Skip to main content

LGBTQ Policy Journal

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

Social Media, Ethics, and Exposing Private Information About LGBT Users

Social Media, Ethics, and Exposing Private Information About LGBT Users

A More Connected World is a Better World

In an opinion piece written in May 2010 for The Washington Post, CEO and founder of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg, wrote in response to the public’s growing concern over user privacy:

“Six years ago, we built Facebook around a few simple ideas. People want to share and stay connected with their friends and the people around them. If we give people control over what they share, they will want to share more. If people share more, the world will become more open and connected. And a world that’s more open and connected is a better world.”

In theory, Zuckerberg’s notion sounds ideal. However, the content users share can have unintended consequences for those in the LGBT communities—consequences that can’t be fixed through enhanced privacy settings on social media platforms alone.

An October 2012 article in the Wall Street Journal discussed this phenomenon. Bobbi Duncan, a student at the University of Texas, had her sexual orientation exposed by the head of the university’s Queer Chorus group when the group’s leader added her and another fellow classmate to their group’s page. The addition of her name to the group was blasted to Bobbi’s entire Facebook network. Like many people, Bobbi had been savvy about her privacy settings, preventing members of her network from seeing content that would expose her LGBT identity. A loophole in Facebook’s privacy settings alerted Bobbi’s Facebook network that she was added to the group, causing her father to discover that his daughter was a lesbian, leading to a significant disruption in their relationship.

Behaving Ethically on Social Networks

Bobbi’s experience exposes an issue that goes beyond privacy. As with most new technologies, the rapid evolution of social media has introduced new challenges to which our culture must adapt, including issues not just of privacy, but of ethics.

When new technologies are introduced, there is often a delay between the use of such technologies and the development of appropriate standards for their use. An example might be the use of cell phones and texting during a movie or dinner date. When these standards are not yet developed, one must rely solely on one’s own judgment, morals, and values to guide behavior.

Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who took his own life, did so shortly after his sexual encounter with another man was broadcast via Internet video to his peers at Rutgers. What it means to use good judgment or to behave ethically is very much in play when discussing social media, a relatively new set of technologies with pitfalls made slowly apparent to its users.

Ethics refers to what we ought to do when it comes to making decisions that are right, fair and just. The ethics of human communication assesses the right and wrong ways to engage in communication with those in our networks. Each of us has the ability to communicate with individuals or groups in our networks, but our communication may have intended or unintended consequences for ourselves, for the person or group we are in communication with, and for the person or group for whom the communication is about. Our communication becomes more complex and requires more scrutiny when social media is involved.

Although social media platforms like Facebook have implemented solutions that protect an individual’s own privacy, they have done little to protect those users about whom content is being shared. For instance, a Facebook user has the ability to upload pictures of their friends without their consent. Even with increased control of content posted on a user’s wall, select posts on Facebook are often visible to large groups of people before they are vetted or even noticed by the person affected by this information, as in the case of Bobbi Duncan.

Exposing LGBT Identities Without Consent

Exposing private information can have unintended consequences, particularly for the LGBT community, a minority population that frequently faces discrimination but is in the somewhat unusual situation of being able to choose to conceal or disclose status of belonging to this grouptheir sexual orientation or gender identity.

In order to explore the phenomenon of how frequently content is shared on social networks that exposes LGBT identities, I conducted a survey that asked how often content had been shared about respondents that exposed their LGBT identity. Fifty-five percent of the survey group reported that their LGBT identity had been exposed through social media. Of those who reported that their identity had been exposed by content shared, only eighteen percent reported that their peer asked for proper consent before posting. Of those who said that proper consent had not been obtained, 4%four percent indicated that they had faced negative repercussions, such as damaged family relationships, because of having their sexual/gender identity exposed without consent on social media platforms.

At this time, it is not standard etiquette to request permission from a person before posting content about them. And while this may only affect, or negatively affect, a small percentage of overall users, the consequences of these actions can be and have been severe for some LGBT users.

Misunderstandings of State-Level LGBT Rights

Not only are some users of social media cavalier about sharing content but few are informed about the laws that exist to protect the LGBT community. Users are often misinformed about the legal protections that exist, at times assuming wrongly that there are existing protections while just as often assuming wrongly that there are not.

