Digital Communication, Ethics, and Freedom of Speech

It’s common knowledge that people are on their best “verbal” behavior in certain social situations.  For example, when a person is at work, they know to be careful with how they talk, what they say, and how they present themselves to their supervisors and customers.  Yet, at home people can relax, be themselves, and share their feelings, thoughts, opinions, and beliefs with their close friends and family members.

Ethical lines can somehow get blurred when using other methods of communication. Steven B. Katz and Vicki W. Rhodes, in their article, Beyond Ethical Frames of Technical Relations, as published in Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy For Technical Communication, gave an example of how employees of a company refer to clients as “handicapped” or “disabled” when the company would never publicly refer to clients in that way, which it considers demeaning.  The employees are most likely not trying to demean the clients, rather, they use terms that are easier in a digital format. Often, email is used for it’s instant transfer of information.  A person can simply cast their thoughts into the keyboard and hit “send.”  Ethically, the companies publicists would frown. 

Let’s consider other forms of ethical violations.  Facebook users list their place of employment on their profile.  When the user’s face appears, often you can see who your mutual friends are and their place of employment without even going to their page.  Therefore, they are representatives of their employer in the digital world.  Should that person complain about work, or use derogatory language to describe customers, that could present ethical concerns.  Yet that user is simply using free speech to complain to their own “inner circle,” on their own time. Is it right or wrong?  If someone has a really bad day, a customer was rude and inconsiderate and the employee takes to Facebook to unload, does the company have an obligation to address it?  Do they have the right to address it?  After all, their name is associated.  I once read a thread of conversation about a controversial topic.  One particular individual was spewing hate, being vulgar and offensive.  I hovered the curser over his name and his place of employment came up.  Not once have I ever visited that business.  Very purposefully, I have avoided that business, simply because of what one employee posted on Facebook.  Does an employer have the right to limit a user’s content if they are employed at their company?

Facebook is becoming a popular business tool, but email tends to be a significant method of communication for businesses. One reason I like to use email and other forms of digital communication is for a “paper trail.”  I can look back and remember what I said, what I promised, or other important details.  I also have proof that I addressed a topic, followed through, or took action.  Often, if I talk on the phone about something important, I’ll follow up with an email that says, “As per our phone conversation, I wanted to recap our next steps…..”  That way I could always pull the email if there is ever a “he said – she said” type of situation.


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The authors, however, address a much deeper form of ethics in digital technology, and that is that our digital selves do not always resemble our real selves – our digital being (p. 238).  Email creates a relationship between a user and technology.  Interestingly, email is a popular form of workplace communication with which the users develop “relationships” using email, even if the recipient and the sender never actually speak, or the recipient is just a couple cubicles down (p. 243).  The authors ask if it’s possible to remove one’s self from the email communication, and to keep the message “neutral.”  They ask if that is a fair ethical standard for a company to expect of their employees (p. 250).  My answer is – not always.  Consider shooting emails back and forth, discussing important details of a project, and the other person has an alternate motivation or goal.  How can a person remove themselves from the content of the email when they evoke emotions.  What if you’re protective of your work, putting your whole self into the projects, and someone on the other end of the email isn’t as committed as you are? 

Another consideration is that person-less email can often be read as cold, impersonal, rude, or negative.  My rule of thumb is to always try to have my email communication take on a friendly, positive tone (which is not always easy to do if I’m frustrated).  I like to be somewhat personable, to make the recipient feel valued, important, or in the very least – not bothered. That means that I am not keeping my email impersonal and detaching myself from the communication.  At some companies, would that mean I am acting unethically?  I like to think that is professional and reflects well on the company, but that’s just my opinion.



Katz, S. B. & Rhodes, V. W. (2010). Beyond ethical frames of technical relations. In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital literacy for technical communication: 21st century theory and practice. (pp.230 – 256). New York, NY. Routledge.

