It Should Be Called “Ethics of Digital Business”

The name of this class should be changed from Social Media and Digital Business to Digital Business and Ethics. The Carroll School of Management puts an emphasis on business ethics first semester of freshman year with Portico. Following with mandatory philosophy and theology classes, there is an emphasis throughout the Jesuit education on ethics. This Social Media class furthers that emphasis in a perspective that is not usually seen. Traditional philosophers like Aristotle, Machiavelli, Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham were creating their doctrines in a time without the technology that is present today. While they created guidelines broad enough to apply to many situations, social media and digital business has redefined the ways people communicate and interact. As a final review of this class, I would like to take the perspective of these philosophers and analyze some of the key themes I found interesting.

Aristotle: The Golden Mean of Social Media and Digital Business

Lets talk about memes. The term “meme,” derived from “gene,” is the spread of information that is mutated along the way that changes the original meaning. Some meme sensations are: Crazy Girlfriend, Vladimir Putin, Adam Sandler, Leonardo Dicaprio and others.
Screen Shot 2016-12-06 at 9.51.23 PM.pngScreen Shot 2016-12-06 at 10.31.37 PM.pngSome are famous, others, like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, are accidental. People can become famous over night. On the other hand, they can also be destroyed overnight. Alicia Lynch lost her job, received death threats to her and her parents, received anonymous packages to her home, was viciously attacked on twitter, and stalked in other horrible ways. She made a mistake, while being a horrific, distasteful one, and it went viral. Screen Shot 2016-12-06 at 10.12.30 PM.pngAnother meme victim – the dentist who killed a lion. There have been many others who have killed lions but for some reason, Walter Palmer was singled out as the devil for committing an act many before him have done. Screen Shot 2016-12-06 at 10.21.34 PM.png
Aristotle believed in the golden mean, or finding the balance between two extremes. Memes are the equivalent of excess and exaggeration. In Aritstotles spectrum, the spread of memes fall under the excess of absurdity and impulsiveness. There is no rhyme or reason as to who is going to be chosen and for what reason therefore, there is no virtue.

Machiavelli and Big Data

Machiavelli’s theme throughout The Prince is as follows:
A rulers objective should be survival and glory and it is to be achieved by any means possible, including by immoral actions. Now, BIG DATA. I am still stuck on how Target knows you’re pregnant before your family does! Is tracking consumers ethical? When does it become invasive? Can companies sell your information, even in the form of numbers and algorithms? When do people stop being people and just numbers? Some companies, like Target, do not inform their consumer just how much information they really have on them. Facebook is also a culprit of misrepresentation of big data. Recently, Facebook was caught performing a study on its users where it altered the users mood. Screen Shot 2016-12-06 at 10.47.30 PM.png

Machiavelli would agree that these companies have a right, and even an obligation, to monitor their users to increase the success and control of the company. He would say companies are doing the moral thing by not relaying how much information on the consumer is actually taken. The company must avoid making themselves hated or despised, they must remain in control and monitor their brand to be successful. Nevertheless, Machiavelli never had to deal with the consumers who have access to the mass amounts of information available today. What he preaches is easier said than done. If these companies continue to monitor users without accurately depicting what they are monitoring, it could damage their brand.

Immanuel Kant – ALL OF THIS IS WRONG! 

Kant believes in the categorical imperative, it is absolute and there are no exceptions.  Before technology, a person had to relay their feelings in person, or on the phone, or by mail. There was little anonymity to what you were trying to relay. You needed the courage to go up to that person and ask them out or tell them off. Now there is this cloak of invisibility (yes, Harry Potter reference). These anonymous websites like Yik Yak or Boston College’s Confessions page  are cyber-cesspools that allow individuals to say whatever they want with the worst intentions. Yik Yak was filled with sexist, racist and horrendous statements, many targeted at specific individuals. BC’s confession page was meant to be an outlet and it turned into a disturbing story that was a “hoax.”

Screen Shot 2016-12-06 at 11.09.44 PM.png
(Full, disturbing confession found here).

In Brian Pietrylo vs. Hillstone (reading from Oct 6), Brian created a website to exclusively bad mouth his job with other coworkers. While declared a miscarriage of justice, he should have been held accountable for his actions! He would never had gone up to his boss and said “You suck!” Kant would say that these individuals  intentions are immoral and certainly not in good will. He would believe that everyone should be accountable for their posts and I would have to agree with him.

Last, but not least, Utilitarianism 

Utilitarianism is defined as the sum of all pleasure that results from an action, minus the suffering of anyone involved in the action. Don’t we receive so much from social media as a society? There is now an outlet for mental health issues like depression. People know that there are others out there like them and can receive help and support. On the contrary, there are psychopaths out there who now have other psychopaths to talk to! Pandoras box has been opened. Social media is creating a homophily where people can find other like-minded people and while sometimes it can help, it can also divide. Companies are, inevitably, filtering social media to appease the user. This is leading to more filter bubbles and confirmatory biases. Not only that but also the concept of fake news. People in this filter bubble have received fake news confirming their beliefs! Won’t that only get worse? There is a divide in America that social media is currently exacerbated with filter bubbles, so isn’t it hurting more than helping?

