The question is this: “Is it ethical to search for data about a candidate on Facebook, Twitter and other sources? We’ll assume the candidate has not submitted this digital information about themselves.
From where I sit, this is not an ethical problem. If they freely post information about themselves and don’t privatize it using the tools within Facebook or other social platforms, then I think it is safe to assume that they intend for non-friends and non-family to view their information. If they didn’t know or didn’t think about setting privacy features in these platforms, then that alone might give me pause about their candidacy.
In the old days, we asked for references and talked with those references about the candidate. Those references were supplied by the candidate, but were also prescreened (presumably), so I always wondered if I got the real truth when talking with a reference.
Today, we can bypass references (I find they are not that helpful, frankly) and I can learn more about a person just be looking through social media than I can by talking with references. Again, these posts are voluntary and are in the public domain. Seems to me that if one’s trash is public information, then one’s posts on social media are as well.
Now, having said all this, the book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age makes the argument (among several) that it is not a social good for us to have a medium where our past follows us perfectly (an argument with which I agree):
“Since the beginning of time, for us humans, forgetting has been the norm and remembering the exception. Because of digital technology and global networks, however, this balance has shifted. Today, with the help of widespread technology, forgetting has become the exception, and remembering the default…Do we want a future that is forever unforgiving because it is unforgetting? “Now a stupid adolescent mistake can take on major implications and go on their records for the rest of their lives,” comments Catherine Davis, a PTA co-president. If we had to worry that any information about us would be remembered for longer than we live, would we still express our views on matters of trivial gossip, share personal experiences, make various political comments, or would we self-censor? The chilling effect of perfect memory alters our behavior…the demise of forgetting has consequences much wider and more troubling than a frontal onslaught on how humans have constructed and maintained their reputation over time. If all our past activities, transgressions or not, are always present, how can we disentangle ourselves from them in our thinking and decision-making? Might perfect remembering make us as unforgiving to ourselves as to others? (Mayer-Schönberger, Viktor. Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)
These are important questions because the opportunity to “start over” – create a “clean slate” or “rebrand” yourself is far more difficult in a world where memory is perfect, searchable and just a click away. Those who browse through a candidates’ posts should browse through their own first just to remind themselves of the (probable) double standard they are likely to employ: “I’ll be hard on this guy but would expect others to be forgiving of my past”.
I get posts now in Facebook with pictures I’ve long forgotten were there. I’m honestly thinking of killing my FaceBook and Twitter accounts because of the perfect memory of the internet. Why have that sitting around? It does me little good. This is why many politicians just kill their social media accounts – too dangerous to have out there in the wild internet and have past posts and pictures used against them.
Mayer goes on to write:
“Google knows for each one of us what we searched for and when, and what search results we found promising enough that we clicked on them. Google knows about the big changes in our lives—that you shopped for a house in 2000 after your wedding, had a health scare in 2003, and a new baby the year later. But Google also knows minute details about us. Details we have long forgotten, discarded from our mind as irrelevant, but which nevertheless shed light on our past: perhaps that we once searched for an employment attorney when we considered legal action against a former employer, researched a mental health issue, looked for a steamy novel, or booked ourselves into a secluded motel room to meet a date while still in another relationship. Each of these information bits we have put out of our mind, but chances are Google hasn’t. Quite literally, Google knows more about us than we can remember ourselves. (Mayer-Schönberger, Viktor. Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.)
Everytime you go online, every time you search, every time you do anything on the internet – someone isn’t just watching, they are recording what you’re doing. Is this not the thrust of the argument against our Federal Government when Greenwald writes in his book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State in his chapter the Harm of Surveillance:
“When Google CEO Eric Schmidt was asked in a 2009 CNBC interview about concerns over his company’s retention of user data, he infamously replied: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” With equal dismissiveness, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a 2010 interview that “people have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.” Privacy in the digital age is no longer a “social norm,” he claimed, a notion that handily serves the interests of a tech company trading on personal information…A comprehensive experiment conducted in 1975 by Stanford University psychologists Gregory White and Philip Zimbardo, entitled “The Chilling Effects of Surveillance,” sought to assess whether being watched had an impact on the expression of controversial political opinions. The impetus for the study was Americans’ concerns about surveillance by the government: The Watergate scandal, revelations of White House bugging, and Congressional investigations of domestic spying by the Central Intelligence Agency have served to underscore the developing paranoid theme of American life: Big Brother may be watching you! Proposals for national data banks, uses of surveillance helicopters by urban police forces, the presence of observation cameras in banks and supermarkets, and airport security searches of person and property are but some of the signs that our private lives are under such increasing scrutiny. The participants were placed under varying levels of surveillance and asked to give their views on the legalization of marijuana. It turned out that “threatened” subjects—those who were told that their statements would be shared with the police “for training purposes”—were more likely to condemn marijuana usage and to use second- and third-person pronouns (“you,” “they,” “people”) in their language. Only 44 percent of subjects under surveillance advocated for legalization, compared to 77 percent of those not so “threatened.” Tellingly, percent of the participants being monitored spontaneously sought approval from the researchers (asking, for example, “Is that all right?”), whereas only 7 percent of the other group did so. Participants who were “threatened” also scored significantly higher on feelings of anxiety and inhibition. White and Zimbardo noted in their conclusion that the “threat or actuality of government surveillance may psychologically inhibit freedom of speech.” They added that while their “research design did not allow for the possibility of ‘avoiding assembly,'” they expected that “the anxiety generated by the threat of surveillance would cause many people to totally avoid situations” in which they might be monitored. “Since such assumptions are limited only by one’s imagination and are encouraged daily by revelations of government and institutional invasion of privacy,” they wrote, “the boundaries between paranoid delusions and justified cautions indeed become tenuous.” (Greenwald, Glenn. No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.)
Once a person truly understands what they are doing when they post in social media and how the internet *never* forgives and can make an action 10 years old current simply by referencing what is held in storage on some hard drive, then it becomes easy to see why people are starting to get off social media or carefully choreograph their social interactions.