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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Hashtag Activism and the Power of Attention

Irina Raicu

In October 2013, Facebook announced a change in its policies that might have a serious adverse impact on teens−particularly those living under governments that punish certain forms of expression. Until that point, the posts of teen users between the ages of 13-17 could only be seen by people designated by those teens as "friends," or by the "friends of friends." Now, teens can make their posts public−meaning those posts can be read by any Facebook users. When teens attempt to make a public post, they now get a pop-up warning: "Did you know that public posts can be seen by anyone, not just people you know? You and any friends you tag could end up getting friend requests and messages from people you don't know personally."

While some critics worry that this will expose teens to new dangers, supporters of the policy (including many teens) argue that teens should have free speech rights, too, and should be able to spread the word widely about initiatives and activities in which they are involved.

That may be all well and good for teens in countries that respect freedom of expression, but Facebook's new policy appears to apply worldwide. There are some countries in which people have been arrested, convicted, and even killed while in custody after writing Facebook posts critical of governmental actions. Iran, for example, tries to block its citizens' access to Facebook, but many Iranians access Facebook through VPNs, and some are prosecuted for their activities on the social network. In India, in late 2012, two young women were arrested for posting (and/or "liking" a Facebook post) that authorities deemed harmful to "religious sentiments."

Facebook demands that all users register their accounts in their real name; creating a pseudonymous account is a violation of the company's Terms of Service. Facebook also collects extensive information about its users from the very beginning of their interaction with the social network−before those users understand and become familiar with the way the network works.

Before formulating an answer to the questions below, please review this summary of the qualities of good ethical judgment, and the questions that we should ask when faced with an ethical issue.


Does Facebook have a responsibility to set up different policies for users in different countries or to provide different warnings to users in different countries, reflecting the kinds/levels of risk to which its users are exposed when they post on the social network?

In the warning text cited above, Facebook alerts its teen users that friends that they tag in public posts will also be exposed to comments and friend requests from unfamiliar people. Does this change your view of the new policy?

Should platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ treat teens differently than other users?

Should Facebook allow kids younger than 13 to open accounts?

If you are a Facebook user who registered before 2013, please read the article "What It's Like to Sign Up for Facebook in 2013," by Charlie Warzel, before answering the following questions: a) Is it ethical for Facebook to prompt new users to provide significant amounts of personal information as part of the registration process? b) Does your answer change if the prospective user is a teen?

Irina Raicu is the director of Internet Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

May 1, 2014
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