Balancing truth and a positive image online

What is our responsibility to the truth when we post online? When representing a business/institution online and on social media, must we always represent it with 100 percent accuracy? What is the truth anyways?

At first glance this question seems pretty straightforward. Always tell the truth. Anything other than the truth is misleading and therefore wrong. How could it be otherwise?

The same straightforwardness seems apparent in Jonathan Zittrain’s talk when considering the ethics of interfering with Facebook or google’s algorithms. He uses as an example the potential power that Facebook would have to sway an election by just leaving a reminder to vote off of a person’s newsfeed who shows a preference that is unfavorable to the powers-that-be at Facebook. It would be unfair for these online giants to use their influence to sway something that is as fair and unbiased as a math-based algorithm to anyone’s benefit.

Screen shot of Facebook's reminder to vote.

Screen shot of Facebook’s reminder to vote. Source: TechPresident, Facebook’s Voting Reminder Message Isn’t Working, 2012

But his next example makes the issue a little murkier by explaining how google has removed from its top search results a company that blackmails people by ensuring that their mugshot photos would be prominent when their name was searched unless they paid a steep fee. This seems like justice, even though Google is stepping in to use its power against the cosmic fairness of a mathematically-powered search algorithm.

So when we create a presence for a public institution online – possibly a social network site where we create a public profile, make connections in the community, and gain access to their connections (D. Boyd, Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship, p. 211) – what is our responsibility to the public to represent the institution truthfully?

I’ll use photography as an example that I come up against as a graphic designer in the marketing department of a technical college. Let’s say that we’re posting a picture to facebook of our college’s president smiling next to a student at a college event.

  • The lighting is too bad to post this picture without adjusting it in Photoshop. Do I correct it? Yes.
  • While I’m here, in this portrait the president clearly has lipstick on her front teeth. Would I remove it? Absolutely.
  • How about a couple zits on the student’s face? I would remove most of them or at least lighten them.
  • What if the student has a permanent wart or a birthmark? Those stay. That’s part of what the student looks like, and it would be crossing a line to remove that.

But isn’t the student’s zits also part of what he/she looks like on this particular day? Isn’t it the truth that on this day the President attended the event with lipstick on her teeth? Isn’t it also the truth that the lighting in the room was horrible?

In a conversation about Web 2.0 between Andrew Keen and David Weinberger, Keen likens the story of the Internet to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, where the Internet is the mirror that reveals ourselves to be cockroaches. He compares the multitude of contributors of online content to mindless monkeys. This strikes me as counterintuitive when most of us spend our efforts consciously making ourselves look as good or better than we are in real life.

In our office, amongst the graphic designers, the social media administrator, the copywriter and anyone who is creating content to represent the College, our mantra is to represent our community (students, staff, instructors, even the campus) in a way would be recognized by them as having a “good day.” We choose our content and edits with empathy and compassion. We don’t strive to mislead, and we always maintain what participants would recognize as the reality of the moment. The camera is often cruel, picking up details that we would overlook in person. The candy wrapper on the sidewalk in a picture of the facade of the school does not represent how we see the building. It just happens to be there when the information is flattened into a photograph. No one noticed the white specks all over the shoulders of your shirt, but that dandruff sure does shine in the lighting of the photo. To remove these details doesn’t change the reality experienced by the individual in the moment, it just shows it off at its best.

Would you rather that I not clean up your shirt? Lighten the blemish? Subtract the trash? Am I being kind, or deceitful? Is my responsibility to tell the truth of how you experienced the moment, or the truth of the photograph?

Posted on September 20, 2015, in Blogs, Marketing, Social Media, Trust and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I agree with you, Allie, that fixing a few minor things that usually “here today, gone tomorrow,” is still telling the truth, as probably most of the time, those blemishes or imperfections are usually not there.

    In audio production or transcription, the “um’s” and false starts are often removed, too, as they do not enhance the sentence or provide clarity. These minor audio bumps are distracting and can make a person look bad, especially during moments when the person is nervous or scared. Sure, when most people talk, there are a few “um’s” that escape, but we ignore those. But in print or anything that is played back a few times, those “um’s” and false starts are annoying, and people will complain to why those were not removed.

    But, if one wanted to be technical about it, there are no real truths out there, as people can interpret things differently, and some people only pick out the things that fall in line with their own beliefs and values. That is why judges want both sides of the story, but even then, those two stories do not tell the full story either, as something can always be left unsaid, or some visual aid missing.

  2. Since the dawn of photography people have been manipulating images. Yet, anytime we correct, manipulate or enhance images in Photoshop, it brings up a host of ethical and aesthetic questions.

    I think a line exists in Photoshop that designers can cross where an image is “real” or “not real”. Your example of blemish removal, and lighting adjustments are real. On the contrary, extreme distortion of an image is anything but. I agree with your offices mantra of portraying people as having a “good day”. I think if these small adjustments are an accurate portrayal (within reason) of these individuals, why not make people feel better?

    Similarly, you might find the video where BuzzFeed took four women and Photoshopped them into “cover models” interesting… Their reactions to the manipulated (or perhaps even distorted) version of themselves are surprising to say the least.

    • I’m replying to Sarah’s comment because the both of you have articulated a strong argument for Rhetorical Theory, a spring semester course in the MSTPC program. Truth has been a slippery term from Plato onward, and the advertising industry thrives on that. For a more recent connection to social media, check this piece out on Instagram, which I’ve excerpted below:

      Creating a world of idealized beauty, Instagram should be seen as a source of positive empowerment for women, increasing inner confidence. However, the warped way in which women present themselves online distorts accurate perceptions of reality and begs the question: can this generation accept a life that is filter-free?

