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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Ethical Storytelling on Social Media

"Once upon a time" written on a piece of paper

Anita Varma

Anita Varma is the assistant director of Social Sector Ethics, as well as Journalism & Media Ethics. Views are her own.

On social media, images and hashtags can spread like wildfire. Posts that go viral are usually those that prompt a visceral reaction from users who feel moved to reshare and, in the best cases, take action based on a post. The scale, reach, and free nature of social media make it lucrative for nonprofits on tight budgets to leverage it as a platform for soliciting donations and raising awareness through storytelling.

The (questionable) value of a “Like” or click

On social media, campaigns often “do well” from the perspective of metrics like click rates and “Likes” when they ignore ethical considerations altogether in favor of slogans, woeful poster children, and sensationalism. Much of the time, these campaigns only capture a tiny sliver of a nonprofit’s story.  At this point, it is worth asking: what is the value of clicks and “Likes” if it comes at the expense of faithfully representing the communities your nonprofit serves? Furthermore, if the answer is that these clicks and “Likes” are cheap, we should pause to consider the higher long-term (non-monetary) costs of alienating the communities a nonprofit has a mission to serve.

A common strategy for capturing attention and cutting through the noise is to use social media to tell personal stories about real people who have struggled and been helped by a nonprofit. Certainly, glimpses of people’s personal pain can fit neatly into a Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter post and attract attention in the form of “Likes” and reshares, but these stories also risk reinforcing stereotypes of people receiving services from the nonprofit sector with an implied takeaway that communities served are dependent and helpless.

Partnering with communities to tell their stories

The biggest question that nonprofits need to ask themselves is who is being given a voice in social media stories, and how? Across nonprofit and for-profit media, members of marginalized communities are often talked about, not with. And when members of marginalized communities are quoted, it is frequently for an emotionally stirring story of pain that ends with improvement thanks, in part, to a nonprofit’s services. Far less frequently do they have a chance to offer their stories in their own words and on their own terms.

Nonprofit storytelling on social media takes strides in an ethical direction whenever the people represented have a chance to provide input to shape how they are represented. If someone is uncomfortable with a portrayal, it is in the nonprofit’s best interest to give them a chance to voice this discomfort, and for the nonprofit to incorporate this feedback in revisions. Otherwise, social media “success” may come at the expense of maintaining a respectful relationship with communities served – which surely flies in the face of any reputable nonprofit’s mission.

Mythbusting: Countering reductive stereotypes

One concern about involving community members in producing social media campaigns might be that it will impose on their time and become onerous. To mitigate this concern (particularly if your nonprofit is running multiple social media campaigns in tight succession), consider using social media posts for “mythbusting.” Myths about marginalized communities are easily traced in popular media, and easy to debunk based on your insight into the issue your nonprofit seeks to solve. Acknowledging the elephant in the room is a tried and true way to address it, and helps situate your nonprofit as not only serving a community but also well-versed in why there may be resistance or suspicion from others.

A final note on the history of nonprofit appeals

As a final note, these ethical considerations for social media are not unique to digital settings. On the contrary, the history of nonprofit storytelling includes decades of appeals that range from reductive to substantive. Unlike print brochures and annual reports, however, social media posts are often posted without a lengthy editing or review process, which makes it more timely but also poses risks. As nonprofits strategize their social media presence and use, we encourage incorporating time for ethical reflection to ensure that posts are aligned with advancing your mission, above all else.

Sep 24, 2019

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