Using social media to report and discuss an incident has become a common activity, as seen following crises such as the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the Kenya mall attacks in 2013, the London riots in 2011, the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007 and numerous others. The desire to share and discuss news items was once again seen on social networking sites following the crash of Malaysia Airlines MH17 on July 17, 2014.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 departed from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport at 10:15 GMT, and on-route to Kuala Lumpur disappeared from radar, approximately four hours into the journey. The plane was found to have crashed in Grabove, Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 members of crew on board. The crash occurred in the conflict zone of the ongoing insurgency in Ukraine, in an area controlled by the Donbass People's Militia. Both sides of the ongoing conflict — the Ukrainian government and the pro-Russian separatists — accused each other of shooting down the plane.
While the events were occurring and reported through social media, many of us followed the events on Twitter and other social media networks, before they were officially confirmed by governments or concerned authorities, the news agencies, BBC or LeMonde — see for instance the story stream of the crash as proposed by The Wire news media. As argued by Fishwick, writing for The Guardian, these “unfiltered” updates shaped public understanding of the unfolding events. When the governments and authorities confirmed what was until then a rumor, pictures, information and social media’s account of potential victims were already posted and forwarded online, as well as, in some cases reused by the news media. While these practices have been immediately condemned by some of their fellow social media users, and some journalists have since apologized for their conduct, it is necessary to consider the ethical issues of such social media’s activities as they arose in this case.
Over the last two years, members of the Ethical, Legal and Social Issues (ELSI) Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management (ISCRAM) working group, and the ISCRAM community, have taken steps to highlight some of the ethical, legal and social issues of the use of social media in an emergency. Such issues range from privacy issues relating to anonymity and transparency, the consequences of vigilante activity online, to the erosion of basic rights such as freedom of speech, associations and movement. In most of the cases studied by the ELSI ISCRAM working group (e.g., the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull volcano eruptions; the 2011 Vancouver riots), privacy and related ethical and social concerns are perhaps unintended consequences of online activities, and the subsequent collection and processing of personal data by citizens themselves and other stakeholders. In the case of MH17, the use of Twitter following the crash demonstrates, the little regard, by some, for the privacy of those who tragically died, and consequently their wider social networks, including family and friends.
During the early evening of July 17, prior to any official accounts regarding those that had been on the plane, some Twitter users shared images that yielded the possibility for some victims to be identified. For instance, one user posted an image of what can only be described as passports from the crash, two of which were open on the personal data page, including an image of the passport owner. This image was further retweeted and favorited by numerous accounts. A second image, which has been displayed across the mass media, was found on the Facebook page of one of the passengers who had taken a photograph of the plane prior to its departure. The original sharing of the image on Twitter by @HistoricalPics consisted of a screen shot of the Facebook page containing the account holder’s personal data; it was retweeted by 10,339 accounts and favorited by 4,257 accounts over the next couple days. This image has appeared across the news media, with some, such as The Guardian taking steps to protect the privacy of the owner of the Facebook account (published on July 18), whilst others, such as the Daily Mail (published on July 17) had little regard for protecting the privacy of the passenger.
But is this simply violating people’s privacy for not thinking enough or have the boundaries moved? Presently, sharing information via social media is for some people as normal as ringing a friend in the past: The MH17 crash shocked people as they felt it as a personal tragedy that could occur to everyone. Some felt a connection with the victims, after all how many of us have taken a flight to the same or similar destination in the past? How many of us boarded in Amsterdam’s airport in the last year? And as they felt a personal impact, what better place to express themselves than sharing on social media with their wider social networks and therefore, grieving for people in a public arena. Such a practice raises questions as to how this type of social grieving is different to the grieving and crying in public in the past. In some cases, many comments to the shared images were also indicating respect for the victims, and many people expressed this with simple R.I.P. retweets. We must therefore consider whether this is an invasion of privacy or a situation of global grieving? Whilst we can blame news media, as they should adhere to a code of conduct of journalism standards, the rules for citizens are less clear, particularly when emphasis should, rightly, be placed on free speech, rather than curtailing individuals’ civil liberties.