Does the sum of lack of privacy and cyber bullying outweigh that of marketing and communicating? How do we measure how many people are helped versus hurt? Who gets to decide? What are the next actions to take? What is moral and immoral about social media? While this class gave me a lot of answers, it gave me a lot more questions, but, it also gave me the tools to answer them.


  1. Perhaps the best summary of my objectives for the course: “While this class gave me a lot of answers, it gave me a lot more questions, but, it also gave me the tools to answer them.” Great deep treatment of the course!

  2. Great job Caroline!! Our Portico professors would be very proud! I am so glad we both had the opportunity to be TA’s for Portico this semester because it allowed us to revisit these philosphers and philosphical frameworks as seniors, which I found very valuable! Both TAing for Portico and Social Media and Digital Business have been two of my favorite courses this semester, so I loved that you combined them! I think this is a very creative and insightful summary of the course. I think it is brilliant you used the Portico philosophical frameworks as the lens. Great job with this! I have enjoyed readings all your posts throughout the semester!

  3. May be one of my favorite blogs this semester, also because I’m mad I didn’t write it myself ! @dabettervetter and I joke almost every class that we need to limit our Portico references in Digital Business and Digital Business references in Portico. Taking the two simultaneously and being a TA shows you just how insanely the two are connected and how many parallels you can draw. In Portico, we are asked to relate the philosophers to current situations and phenomena and I always pull out a Digital Business example. Likewise, in Digital Business I cannot count the amount of times I have referenced Portico (you’re in my class so you know how guilty I am). Ethics and Digital Business simply cannot be separated because of the nature of the two subjects. As we venture into lots of uncharted territory in innovations and the Internet, it is necessary the ethics of such topics is addressed.(Also, shoutout to @geraldckane who had to interview with almost all of my Portico students when they were doing projects about ethical dilemmas in today’s world- all of which related to digital business topics Professor Kane has spoken about, so I pointed them in his direction- shows just how closely the two are intertwined)

  4. katieInc_ · ·

    Great post!! Cioni would be very proud. I think something that I will always question internally is whether we are better off with social media than without it. Under the Utilitarianism framework which you laid out so well, we are and we aren’t. There are so many great things that have arisen from social media and digital business such as unique and creative ways to market, attract target audiences, connect with each other, and explore unique interests and passions. Yet cyberbullying, trolling, and lack of privacy are perverse consequences that we cannot simply ignore. After taking this course, I have to believe we are better off with it; however, like Aristotle always says, we’ve got to find the mean.

  5. Fantastic post! Seriously — I was a philosophy (Perspectives!) major as an undergrad at BC, so you’re really speaking my language here. I’ve had lots of these same conversations with my coworkers and friends after reading a particular article or listening to a Ted Talk homework assignment. You’re so right — social media, like all technology, can be used for good and evil. I can’t remember exactly the thinker, but one of the philosophers I studied back in college mentioned that an item is not inherently good or evil — it’s the way that it is used that gives it meaning. We can choose to use social media to foster communication and collaboration, or we can use it to hurt people’s feelings and reputations. Text on a screen leave a lot of room for misinterpretation. After this class, I’m going to pay special attention to how my words and tone could possibly be misconstrued to hurt someone else. Nice job!

  6. Great reflection on the semester as a whole! I completely agree that this course made me question the ethics and moral correctness behind many of the topics we covered. The Aristotle take on memes really resonated with me. As entertaining as memes are, I sometimes feel guilty that we’re finding joy at someone else’s expense. I would be interested to see how Aristotle felt about these virtual friendships. Would they be of friends of utility, pleasure, or virtue (or maybe not a friend at all!)? Thanks for the post!

  7. dabettervetter · ·

    Wow, great post, Caroline! @gkhanlon – we literally bring Portico and Social Media and Digital Business into each class! I completely agree that this class has left me questioning a lot, especially considering I am entering the field of digital business and coming from CSOM there is no way to keep ethics out of my job. I think another philosopher we discuss in Portico that also applies to SM&DB is Lynn Stout’s Stakeholder Theory – when considering things like Facebook and all of their Stakeholders and how one decision or change now can affect generations ahead. Especially with fake news and the filter bubble with the election.

  8. You did a fantastic job of linking our studies to philosophy. I’m a philosophy minor and I’m very impressed. It does go to show you how 1) our studies are all linked and 2) this class as a class about social media covers so much of an expanse of topics. Aristotle’s mean and the memes was a great connection. It is interesting how the internet can get a hold of certain concepts or information and really run wild with it. Alicia Lynch, the Dentist who killed Cecil (still upset about that btw), and Justine Sacco are all victims of 1) yes, their own stupid actions but 2) the unpredictable ability of the internet to go viral about anything all in a moment. We spoke in class about predicting what will go viral, and it can at times be random. The discussion at the end on Bentham’s Utilitarianism is important. There are bad sides and good sides to social media and we have to weigh what we think it all amounts to. I’m taking a hiatus from social media after this class to help me more clearly understand how it interacts with my life.

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