Posted on October 9, 2016, in Social Media. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. “My rule of thumb is to always try to have my email communication take on a friendly, positive tone (which is not always easy to do if I’m frustrated).”

    Same here, except when I get frustrated I go from friendly to slightly passive aggressive. Over-polite and nothing anyone could take offense to or complain about without sounding silly. I think of it as the digital version of gritting your teeth while making it look like a smile.

  2. You raise a lot of good points, especially when it comes to the idea of Freedom of Speech and the digital age.

    Looking at your Facebook example, there is definitely a blurry ethical line that exists. On one hand, I find it pleasurable when a racist/misogynistic/homophobic post is followed by a massive information dump on social media and then a notification by a company with some bland CYA language denouncing the employee and reaffirming their commitment to diversity and inclusion. On the other hand, when an employee makes a very real and honest critic of their employer on social media, it is also followed by a post firing them.

    Where does it end? Privacy has been abandoned for access. Some would say that opening yourself up to that level of scrutiny is bound to be exploited. i use my social media presence to monitor my friends, family, and other interests; I have no interest in sharing photos of my location and tweets about what I’m doing every hour.

    In terms of email communications, it is definitely needed to keep track of who said what when. It happened to me and my coworkers a lot at an old job I had: subject matter experts would bug us to talk on the phone and then do what they want and say we gave them permission. I learned quickly that everything had to be followed up with an email and a checklist. It is also important to put in the personal touch whenever you can however. Companies who follow strict. impersonal rules about communications will be overlooked for other more personable competitors. I believe that it is your job to put as much of yourself as appropriate in your content. Anyone can look up the answers you provide through Google and other search engines what separates us is our skill, ability to understand and convey information, and the bit of personal touch we offer.

  3. Yes! Excellent point that everyone can seek out answers using Google. We need to appeal to them and email may be the only form of contact. I also agree with your statement about privacy being abandoned for access. Sometimes, I’m literally embarrassed for others because of what they post. Drama – relationship trouble – a picture of their lunch. I want to reach through the screen and tell them that they really don’t want the world to know all of that. Sometimes, I wonder if my “aquaintences” know that I can see their drama. However, like you, Facebook is a great way for me to keep up with what my loved ones are doing these days. I know all about my nephew’s class trip, my niece’s dance tryout, etc. I love that about Facebook.

    • This thread reminds me a lot of the other book we’re reading for this course, “Alone Together.” In the digital/social media age, where is the line between personal and professional? As you mention in your post, there is kind of an implicit understanding that different language/ethics are appropriate at work compared to what’s appropriate outside. However, when those spheres becomes muddled, which moral code needs to be upheld? Then again, I think it could be argued that this is actually a good thing because it removes the illusion of compartmentalizing yourself and forces a more comprehensive identity instead of living with a double standard.

      “Alone Together” makes the point that the Internet loses a lot of the “freedom” aspect because everything is forever. What you say in an angry rant will still be lingering out there years later. I think your post points out that the “freedom” of the Internet is also (counter-intuitively) limited by “everyone”. Because you have a worldwide audience with access to what you’re saying, you need to self-censor. Nothing is private, and anything could come up in your next job interview.

    • One thing that horrifies and embarrasses me is when somebody mindlessly shares a post that is alarmist and makes claims that have been completely debunked. In other words, they’re treating and sharing what amounts to an urban legend as if it was fact. I am embarrassed because I thought my friends and family were smart enough to discern fact from fiction (or at least do the research to determine what is fact or fiction). And I’m horrified, because these urban legends are being spread around as fact, and somebody out there is making decisions based on total misinformation.

      For instance, I saw a shared Facebook post that said, “Dandelion roots cure 98% of cancer cells in 48 hours!” It’s patently false ( But somebody out there has used this misinformation to quit chemo in favor of dandelions.

      It is not only completely unethical to share unsubstantiated scare posts like these, it’s downright dangerous! I wish people would do some research before sharing posts that make claims.

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