Our Thinking

Stealing Ideas and Social Media

In grade one, we were told no cheating. In grade six or seven, we learned about plagiarism. By high school, we learned about citations, attribution, and the importance of quoting the source.

In today’s world of social media, have these rules changed?  Sadly, there seems to be a range of experience and practices for content that is used in a blog, without permission:

    1. A quoted sentence or paragraph with the name of the author and a link to the source
    2. A quoted sentence or paragraph, with the name of the author, but no link
    3. A quoted sentence or paragraph, with an anonymous attribution
    4. A sentence or paragraph directly plagiarized

Most people would agree that option (1) – a name and a link – is the best case: it is a full attribution, and allows the reader to verify the quote in context. It also allows the original author to see where their ideas are being used. Most people would also agree that (4) is improper, and possibly illegal – it’s stealing. (3) is almost as bad: the person is not claiming the quote as their own, but provides zero credit to the original author – at best, they are lazy. But what about (2)? In this case, the person does provide attribution, but omits the link. This is selfish: they don’t want the reader to leave their site, and they refuse to reward the source of the idea with an inbound link.  This approach also is a disservice to their readers: it is impossible to see the quote in the original context.

With Twitter, it becomes murkier. Consider the following:

  1. A Tweet quoting another person including their Twitter handle
  2. The same Tweet, but without the Twitter handle

In the first case, there is attribution – all is well. In the second case, there is none – the content appears to belong to the person sending the Tweet. This is plagiarism, plain and simple.

But perhaps not so simple: What if a person is live-tweeting a speech? They include the event’s hashtag (which generates exposure), but do not include the speaker’s Twitter handle. Is this plagiarism? Or if the first Tweet includes the Twitter handle, perhaps it is a clever way to convey more content as the event is being live-tweeted?

If someone is following the entire event and the presenter’s Twitter handle is included in the first Tweet, would this be acceptable?  The first Tweet is merely the first sentence in a longer paragraph: the ideas within the entire paragraph belong to the person identified. Unfortunately, this only applies when someone is following the entire thread.

What if someone starts following partway through the live Tweet? What happens when that brilliant thought is Retweeted? The reader is led to believe that the Tweet is that of the Tweeter – not the presenter. Plagiarism. And what should the presenter think when they see their words being used without attribution?

It is rare indeed that a person who is live-tweeting sets out to steal other’s ideas: in fact, it is usually quite the opposite. But their good deed has unwittingly exposed them to one of the many new social media ethical grey zones. While the communication channels have changed from what we were taught in grade one, the rules haven’t: If you use other’s ideas, you still need to quote, attribute, and link to the source.

This week’s action plan: While it is impossible to edit a Tweet after it has been sent, blog posts can be uploaded. This week, scan through your social posts, and properly attribute others’ ideas with a link back to the source. Then add this requirement to your organization’s social media and editorial policies