Is eavesdropping then tweeting a public conversation an unethical invasion of privacy?

21 Mar

Sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have opened up new ways for everyday people to mass distribute what they hear and see, but let’s not forget that people have been widely distributing information using TV, phones and even the mail for a while now.

It seems the difference is that social media sites combine the abilities of all forms of communication into one package.

You can relay information to a wide audience, the way TV does. It gives everyday citizens the ability to spread their own opinions, the way mail does. And it makes that information spread instantaneously, the way calling and texting does.

Twitter, specifically, is embraced by journalists and nonjournalists alike as a method of spreading news. But where is the line drawn over what should ethically be reported?

In “A Masterclass in Twitter Storytelling: Man Live-Tweets Story of Emotional Breakup,” an interesting account of a couple having a  marriage  fight in a public Burger King is documented, step-by-step, through tweets on Twitter. It includes funny comments, pictures and even video.

It can be argued that people’s “private” conversations shouldn’t be tweeted for all to read, and that it’s creepy and unethical to pass around that information. But really, is it private if you’re in a public place and you’re talking loud enough for everyone to hear? And is it creepy and unethical to eavesdrop in a public place or is it just human nature to be aware of your surroundings and listen to interesting conversations that are loud enough for you to hear? 

In a way, it can be considered upsetting that you can’t have a personal or private conversation without the risk of it being mass distributed, but is eliminating those sites, or puting heavier restrictions and regulations on them, a better alternative? A better alternative seems to be to simply talk in private if you need privacy.

People have always been able to eavesdrop and pass on information. Twitter just opens up the conversation to an instant and widely distributed communication that’s more casual and doesn’t need as much verification as does publishing a story in a legitimate news publication.

The Twitter story also raises questions about the definition of journalism. It’s not a new concept that journalism is changing and it’s not just those who work for a news organization who have the ability to widely distribute news, but Twitter’s popularity and fit into the news sharing realm seems to make it especially controversial. 

Issues over all the false information that gets tweeted and retweeted as legitimate news raise a lot of concern, as does the way that it enforces the new direction that journalism is moving in, which is a stronger movement toward personal opinion and not thinking of objectivity as “perfect neutrality or the elimination of interpretation,” but rather as “a person’s willingness to use objective methods to test interpretations for bias or inaccuracies.”

The Twitter story is amusing and tells the story of a local event that happened publicly. All the people in the Burger King were allowed to listen to the conversation, so why can’t the people reading it on Twitter also listen in? In that way, there is nothing distasteful or unethical about the story.

The story is also placed in the ethical category because the story is meant for entertainment and not a means of helping people make decisions (aside from the decision not to have personal conversations in private places).

When you look at how Twitter was used to detail a personal conversation from a public offical talking about her campaign, the need to perhaps verify the information becomes more important. It’s always unethical to knowingly publish false information, but even unknowingly publishing false information of public importance because not a single attempt at verification was made is also considered unethical.

In the end, I think it’s safe to say the majority of Americans know everyone can have Internet on their phone, and therefore everyone around could possibly have a constant connection to sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. If there’s something you don’t want passed along, don’t provide people with that information!


One Response to “Is eavesdropping then tweeting a public conversation an unethical invasion of privacy?”

  1. Ronald R. Rodgers March 21, 2012 at 6:22 pm #

    Well done. You should credit the art you use.

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