Shades Of Gray: Social Media and Prospect Research

On October 7, Kate Lindsay Breck posted a provocative blog about the ethics of using information gathered from social media sites in prospect research (“Facebook and Prospect Research: Too Big Brother?”).  Liz Rejman referenced Kate’s post in her session on social media at the APRA Canada meeting last week.  Liz also referenced a post by marketing consultant Mark Schaffer called “Snooping on Facebook: Not Just For Stalkers Any More”.  Liz led the group in an interesting discussion about where the lines of acceptable use of social media are drawn in the day to day work of a prospect researcher.

Liz posed these questions to the group: Are there social media sites that are clearly acceptable (that is, their content could be construed as in the “public domain”)?  Are there social media sites or content that are clearly beyond the pale as a source of prospect information?  Are there sites or content that may be acceptable or unacceptable depending on the context?

These are extremely useful questions.  As a research community, we need to begin drawing the lines and finding agreement upon what we can, what we should and what we should not use when we discover information that has been self-disclosed by our constituents on social media sites.

The assembled prospect researchers drew a few conclusions.  In the public domain are blog and Twitter posts.  The reasoning here is that a blog is an intentional public diary that is meant to be read by any and all citizens of the internet.  A Twitter post is simply a micro blog post which often includes a link to a blog or a web site that expands the tweet into a more complete thought.

Although my notes don’t reflect any mention of LinkedIn as being clearly in the public domain, I would propose that this site, which primarily serves as a place to post one’s resume online, falls into this category.

The wisdom of the group was that the information reported on a Facebook page is more ambiguous as to acceptable use.  Context makes a difference.  Establishing which contexts make a difference is hard to do, however.  The judgment of the individual researcher is what stands between personal disclosure and a violation of privacy.  Establishing this conceptual understanding is an important move forward.  Since this is a gray area, we need more discussion within the profession that helps to shed light that will guide the researcher’s judgment.

Regarding information that can never be used in a prospect’s profile, there was general agreement that information provided by a child is off limits.  Again, I see shades of gray here.  What about information about a child?  Are my statements on Facebook about my child’s disability, for instance, usable in a profile?  Such statements certainly could be relevant to a nonprofit mission if said disability is part of that mission.

Prior to the advent of social media, the research community had a pretty good handle on what is public and what is private.  These new media create a new set of conditions under which we operate.  New sources bring new ethical considerations.  A lively discussion among prospect researchers will bring about greater clarity regarding what is acceptable use and what is not.  Let’s keep that conversation going!