  3. Our responsibility to the truth is the same regardless of the medium. If we’re professional and care the be factually correct we offer “truth” untainted by our personal (or corporate) intent. Truths come in all sizes. As an example, at my school we tout completion rates of minorities. We’ve recently become a “Latino Institution” per government standards, which opens doors for more funding and grant opportunities to drive initiatives. If a specific minority-based program retains and completes 15 of 20 students, that’s a successful 75% graduation rate, which we publish.

    Similar initiatives with few students also do well for a variety of factors including, free tuition and books, small class size, higher faculty to student ratio, and often a dedicated team reaching out to assist with community resources; we do that well. But it’s not representative of our whole goal and achievement as college. With more students than most universities our total graduation/ transfer rate is closer to 19%. Whether in print or online, if we offer small successes, is that an outward, immoral presentation by omission?

    As for elections, news stations reporting results before the 11 p.m. close already influence turnout. Many people don’t bother to vote after work because a local station will have a report of the counted precincts. When Floridian polls close at 7 p.m. and broadcasters start calling results at 9 p.m., people in the Pacific time zone often don’t go to the polls because of Florida results. I think no results or speculations should be made on national elections until after all voting has closed.

    • Great examples, Dana. As marketers, or anyone who strives to represent an institution, a business or even themselves well, we find ourselves omitting details that are negative in order to tell a more positive story. Can you imagine if someone going on a first date felt obligated to tell the complete run-down of positives and negatives? Actually, there was a great segment in a This American Life episode where the host Ira Glass interviews a man who was raised to always tell the whole truth–

      “…in job interviews, people would ask me what my biggest flaw was. And I would go into a long rant about all my flaws and all the negative things anyone’s ever said about me. And people would look at me– I got used to this expression of horror. And sometimes it was kind of comic. People would laugh. Like, wow, you thought you had to actually answer that?”
      (Michael Leviton, This American Life, Episode 552: Need to Know Basis, Act One. Full Disclosure.)

      I can also relate in my job when it comes to photo selection. Only 19% of my college’s student population identifies as an ethnic minority, so if I were being absolutely truthful in the photos I select to put on marketing pieces, I would only show one-in-five students who look to be an ethnic minority (which is another morally ambiguous situation). Since many documents I create show less than five students, many brochures, flyers, etc. would be published showing only caucasian students.

      In an effort to be inclusive and welcoming, the actual percentage of ethnic minorities in our marketing pieces is closer to 30-40%, but if you walked around my campus you would see that that representation is deceptive. So what’s more morally correct? Being inclusive or accurate in our representation of the college’s racial diversity?

  4. Hi, Allie:

    I had mixed emotion with regards to Jonathan Zittrain’s discussion. I, personally, found the mug shot site intrusive on someone’s rights. But, perhaps that is a fight best brought up with the government for allowing such information to be public knowledge. The information he showed on the website seemed deeply personal, as we don’t know the actual situation that person was in, when this even occurred. The idea that anyone can access it “until” he pays up, did seem ludicrous and like blackmail to me. Is it Google’s fault this site is out there and are they responsible for removing it? That, I am not so readily to agree with.

    My take away from this discussion though, was that the algorithms often skew the accuracy of what is presented by search engines like Google.. Again, I don’t think we can necessarily blame the search engine for how they “rank” search results. I do think we can encourage social media sites, search engines and companies to be more vigilant with how they throw these algorithms together. It seems that is where the true inaccuracies are occurring and that is just a “bad business practice.”

  5. Reporters come up against this very dilemma all the time. Do we change a grammatically incorrect quote to make the person look more education or better spoken? Or do we leave it the way it is to show the person as they truly speak “in real life?” if we know the person we’re interviewing, do we “fix” an accidental grammar mistake because “we know they don’t really speak like that (and we don’t want to alienate them as a source)? If they have a regional dialect, do we capture the nuances of that accent and reflect their cultural heritage, or do we “Midwesternize” it? There are so many versions of the truth, it can be difficult to sort them out, let alone present them in a completely unbiased way. While journalists aim to be unbiased, and most get pretty close, I think, I’m not sure a presentation of anything can be completely unbiased or unfiltered. Even an un-doctored image is biased in the way that it is posed, the angle in which it is shot, who is in the frame, etc.

  6. You really hit this one on the nail for me! This is often such a debate for many people as this definitely comes up with magazine editorials and they way individuals are photoshopped for those types of images. But for me, I often think this comes down to this idea of perfection and making something beautiful. Whether we like to admit it or not, as humans we are drawn to visually appealing things (I think that our society maybe more so than other cultures have been exposed to this predominately) – so naturally we want to make things look better. In your scenario, if you left the college president with lipstick on her teeth, people might take a closer look at the photo and make snarky comments or with the individual with an unclear facial complexion, people may get turned off and avoid the picture all together because we are proned to hearing how bad complexions are a hideous form. In both instances, it detracts from your overall message, which is exactly what you’re trying to avoid – so then why even post it in the first place if no one is going to read it?

    But this truly goes back to your heading about “balancing truth with a positive image”. I think there can sometimes be a very fine line between truth and a positive image and as technical communication professionals / designers, we need to be prepared to address our choices.

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