What Happens When Transparency Goes Wrong? - Social Media Explorer
What Happens When Transparency Goes Wrong?
What Happens When Transparency Goes Wrong?
Jason Falls
Jason Falls

When I was young I had a problem with honesty. Tall tales, fibs and all-out lies were the unfortunate manifestation of my creative energy and need for acceptance. Fortunately, I grew up along the way and realized dishonesty wasn’t the way to win friends.

Perhaps this is part of the reason I’m so far to the left of most people when it comes to openness, honesty and transparency. I see nothing wrong with peeling back the curtain all the way, not just letting people have a peek. I’ve recommended more transparency to clients than they’re probably comfortable with. I’ve live-streamed from my post-surgery hospital bed and I’m not shy about sharing personal details via Twitter, blog or other methods.

However, while I may have few limits from a personal perspective, there is a line that, when crossed, makes transparency go wrong. Case in point: Someone created a Google Maps mashup with the address information for contributors to California’s Proposition 8 campaign. The measure recently passed and overturned the state’s legalization of gay marriage. The names and addresses of the financial contributors to the proposition’s campaign are a matter of public record, so the mashup’s creator hasn’t done anything wrong, other than the ethical hang-up of not identifying themselves. But the effort places those contributors squarely in the cross-hairs of those interested in harassment or even retribution for opposing gay marriage.

Protesters in San Francisco campaign for marri...
Image via Wikipedia

On one hand, there are those that say the contributors should be proud of their stance and shouldn’t be bothered by their more-than-expected public outing. But look at this through a wider-angle lens. If supporters of a gay marriage proposal in, say, Birmingham, Ala., were publicly outed in similar fashion, you may as well earmark those houses for vandalism and the residents for harassment.

(I lived in Birmingham for five years. I’m qualified to make that criticism. Homosexuals in the deep south are about as welcome and tolerated as African-Americans were in the 60s.)

As adamant as I am that information should be free and companies and individuals should be open and transparent, those of us who advocate that stance must come to terms with one disturbing, but salient point:

There will always be those who will treat information irresponsibly.

The world we live in is not perfect. San Francisco, California, America and the planet in general are all full of well-intended, normal people, but also dotted with wing-nuts and sociopaths who will take it upon themselves to, “do something about,” those who disagree with them.

We cannot call ourselves responsible if we put our fellow man in jeopardy over principle.

And if you need further proof, Tech power broker Michael Arrington of TechCrunch announced last week he was taking a leave of absence after someone spat in his face at a conference in Germany. He disclosed he also received death threats from a gun-toting, convicted felon last year. While I would not classify Michael Arrington as, “just a blogger,” since he is the founder and editor of perhaps one of the most influential and power-wielding media publishing tools in the technology industry, he’s just a guy whose blog got big. No offense to Arrington, who I respect greatly and hope he comes back full force, but he’s not someone worth getting your panties in a wad over because he didn’t write about your crappy idea.

The point is that our world isn’t 100-percent sterile. We cannot assume that information alone can’t hurt people because allowing that information to be had puts it in the hands of people who can hurt people.

But what are the limits? Is the Google Mashup author liable if a pro-Prop 8 supporter is assaulted or worse? Should this type of manipulation of public information be permitted? Should it be monitored or limited by the government?

While I’m apt to say, “no,” I’m also convinced that we as a people often can’t police ourselves, which is really why government exists.

I still stand on the principle that information should be free and that we the people should be trusted with it. But those of us in social media and technology advocating for an open-source world need to be mindful of what that sometimes gets us.

A penny for your thoughts. The comments are yours.

NOTE: For more discussion on these issues, hear me, Mark Story and Jennifer Zingsheim wax poetic on them and other topics on last week’s Media Bullseye Roundtable here.

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About the Author

Jason Falls
Jason Falls is the founder of Social Media Explorer and one of the most notable and outspoken voices in the social media marketing industry. He is a noted marketing keynote speaker, author of two books and unapologetic bourbon aficionado. He can also be found at JasonFalls.com.
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  • If we really want to look at this objectively, we need to take the issue of Prop 8 out of it. Makes it too easy to let the topic take center stage.

    What if someone published a mashup of public information for a less controversial topic?

    There will *always* be information in the public domain that *could* endanger someone. Who gets to decide what information is potentially harmful and which isn't?

    I'm not naive enough to think that some people aren't capable of doing really terrible things; however, I am not going to support banning or removing certain types of information from the public domain. Puts us on a slippery slope toward all kinds of limits to our rights that could be invoked to protect us from potential harm.

    Not to get too political; however, I think we saw how the threat of terrorism was used to do just that over the past 4 years.

  • Rebecca Rose

    Wonderful post as usual and I agree with you that we have a responsibility to each other to be transparent but also not to endanger others. Just because something happens online in a somewhat anonymous environment, doesn't negate the fact that there are real people behind those sites and that information. It's like my grandma told me, “If you wouldn't say something to someone's face then best keep your mouth shut!” And if you're endangering someone for simply expressing their opinion (which they are entitled to) then it is YOU who are in the wrong – not them for not sharing your opinion.

