Governance Q&A: Misrepresentation on social media

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I want to have lots of people hear good things about my cause, and become supporters, and I have a brother in a similar situation with a different cause. I want to ask all our friends to "like" each other’s causes and post very positive messages on social media sites about the work we (will) do. We can give them the words. Why are people telling me this would be wrong?

If your brother’s friends knew enough about your cause to care, you would not need to give them the wording. You could give them the link and they could make up their own minds about whether to support the new cause after researching it. What you are asking them to do is lie, saying they support something they know nothing about and giving a reason that is not based on their own experience or knowledge.

Just because your cause is good does not make it an automatic choice out of thousands of good causes. Some of those may be better aligned with the values of your brother’s friends than yours.

Social media sites are becoming discredited with fake (sometimes even paid for) reviews and false messages, which reduces their usefulness for everyone. If a restaurant or resort has a series of five-star reviews, is that really likely? Even people who love something rarely give five stars for real. Most have some quibble or think there is something out there even better so a four is as high as they will go. Employees, however, who are told to go online and pretend to be customers, will do as directed and give five stars. And a disgruntled customer may post dozens of very bad reviews under false names, something that is just as dishonest.

This fakery is not at all helpful to those of us trying to make a real choice. Book reviews have become particularly suspect. That really bothers me as someone who writes real book reviews of books I’ve not only read but compared to other books I’ve read on the same topic.

I am constantly being asked to support someone’s cause, video, story, photo, etc., in some online contest, and I rarely do. Why? Because an honest vote requires me to view the other photos and videos, or read the other stories, and genuinely believe my friend’s was the best. I usually don’t have that much time. Even if I am familiar with the other makers/creators, and believe my friend has done the best work in the past, the others may have improved, or, in this particular set of choices, my friend might not have done his or her best work. And I would be even less familiar with whether their child created the best whatever, yet I get asked to support them too. People have gone from helping their child sell cookies to helping them win YouTube contests, based not on quality but on their parent’s popularity and gall. This is sending the wrong message to the next generation.

What can you do? You and your brother can, of course, promote your causes on social media sites, with links. If you support each other’s causes, you can spread the word to a wider group. And you both can ask your supporters to promote the causes they do know about to their own social network.

Since people often need to hear a message several times before acting, occasional short messages about checking out a new video or an upcoming event may be best. If they come to your site several times, they are now your supporters. Make it easy for them to sign up for direct news.

You can also make it easy for them to act, perhaps by signing a petition, after they learn enough to want to support your cause. But petitions are another bane of the social media today. A petition is supposed to be a legal document, requiring real names and other identifiable information and used as a tool to help change public policy. You need to know what public policy change you want and who the petition will be delivered to, or it’s just another waste of time on the Internet. Policy makers do not usually act based on how many people "like" some political action, especially if the names cannot be linked to real people, preferably people who have confirmed they live in the same jurisdiction as these policy makers.

And that brings me back to the reviews. Any decent polling or review site can check for numerous log-ins from a single IP address, and reject it.

As well, for over twenty years I have watched interactive online sites, and seen that authentic opinions are best obtained from people willing to post their real names. Anonymous posters seem to feel much more free to dissemble or be hurtful. If the issue is one where certain people might fear for their safety if their real name were known, the organization running the site can make the posts anonymous but still have its own record of who actually participated. This service should be for people posting from totalitarian countries or women’s shelters, not for those who simply want to be free to post garbage and insults. You can ensure that people give their real names and email addresses in order to participate on your sites. If you do, you will greatly add to the credibility of blog comments, for example.

Returning to your cause, be grateful that we can now reach a wide audience with nothing more than some time and an Internet connection. Publicity that would once have cost far more than most could have had a chance at affording is now almost free. That means we can mobilize vast numbers of people to actively support good causes — meaning donate and volunteer, not just "like." Grassroots issues can come forward where in the past only big organizations could be heard. Let’s not ruin this opportunity with abuse and dishonesty. This has become a very real danger.

Since 1992, Jane Garthson has dedicated her consulting and training business to creating better futures for our communities and organizations through values-based leadership. She is a respected international voice on governance, strategic thinking and ethics. Jane can be reached at jane@garthsonleadership.ca.

Because nonprofit organizations are formed to do good does not mean they are always good in their own practices. Send us your ethical questions dealing with volunteers, staff, clients, donors, funders, sponsors, and more. Please identify yourself and your organization so we know the questions come from within the sector. No identifying information will appear in this column.

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