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In-Class Activity on Ethics in Social Media

For this week’s meeting of my social media innovation class I created an in-class activity related to ethics and social media.

Activity Structure

The structure of the activity is:

1. Present brief scenarios.

2. Assign student teams to advocate for the “agree” and “disagree” sides of the argument.

3. Give students time to develop those arguments.

4. For each of the three scenarios:

  • Take a vote on student positions.
  • Have the “agree” and “disagree” teams present their arguments.
  • Have any other students also offer justification for their stance.
  • Take another vote to see if positions have changed.

This is the first time I’ve done this activity and I think that structure worked well.

Which path do you choose?

Social Media Scenarios

Here are the three scenarios I created.

Scenario #A: One of your co-workers has signed up for the free version of a direct competitors product. One day they get an email blast about a major customer issue and the email was accidently sent with all of the recipients in the cc field instead of the bcc field. Your co-worker suggests adding all of those email addresses to your company’s marketing email list. Do you agree?

Scenario #B: One of your co-workers is assigned to investigate strengths and weakness of a competitor’s product. They create a website on your company’s intranet (e.g., only viewable by employees) that quotes from every negative consumer review they can find on social media or product review websites. One of your co-workers thinks that info should be posted as an anonymous public website. Do you agree?

Scenario #C: You work for a company with a small but loyal customer base. The company has cash flow problems and is concerned about making the next payroll. It may not be able to pay employees like you! A direct marketing firm offers a substantial amount of money if you will sell them the email list of your customers. Your TOS (terms of service) say you will never sell customers’ personal information but it also says the terms can be unilaterally changed at any time. Do you sell the email list to keep the company afloat?

When I use this activity again, I’ll likely tweak the scenarios a little bit. I’d also love to find videos or real-world examples that could be used instead. (If you know of any, please share!)


In initial voting, the students were divided on Scenarios #A and #C (roughly 25% to 75%). When students changed their mind it was a small movement towards the majority opinion. There was almost no-one voting for the “Agree” side of Scenario #B.

If you’re interested in seeing more details on how I administered this, here’s a copy of the hand-out I created: Prof. Johnson Social Media Ethics Activity.

Thank You

A major thank you to everyone who responded to my Twitter and Facebook requests for input on social media ethical issues. It was very helpful.

What do you think? Are these realistic scenarios? What are other scenarios you think students about to enter the workforce should be well-informed about?

Image credit: Go Away! by Steven L. Johnson