Ethics in Blogging

Doctors take the Hippocratic oath. Financial planners are legally obligated to act in the fiduciary interest of their clients. Congresspeople are beholden to an ethics committee.

What about bloggers?

I won’t mince my words: the issue of ethics in blogging has been at the forefront of my mind for some time now.

From copyright infringement, to fishy follower tactics, to concealing financial conflicts of interest — it’s all been heavy on my mind. So this is me letting it all out.

1. Copyright infringement

When a blogger copies and pastes a photo from a social media site and passes it as their own, this is not only grossly unethical, but they may get in a lot of legal trouble for it. And, even in the case of a good faith effort, by linking to the Pin or the Tweet or the ‘Gram where they got the photo, this still may be copyright infringement. Moral of the story: even if you link to the original source, you can still end up in hot water.

2. Fishy follower tactics

OK, so here is where my rant/opinion goes from pure legal ethics to matters of opinion. Did you know that, for most social media platforms out there today, one can easily purchase followers? Crazy, right?!

Such services are often against the terms of service of the social media platform in question, because what you are actually purchasing is follows by fake accounts. My research for this post also tells me that there are some slightly less scammy services that log into your Twitter account on your behalf, in order to click ‘like’ on thousands of posts to garner followers for you. The latter is not technically against Twitter’s terms of service, but I daresay it equally violates the spirit of the law, as they say.

And, honestly, what is the point? If you’ve got 20,000 followers, but they are all either robots, or disengaged people who were scammed into following your account, then what have you really gained? Because I can tell you what you’ve lost: money and dignity.

3. Monetary conflicts of interest

And, finally, the hottest of ethics topics when it comes to many genres of blogs (but most notably in fashion and beauty blogs): sponsorships and free goodies.

I cannot speak to the laws in other countries, but here in the States, bloggers who receive complimentary goods and services in exchange for promoting them on their blog are required by law to disclose this.

Now, unfortunately the Federal Trade Commission does not seem to have time to crack down on all offenders, of which there are many. However, even if it were not against the law, my stance is that it is grossly unethical to receive kickbacks in the form of free merchandise and conceal this from one’s readers.

So, here comes the more nuanced thing. Let’s suppose a blogger receives free goods or services from a company for her to review on her blog. And let’s say she clearly discloses that they were given to her free of charge.

I would argue that, still, there is an ethical compromise being made here. After all, how can anyone truly not be swayed by the lack of a price tag when they review an article of clothing they got for free? How can they truly not like a handbag or tube of lipstick that much more when it arrived at their doorstep free of charge?

As I continue to form my opinions on the matter, I am increasingly of the belief that, the moment a blogger starts to accept free items in exchange for a post reviewing and promoting said items, they are no longer a blogger. Rather, they become an advertiser and marketer.

And, frankly, the more I think on it, the less I am sure that I would be OK with accepting anything free of charge in exchange for blogging about it. When I talk with Dear Husband about this, he (rightly) asks me, “Well, what are you going to do if you ever get big enough that Tory Burch wants to send you a handbag, or some marathon wants to provide your race entry for free?”

To that I say, first of all, I think that entertaining that question is a wishful waste of time, ha! But, on a serious note, I can say that I don’t think I would ever feel comfortable ethically receiving things like handbags or jewelry free of charge. Never. Those things are too subjective.

But to be honest, if we’re talking about an entry fee to a race that I would have run anyway, I must admit that I can totally see the draw of accepting it free of charge — although I would always insist on writing as unbiased a review as possible. But then again, isn’t that was this is all about? The fact that, as  humans, we’re simply not capable of being unbiased? And if that’s the case, then no, I should never be willing to accept anything.

Sigh. Thank you for bearing with me as I continue to work through my beliefs on these tricky issues.

Now, I have something to ask of you all. What do YOU think about the issues I raised? I am particularly keen to know what you all think about the monetary conflict of interest with receiving goods and services for free.

