without the platforms ‘exploiting’ you in the process.

We could just stop there: You are concentrated, interested, focused, and healthy, and you have a productive social media presence that helps you achieve your own research goals. You have struck a perfect balance between your need for the functions and gains from social media, and your own mental health.

Leap of gratefulness

But there is a third, ethical, level to social media use that is hardly ever addressed.

Ethics here means the obligations of scientists as social media users.

If we just stopped at the tug of war between social media and our own mental health – if we only took a mindful approach to social media use, we are missing out on some of the most important facets of what social media also does: Namely helping others.

It is not all about you.

An ethical approach to social media in research. Each stair represents a function of social media in science. Each of these functions entails an obligation to other scientists, to the scientific community, and to society.

Let us start with the communication function.

As a scientist, you want to communicate with your peers, stakeholders and the wider public, and you are aware that you are competing for other people’s attention on social media. Why not just do the absolute minimum, and just post about your own stuff to satisfy the people who funded you?

Because there is an ethical dimension to social media use.

The fact that you working on a subject that fascinates you, and that society wants you to do it, should be something that you are grateful for. There are millions of people who have made your present scientific life possible. The designer of the neutron beam in your experiment, the salesperson that originally negotiated with your university for a Microsoft package, the builder that cemented the bricks that keeps you out of the winter rain.

Because it is difficult

We all hate the LinkedIn posts about how grateful we are for this and that: Especially when it comes across as a kind of humblebragging, or subtle indirect boasting when we have just achieved a milestone or success.

But there is an ethical obligation to communicate our work in a more fundamental sense. Namely because we are returning the favour that has been granted us by all these unseen millions.

The ethics and obligations of social media can clash with the function and the mindful self-care of it. You are obligated to share your experiences as a scientist, simply because everyone else made it possible for you. And you are obligated even if it is difficult.

In the end you are a part of a big congratulatory merry-go-round, where the only posts you see on a newsfeed are people with success. This can be very depressing.

And this brings me to another point.

It could be useful for you to post something on social media, and you have a nice mindful routine to do so with the minimum amount of stress. But it would still not be ethical, if its purpose was only to distract people, and bait them to click on something that did not offer long-term value. Only you can be the judge of this, and the platforms will not help you.

No fake universe here

So I call on you to be kind.

There are too many posts out there that brag about grants and prizes that you have won. Far fewer people share their struggles and insecurities. This creates a kind of fake universe, where everyone is happy, working, interested, and engaged in ‘groundbreaking’ science.

LinkedIn, in particular, can get bad in this respect. The algorithm can send you into a self-reinforcing loop. As you give a ‘like’ to a researcher colleague who has posted about her winning a grant, the LinkedIn newsfeed shows you more content from this person, and more content like this type of post. In the end you are a part of a big congratulatory merry-go-round, where the only posts you see on a newsfeed are people with success. This can be very depressing.

An ethical approach would be to consciously avoid bragging about your successes, so that you do not contribute to this. This is really, REALLY difficult. (Note: I don’t think I would be able to do it consistently. I am too dependent on social media gratification. But should other people do it. Oh yes!)

This table summarizes the functions and ethical dimensions of using social media as a scientist

Let us talk about the networking function of social media in terms of ethics.

Meeting scholars in your own field, and people who work in areas related to your field, give you access to better opportunities. Highly networked people tend to float to the top.

Being mindful, you know that it is the singular, not the many, connections that matter, and that social media numbers are just vanity metrics. But there is still something that we have missed from an ethical point of view.

For their sake, not for yours

What about the connections between others, or third parties? One of the best things about professional social media is how it links up others, that is, forges links between people who know you in common. They call it triadic closure: If you are the link that two people have in common, they will likely be linked at some point in the future. You can help this along the way by getting people into contact with each other for specific things.

There is an ethical obligation to offer prompt feedback on your colleagues’ ideas — at the moment when you see it

You should forge connections between two who are unaware of each other, for their own sake, not for yours. Maybe there is a research or course opportunity that you think another person should be aware of. Maybe they share a common interest. Either way, they will always be grateful.

LinkedIn is particularly good at allowing these opportunities not to go to waste, as people regularly tag people in the comment field to let someone else know. It is simple, after all. All you have to do is write ‘@’ and add their name.

Finally there is the ethical approach to the ideation function of social media for scientists.

Scientists use social media to test and delimit the scope of their own ideas.  And they can be mindful of protecting their own space, so that social media does not intrude upon their own deep work.

But there is also an ethical obligation to offer prompt feedback on your colleagues’ ideas at the moment when you see it.

You should give a first hearing to a perspective that is not your own, even if it clashes with your own conception of an issue or problem when you read the first two sentences of a social media post.

You should help young scientists.

And finally, you should work to maintain an open, and kind scientific community on the platforms that are used within your own field.

In the table below I summarize the functions, mindful approach, and ethical obligations of social media for scientists.

I want to thank the following thinkers who have recently helped me develop my own ideas on this. These include Thomas Bandholm, who is developing a framework for excellence and kindness in research training, Christine Møller, a leader in researcher courses for medical writing, and Raluca Stana, whose own focus is on the sociology of stress and technology.

Feedback appreciated!

I appreciate you reading this and reflecting with me! And I appreciate any comments or thoughts! Feel free to comment below.

My introduction to this series is here: Social media ethics for scientists – setting a new standard.

I then looked at the basic functions of social media for scientists, where I unfold my tripartite model. Scientists use social media for three main reasons: It helps them communicate, network with others, and get inspired or ideate.

In my third post I developed how scientists can care for themselves while exploiting the functions of social media, and how they can set up sustainable routines.

This was my fourth and (so far) final post in the series.

Does your department, faculty or university need to boost the international impact and career of your researchers? Here is more about my courses in social media for researchers. See other Mike Young Academy services here.

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