    PS – I grew up in Red Bay, Alabama and I fully back what you say about the deep south. Living in California now it's hard for people to understand that mentality, but it definitely exists.

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  • “While I’m apt to say, “no,” I’m also convinced that we as a people often can’t police ourselves, which is really why government exists.”

    Exactly! In my latest blog post I address the fact that citizen journalists need to follow, or create, some kind of code of ethics similar to those that traditional journalists have (like with the Society of Professional Journalists). You are so right in saying that so often people can't police themselves, and I think I'm not alone in hoping that those who blog, tag, tweet, post etc. won't have to surrender to a bunch of government rules.

    • The Society of Professional Journalists was possible because the costs associated with print and television as mediums were high enough to keep the number of people who could be called “journalists” to a relatively low number. They could make one another swear to a joint code of ethics because they were a distinct profession. I find the effectiveness of their code to be debatable, but that's a discussion I'll save for another time.

      Right now, there are no real cost barriers to doing what journalists used to do. Even if you could form something like a Society of Citizen Journalists (of which there are already many) the number of people who did not join such a thing would outnumber those who did by a ridiculous amount. The influence that such a group could achieve would likely be minimal.

      In the end these are moral questions that there are no easy answers to. All we can do is our small part to show disapproval for certain actions, and approval for others.

    • Thanks Janet. We certainly need policing from time to time. The balance and question comes in when and how much. I wish I had those answers.

      Thanks for the comment.

  • BonnieKirk

    Well said, Jason. Although I'm a Louisville native, I've lived in other states, including the deep south. We remain a deeply prejudiced nation in many ways. Perhaps some will always look for a target for the hatred they cannot admit is really a reflection of their feelings about themselves. Yes, we need to be responsible. And the bigger our soapbox, the greater the responsibility.

    I also feel that offenses offer opportunities to extend forgiveness. It just so happens that I recently wrote, “In the early 1990’s, psychologists and researchers began exploring the impact of forgiveness on lives, specifically the potential to improve health and social functioning. They learned that those who develop the ability to forgive have greater control over their emotions, get significantly less angry, upset and hurt, and are much healthier as a result. These are fruits of forgiveness.” (Please don't take this personally, Jason. I do not believe unforgiveness causes all health problems. Far from it.)

    • Hey Bonnie. No offense taken at all. I have read some of the reports on forgiveness and just saying, “I'm sorry,” and how it affects litigation in medical cases, etc. You're absolutely right. But the fact still remains that we must manage our information carefully as there are simply people out there who will always use it with an agenda to do something for which it was not intended.

      Thanks for the input. And thanks for the thoughts on forgiveness. We could all certainly use a bit of reminding of that from time to time.

  • I have two thoughts on this subject.

    One, people need to be aware that when they put themselves out there they make themselves potentially vulnerable. I think a lot of people blog or tweet or what have you, and think that they are doing it in a vacuum, that no one can see who they are or that there will be no consequences. No one has to blog to contribute to a campaign, after all. It is their right to do so, but it should perhaps not be taken as lightly as it often is.

    That said, people need to take firmer moral stands against the kind of scum who make that mashup or spit on Arrington. I'm for a turnabout is fair play approach to this problem; anonymous cowards who seek to terrify people in this manner ought to be exposed and have their deeds openly associated with their names.

    • I'm right there with you Adam. But when people do something anonymously, it's often not lawful to force exposure (I'm sure we could track down the user who posted the Proposition 8 map based on purchaser of the domain, hosting, etc.). So where does this leave us? One would hope they would be proud of their actions and let the world know who they are. The fact they are (or to my knowledge seem to be) hiding indicates they know they're doing something not quite right.

      Thanks for the contribution.

      • There's certainly no easy answer. A quick thought: it wasn't really lawful when digg users kept posting the digital key for HD-DVDs, but the legal repercussions were minimal as law in all of this is quite fuzzy. While I found the digg users' insistence on publishing the key a bit much considering the relative unimportance of the issue, I think it demonstrates something about putting information out on the web: as of this moment it's very difficult to stop people from putting out what they want to put out, and the legal remedies to this are unlikely to ever make much of a difference.

        So forcing exposure may be an option after all, if there is enough support for it.

        • Fair point. I also think, however, that a some point there will have to be some sort of governance of the Internet to protect things like intellectual property, copyright, etc. The border-less world of the web now makes it difficult to police things that the Digg DVD key issue, but it's certainly not out of question for the United Nations or some other such body to come along and say, “We must have limits.” Most countries would agree to it and International law would then rule.

          I don't necessarily want to see that happen, but I think it has to at some point.

          • Well on that particular question I think that “should” or “should not” don't matter because the “how” of implementation needs to be addressed first.