With such an eagerness to share information and for some, gain attention via the use of social media following a major incident, greater care and attention needs to be taken by those using the social media sites, including those news organizations that yield the power to share information to a vast audience. Notably, some individuals did positively respond to the posting of these images by stating that the personal data, in the case of the image of the plane, should have been protected and that the images of the passports should not be shared. That is not to say that information should not be shared, only that greater sensitivity and care ought to be taken. As argued in Social Media in an Emergency: A Best Practice Guide measures, such as masking faces and names are available to protect the privacy of individuals and can thus contribute to promoting a more ethical way of sharing and should be practiced. Ultimately in this case this “advice” was not always taken and the images, containing personal identifying information remained publicly visible and continued to be circulated.
We consider that what happened via the social media coverage of the MH17 crash sheds light on three main issues:
1. The technology of privacy: Technology is not to be taken for granted as far as the protection of privacy is concerned. Three factors are confronting online users and their expectations in terms of privacy: 1) the misplaced presumption that online behaviors are private; 2) that the nature of the Internet is incommensurate with privacy as we know it; and 3) that one’s faith that private online “conversations” remain as such. Technology does not shield social media users from involuntary exposure due to, for instance, the lack of control of published personal information. In the case of the MH17 crash, one of the passengers has published a picture of the plane on Facebook before taking off, without necessarily considering that the post would be used and globally shared, enabling his identity to be revealed.
2. The emergence of a “do-it-yourself” society though social media use: In a crisis situation, it is likely that people will not try to find out what the relevant legal provisions are for sharing information. From this point of view, social media providers have empowered their users, who feel authorized to publish their material, or to forward material already posted online. Consequently, while this behavior may not be surprising from part of fellow citizens/users, what is particularly disturbing in the case of the MH17 crash, is the way professional journalists acted and used this content, and how the governance of the ethics dilemmas inherent to crisis situations were somewhat uncensored. In a situation where pictures, videos, voices and opinions are available instantaneously, reflection and privacy are left to the citizen user to determine how to proceed. As such, perhaps there is a need for enhancing public awareness of the possible implications of social sharing.
3. The dialectic between the freedom of media and the respect of privacy: As presented above, the way some journalists acted and used social media’s content (e.g., passports, photos, names, etc.) when reporting the MH17 crash raised ethical issues. The freedom of media is stated in and by the European Convention of Human Rights, article 10. The European Court of Human Rights made jurisprudence in two cases with regards to this dialectic. As explained by Roseline Letteron, the surname is a component of the right to private and family life since it constitutes a key element of self-identification. Through the two cases quoted above, the European Court has stated that there is no hierarchical position between the right to privacy and the freedom of media, what really matters when finding a right balance between these two rights is 1) the sense of "duty and responsibility” meaning that information and sources have to be reliable; and 2) "the “pressing social need” which implies the notion of "necessity” of the publication of personal information in order to contribute, for instance, to the public debate. In the case of the MH17 crash, these two conditions do not seem to be respected.
For those involved in utilizing social media to contribute to crisis management efforts, focus and attention has been placed on how best to use these tools and the content available to enhance preparedness, response and recovery efforts. While discussions surrounding ethical use of social media, and the need for greater concern over how to ethically operate in this virtual environment are beginning to be discussed more widely, tragedies such as flight MH17 reiterate the importance of developing and re-evaluating a code of conduct among social media users, as well as those interacting with social media users in the wake of an incident. Such a code is required to encourage, and for some groups such as the news media, enforce, the better, ethical use of social media in sharing and discussing information surrounding a crisis. In an age where increasing amounts of information, particularly visual information, is demanded immediately, we must stop to consider the sensitivity of the information that is being shared and its consequences for others. Thus, when social sharing and reporting about a crisis or emergency situation, as has been the case for the crash of MH17, our nature as citizens may be to share with others, which should not be discouraged, however, consideration is required to do IT carefully, by being respectful to victims and relatives by taking measures to respect their privacy and considering the implications of our actions.
All authors are members of the ELSI ISCRAM working group:
Hayley Watson, Trilateral Research & Consulting, UK
Caroline Rizza, Telecom ParisTech, France
Martina Comes, University of Agder, Norway
Vitaveska Lanfranchi, K-Now Ltd., UK
Kush Wadhwa, Trilateral Research & Consulting, UK