Respondents were asked about several basic rights and laws that affect the LGBT community, including: workplace nondiscrimination; hate crimes and protections from acts of violence; nondiscrimination and anti-bullying laws in schools; and relationship recognition, including marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships. In each of these domains, there were notable numbers of people who were incorrectly assumed that their home state did or did not have protections within each of these key areas.



Protections for LGB persons

Protections for transgender persons

Stated “I have these protections” when their state does not Stated “I do not have these protections” when their state does Stated “I have these protections” when their state does not Stated “I do not have these protections” when their state does
Workplace protection laws 6% 1% 5% 8%
Hate crimes laws 16% 18% 6% 10%
Anti-Bullying or Safe Schools laws 4% 12% 4% 16%
Same-sex Marriage Rights laws 2% 12% N/A N/A


Figure 1: Respondents understanding of LGBT rights in their current state of residence. This survey was conducted before Maine, Maryland, and Washington passed same-sex marriage.

While at first review these statistics may appear minimal, they bring to light the limited awareness and inaccurate understandings surrounding legal protections for members of the LGBT community. For instance, a user in New York, where residents are protected by many LGB rights (not including transgender rights), may share content that exposes the LGBT identity of a user in Alabama or Mississippi, where these rights do not exist, potentially causing that individual to have her safety, job, family ties or other important life areas put at risk. This scenario highlights the significance of encouraging users of social media to think about the content that they are sharing and the negative consequences that the exposing content may have on their LGBT peers, even if they live in a state where LGBT rights are the norm.

Is a More Connected World a Better World?

Let’s recall Mark Zuckerberg’s quote in The Washington Post in which he states,

“If people share more, the world will become more open and connected. And a world that’s more open and connected is a better world.” In many ways, this idea does hold true. Content that is shared on social platforms serves as a communication tool, which can in turn educate others on cultural and societal differences within their networks. However, as we’re reminded by Tyler Clementi, Bobbi Duncan and the limited state of LGBT rights across all fifty states, we do not live in a completely tolerant society and there is still much more that needs to be done in order to increase acceptance of those in the LGBT community. Even though users may be exposed to LGBT messaging via photos, events, comments, shared news articles, etc., it does not mean that society at large is ready to protect those who identify as LGBT.

Because of this, two critical solutions need to be explored:

  1. Beyond robust privacy settings for users, social media platforms need to provide ethical guidelines at time of sign-up and throughout various touch-points of usage that users are continuously exposed to when they use the platforms. These guidelines should encourage users to question whether or not they have permission to post content that may expose private information about their peers. The guidelines could be in the form of prompting questions such as “Does this piece of content expose something about someone that you’re not sure is public information?” or “Do you know all the people you’re sharing in this content, whether tagged or not tagged? Does the piece of content you’re about to share violate someone’s privacy?”While this will not remove the issue completely, the continuous exposure to guidelines and messaging surrounding the importance of thinking about how your post may affect others could, over time, cause users to think more about their actions.
  2. Users of social media need to understand more deeply the ramifications of what it means to expose the LGBT identities of their peers, and need to question whether or not posting content that would expose their peer’s identity is ethical. The violation of privacy is not solely a platform issue; it is also a user issue. By deepening the understanding of ethical behavior on social platforms, we may see a decrease in instances where private information is shared without consent. This could be done by putting an emphasis in school’s curriculum or offering a series of workshops and webinars that more broadly exposes users to the implications of unintended content shares. Also, social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr could host informative webinars that cover the ethics surrounding posting content that violates a user’s privacy by exposing LGBT identities.By exposing users to the ethical ramifications, both in their daily life and on social platforms, we may begin to see a shift in how users share content that exposes the LGBT identities of their peers and the people around them.

Because social media platforms are evolving to allow users to share more information, not less, with their online communities, putting the risk of exposing private information of LGBT users at the forefront, and it is critical that solutions to this growing phenomenon come to life. The exposure of private information, as it pertains to being LGBT in the United States, could cost a user their job, home, and be a threat to their overall safety and security, but that exposure could also have even more damaging effects for those who live internationally in areas where being LGBT could cost you your life. Our social technology has grown rapidly, but the development of these platforms and the education and ethics of how users behave needs to catch up.