            I happen to think that, whatever the good or bad consequences of it, enforcing that sort of governance on the web is and will remain impossible. The Chinese government has some 20,000 cutting edge technicians attempting to impose their will upon the web in their country, and still anyone who really wants to can get around their filters. They arrest bloggers all the time, but we see lawsuits against copyright piracy all the time here–the fact is that neither blogging in China nor filesharing in the US are going to go away because the tools simply do not exist to impose the kind of regulations those governments would like to–and I doubt they ever will.

  • Jason, another tricky debate. I'm an honest person, I would hope to think all that know me would agree, but with age and experience I've learnt what to share and what to reserve to smaller audiences or even just keep to myself.

    All movements whether political, ideological or social seem to work in a cyclical fashion, i.e. which ever route you take the extremes of any of those hit a point where they're not in the benefit or the public as a whole and can incite people to take actions they otherwise wouldn't.

    I am all for the free press and we should be able to read what we wish and follow what we believe in. But, when the consequences of these actions can cause others harm, sometimes some form of censor is required.

    What would be ideal, would be if the people promoting or supporting a specific ideology or movement might consider their actions before diving in as if they are campaign martyrs. But, some of these issues are very emotive and people can do strange things when emotions are involved.

    Finding a balance between a free society and balanced society that is a safe and open place to express opinions and conduct your business is never going to happen. In some ways that is only indicative of how beautifully odd we are as a race, we're all different and hopefully always will be.

    Keeping everyone happy is an impossibility without a Brave New World approach and that's hardly a happy thought. For every great idea there will be someone else putting a spanner in the works.

    Great post, I like the philosophical ones . . .

    • Thank you for the thoughtful comments, Ed. We certainly aren't going to find a silver bullet solution, but it would be nice if we could discuss the topic more so that more understand the issue. Hopefully, we've started that conversation here. Thanks!

  • Eric_Bonetti

    You raise some good points Jason. Having been in PR for a long time, I believe in going above and beyond in being honest, open, and accessible. For instance, I don't mind fielding media calls at 3:00 in the morning. A deadline is a deadline and my job is to do what I can to help.

    At the same time, it is possible to go too far. Part of being a responsible communicator is knowing how and when to protect people, including your employer or client. And sometimes this includes information that is public, which may be misleading, unhelpful, or otherwise problematic.

    It is painful and, to my mind, morally wrong to ban gay marriage, but I would not want to see anyone hurt or injured on either side of the issue.

    Excellent post. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Eric. You're right, there is a fine line of understanding for the communications or information manager. I'm just concerned about instances when our government policies of disclosure can be abused to the point of putting people in harm's way. Not sure what the solution is, but it's worth talking through.

      Thanks for the comment.

  • After having the unfortunate experience with a commenter relaying some not so nice thoughts about my family on my blog comments (which thankfully was caught by moderation before going live) I feel a little less open.

    Freedom of information relies on people choosing to act responsibly with that information. The reality of the world is not everyone does. Does that mean we should stop being open and being human? No. Does it mean we should lock our doors and windows at night? Yeah.

    Perhaps I would feel differently if I were the one being harassed, but until you experience it, reactions are hard to predict.

    • Thanks for sharing this. It's good to see the perspective of a “victim” of mismanagement of information. I think that's one feeling most people can't identify with until it happens. Very much appreciate you volunteering that.

  • At some point, someone will throw something at me for being such a founding documents dork, but what comes to mind here is Madison in Federalist #51: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” You are spot-on regarding the fact that there are many who cannot police themselves.

    You have succinctly nailed down what my concern was when I heard about the Google map mashup/Prop 8 issue on NPR. We all have a responsibility to think of “what next” when we publish information. Transparency that causes harm is not a virtue.



    • Thanks Jen. And thanks for the pseudo inspiration for the post during our Bullseye Roundtable chat Friday. Much fun.

  • You have to ask what kind of f***ed-up society we live in when things like this (and similar) can, and do, happen. Why is it a crime to support something? Would the person/people that made the Proposition 8 details public be as happy for their details to be made public, for the benefit of the more “enthusiastic” proposition supporters? It can work both ways.

    I'm all for openness and honesty – I'm much like you in that approach, Jason, as my clients would also adhere to – but is there a time when certain information shouldn't be available? Or does that bow down to the reprobates being discussed here?

    • Thanks Danny. We certainly see eye-to-eye on much. I'm like you. I think this topic opens up thousands more questions than defines answers. Which is why I posted it. Maybe we can talk about limiting what you can do with public information. But then again, does that then make it not really public? Not sure.

      Thanks for stopping by.

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  • Great, timely discussion Jason. There is a huge difference between lying and making yourself vulnerable to vandalism or worse. And that should be YOUR decision. Names, maybe. Addresses: absolutely not. Anyone who makes information of others available isn't being honest with themselves if they haven't considered the worst repercussion.

    • Totally agree on this front, Jen, but it is true that financial donor information to political campaigns is public information. Being that, there's nothing that stands in someone's way of taking that information and using it for something less than honorable. So, do we change the rules and hide political contributors (thus closing down one avenue of transparency) or do we implement rules saying you can't use the information certain ways, limiting our freedoms?

      Touchy issue but certainly an interesting one. Thanks for chiming in.


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