Ethics in Online Activism: False Senses of Social Action or Effective Source of Change?

Feb 22, 2016

This article is in response to the Carnegie Council video Ethics Matter: A Conversation with Online Activist Ricken Patel and was first posted on the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education website on February 17, 2016.

Advances in technological devices and social media platforms are creating an environment where news and information from around the world are accessible at our fingertips. Whether we are simply procuring news faster through incessant notifications or obtaining eyewitness footage at the scene of a crime opening an app, social media is reaching the public in ways never seen before.

The drawbacks of this, however, are blurred lines between the presentation of facts and opinions, as well as between social awareness and action. Many people have always felt compelled to give back to their communities in some way, but there is a growing skepticism of whether or not sectors of online activism are more self-interested than socially interested. Are people being given an illusion of fulfillment after writing a passionate anti-discrimination post on Facebook? Are organizations doing anything with the thousands of electronic signatures on a petition for animal rights?

Through the use of professional and personal ethics, social activism can remain an area of society where moral people with generally accepted ideas of "common good" and honorable priorities can articulate and fight for equality of all human beings. Steering from this traditional view of social activism can lead to dangerous sectors in which people are dedicated to an unethical privatization of social activism itself for political or monetary gains similar to lobbying, or for the personal gains of self-promotion through "hashtag activism."

As part of the "Ethics Matter" series, the Carnegie Council hosted online activist Ricken Patel; the video of the conversation with Patel discussing his work served as the inspiration for this essay.

Professional Ethics

Part of being a professional is to not only have knowledge and experience in a particular field, but also being subject to a code of ethics. What separates social activism from many other spheres, or at least the conception of it, is the intention to fight for an end to injustice and to aid and support the public good. It can be argued that modes of social activism that have existed since the beginning—such as marching, picketing and boycotting—are more ethical than online activism where there is an intersection with campaigning, marketing, and raising money. Integrity, public trust, and competence create successful activism campaigns. Since public interest and public trust are integral in the success of professions, observing different forms of online activism closely is imperative in identifying those with good ethical intentions, a willingness to act, and competence in raising awareness and achieving goals of justice, aid, and support.

Private Gains

Due to the privatization and manipulation of sectors of online activism, much of the public trust has diminished. This has delegitimized online activism as unethical or self-interested instead of as a form of activism serving the public. There has always been an altruistic component of online activism because of the market for petitioning and donating.

Online activism becomes unethical when online petitions are simply acquiring emails from people to sell them for a profit from other sectors online, or when only 1 percent of donations are going toward a cause or social issue while the other 99 percent are being distributed throughout the organization. This masquerading of online activism from organizations is neither professional nor good-willed—it is not investing in social change and action.

Money is not the only private gain of online activism, and activism altogether. Political gains in social activism have become alarmingly common and repugnant. Aside from being incredibly lucrative for political parties, figures, and campaigns, online activism is being used as a tool to deceive voters. This is especially becoming dangerous online with polling tools and political figures choosing platforms to make promises on for social change, and then not following through. There are presidential candidates on Facebook and Twitter speaking out about global warming or health disparities just to gain a following for their campaigns when the issues are probably not of much importance to them.

In order to regain the public trust, online activists need to be ethical and prove to the public that their signatures, letters, and donations are legitimate and rooted in social change.

Personal Ethics

The downfall of online activism is that it can create a bubble where people are simply partaking in descriptive ethics to explain what we actually do as a society instead of advocating for ways to create social change. There is intrinsic value in descriptive ethics dialogue with spreading awareness and educating others, but in ways this can weaken action and make people believe they are doing more from behind a screen than they would be doing out in society. The questions at hand here are: Are online activists being effective at ethical social change or is their involvement merely self-fulfillment? Is the motive behind online activism a positive feeling or affirmation received rather than a motive to help others? Is speech enough of a social action?

Self-Fulfillment and Self-Promotion

Many people have the inclination to help others and to "do good." What online activism has done is provide people with an outlet to write and exercise free speech to bring social injustices to the forefront of online discourse. For the most part, the "friends" or "followers" we have on social media websites are likeminded so at what point does spreading awareness and knowledge just become a yearning for affirmation from friends and family? Which of us can articulate the issue in the best way? Which of our posts is more emotionally charged? More accurate? More critical? Online activism can breed people jumping on the bandwagon of social issues to become prominent figures of a movement and it can give those same people a false sense of "being ethical" or "doing what is right" with a post once a week.

Hashtag Activism and Discourse Tone

With ethics and virtue in mind, hashtag activism has developed as a tool to use online activism to its full potential in realizing dedication to the common good and advocating for rights and justices among people all over the world. Hashtags are used on social media websites to have topics trending and calling for attention of users. Some examples include #BringBackOurGirls to rescue captured Nigerian girls from militant groups and #BlackLivesMatter to spread awareness of police violence against black men and women.

Other campaigns and hashtags have led to rightful boycotts of corporations, governments and other companies due to more awareness and firsthand accounts of injustice. These campaigns have since gained international attention and support. Along with this, however, is a hostile environment of people using hashtag activism to belittle the campaigns and responding with skeptical analyses. Online activism can become dangerous with threats and breaches of privacy. The discourse can be so toxic that those fighting behind the hashtags become disenfranchised and hopeless to a point of removing themselves from the fight altogether as the movement loses its footing.

Online activists need to work on a way to improve the quality of the discourse by developing habits and operating under standards to make them more ethical. Losing sight of the goal to do good by calling for violence or engaging in "social media wars" can be very problematic for the issue or cause being advocated for. There is power in the attention online activism brings, but it makes people think they are doing much more with a hashtag or a filtered photo on Facebook than they really are; not to mention, issues around the world are overlooked if they do not have the social media presence that more popular campaigns do.

Necessary Melding of Ethics and Online Activism

Online activism and social media campaigns ought to have serving the common good at the forefront of movements. Provoking change of a social issue should be done within reason and without personal or private gains. The focus of online activism should be moral and ethical, operating under systems of social action that are pure and noble.


Patel, R. (2013, November 18). Ethics Matter: A Conversation with Online Activist Ricken Patel. Carnegie Council. Retrieved November 20, 2015

Raicu, I. (2014, May). Hashtag Activism and the Power of Attention: An Ethics Case Study. Retrieved November 20, 2015

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