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Consequence vs. intent

Why intent matters when posting after a tragedy

Late Monday, an explosion at the end of an Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena in England killed 22 people and injured dozens more. Shortly thereafter, the Islamic State took responsibility for the attack, though U.S. authorities have yet to verify its claim. On Tuesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May put the nation on its highest level of alert, while authorities investigated.

In the hours following the attack, people took to social media to post and share information and opinions about the incident—including the claim by the Islamic State—which sparked an intense debate about what should and shouldn’t be amplified online after such an incident.

We asked John Basl, assistant professor of philosophy whose work focuses on issues in ethics, to weigh in on the matter. After these events, he said, it’s more telling to consider the intent behind what’s posted, rather than its consequences. Further, he added that we ought to encourage celebrities to use their voices effectively to make a difference.

Broadly, do you think there’s an ethical problem with sharing graphic content online after an incident where there are mass casualties?

This is an instance where weighing the consequences—good or bad—doesn’t seem like a very helpful way to think about this problem. There’s no obvious rights violation in sharing these types of things in your social media circles, and frankly, the consequences are going to be nearly immeasurable.

The crux of this seems to be, ‘What were the intentions of the people sharing these things?’ Are people sharing it because they’re trying to sensationalize this event? Or are they sharing it to spread information? Like a lot of instances, you can have two people do the same exact thing, but with very different intentions, and those end up being two very different acts.

Are there better or worse ways to post and share online after this type of event?

Users really have to consider, ‘What are my obligations here, given that we’re not going to ban the spread of information?’ and make a judgment call about whether their own release of information might result in negative consequences.

Last week, The Washington Post reported that President Donald J. Trump shared highly classified information with the Russian foreign minister and ambassador. Legally, the President is allowed to declassify any information and share it, so what he did didn’t violate the law, but he may have released methods that may have undermined the safety of some people.

Now, usually the types of things people are sharing online don’t have a national security risk. There are typically measurable things you can do to help promote information campaigns by authorities after a mass incident. There is actionable information sharing that can make a tangible difference without you getting in the way of the emergency responders who are doing their jobs.

Is there any onus on social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter to filter the sort of information that’s shared by their users?

It would be hard to justify laws that would force platforms like these to promote or suppress information. These are situations when you need to look at what policies certain companies adopt for themselves, based on how their users use the platform.

Generally, though, having these platforms be relatively open and relatively neutral is what makes them so valuable.

The explosion occurred at an Ariana Grande concert. Does she, or do any celebrities and other public figures in general, have any obligation to speak out?

This is something I’ve thought a lot about, and something we see come up when celebrities express a public opinion on politics, usually. In one sense, I’m really proud of the people who question what expertise or authority a celebrity has to offer an opinion. On the other hand, some of these (celebrities) are extremely articulate, they’ve thought about these things a lot, and most importantly, they know people will listen.

I think we should encourage celebrities to make a difference, and particularly, a celebrity in crisis can use his or her voice very effectively to make a difference. We saw this when Jimmy Kimmel used his show to make healthcare an issue when his child was sick. These are people who have a large audience already, and can use it to make a difference.