Until next time,

xoxo Charlotte

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37 comments

  1. Agree – purchasing/scamming followers is annoying at best… but I really just don’t understand how people get satisfaction from that… do they really believe people care about their content then? Do they think it makes them look that much more popular (so as to attract more followers – which if that’s what draws them in they still wouldn’t care about you and your content… smh)… idiots. And being sponsored to review items – definitely a marketer not a blogger. I don’t follow those kind of blogs, but I have never seen a negative review of something when I do stumble across one…. rare I’d say at the least. As for the pictures I’d wager many people don’t realise at first that it’s not ok to do that – I know I didn’t when I started. I did try to generally use stock looking photos, but even then… now I make a concerted effort to use only my own images or if I must use another image for illustration I note where I got it from – but hubby and I were just talking about it all last night and I was saying I should probably go back and take any photos I didn’t take off the blog or make some of the older posts private all together… it’ll be an undertaking to say the least! But yeah, while I’m sure there are bloggers that steal pictures on purpose – I think many work under the assumption that if they can find it online it must be public domain… and they probably don’t even think in those terms… many probably just don’t even consider there is such a thing as copyrights vs public domain

    Liked by 2 people

    • Exactly! Regarding people who purchase their followers (or use similar services), more than anything I am just baffled by it. That says to me that literally all the care about is the number they see on the screen. Which, if that’s what floats your boat, great… I just don’t see how any true benefit could come from it. Unless there’s some benefit to it I’m not aware of, it’s literally just giving money for fake popularity. To me that sounds about as crazy as if someone paid people on the street to say hi to them.

      I totally agree with you about the review piece. My original blog post was much longer, because my rant went on for quite some time haha. I originally made that very point — that, if I were to see people reviewing free content and giving it negative reviews, then I wouldn’t question their ethical conflict of interest as much.

      And on the pictures front, I fear I need to do the same exercise soon. For so long I was honestly clueless. I mean, I knew that you couldn’t simply steal a photo from anywhere on the internet and call it a day. But for the longest time I had NO clue that even if you give proper credit to the original author/photographer, you can still get sued. Scary!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I know! Hubs was suggesting using public domain pictures that you can get from certain sites (but I think you have to pay for some of those sites, I’m not sure… I’ll have to look) but definitely trying hard now to just plain use pictures I took unless I really have to for illustration of a point (and then still crediting as best I can… hopefully that’s good enough, but I really need to double check some particulars.) For instance I know you can quote written works if you’re using only portions of the text to analyse or build around with your own work (with due credit being given to the quoted text) – I researched that before writing my first book because I wanted to put quotes in some parts – so I’ve assumed that is ok with images as well. But I guess not entirely the same… so difficult to navigate the particulars sometimes… especially when different countries also have different laws…

        Liked by 1 person

      • Absolutely, the whole issue of different countries having different laws makes it that much more complicated. I had the exact same misconception as you. Like you, I will occasionally quote published works (for example, in the book reviews I write) in order to make my point. My understanding is that that is perfectly legal, because I am clearly attributing the quotations to the original author, and I’m only using a small snippet, and only for the purpose of making an argument. Photos that aren’t mine now scare me! I do like Pexels.com for free stock images that you don’t have to attribute to anyone.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Good to know! I will check out that site!! But still I will be attempting to avoid extra not-my pictures all together. That may help though for some older posts that I may want to delete other pics jic and replace with something else I don’t otherwise have a pic of.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I was thinking of doing the same thing-taking images that I don’t expressly own off my blog, but I agree. HUGE undertaking. Huge. The thought of it seems daunting. I have a huge love/hate relationship with Pinterest, because there are endless hilarious/inspirational/thought-provoking images and memes, but technically the whole of Pinterest is copyright infringement. That said, why can’t it be made easier to track down who owns images, like memes so they can be used ethically? They are all out there, but are just big, fat teases.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I don’t see how that can even be considered in the same realm. You know? Maybe it is, but come on. I guess if I think about someone using a meme I created and pawning it off as their own, I’d be mad. Sue happy? Naw. I have better things to do. Also, without a watermark, how do you even prove you were the original creator? It’s all such murky waters. You’re right that it’s best to just err on the side of caution.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think what I find toughest with all this, and which I mentioned in response to Jeff’s comment, is that I feel like if I made a good-faith effort to give credit, I shouldn’t be penalized. I feel like I’ve done my moral duty by doing my best to give credit where it’s due. I just hate that apparently the US copyright law doesn’t see it that way!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Memes I feel shouldn’t count… simply because one makes a meme with the express hope it will be shared…. if they want credit they should put their name/logo on the meme itself – which I see often enough…. but I dunno if that is strictly the truth or not. I do think I’ll try to do some cleanup over the next few days though

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, the meme question is a really good one. As you say, they are created to be shared, and no one puts a watermark on them. I believe most of them are made through meme-generator websites, so they are easily reproduce-able in the sense that I could go on there and create one myself that looks identical to one already out there. I may go research this topic now, just to cover my bases.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Unfortunately I can’t find any definitive answers. It does look like people get sued for trying to profit off of memes, for example by making t-shirts with them to sell. But I can’t find really anything about using them in blogs.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well, like I said they are meant to be shared and those few that do care to watermark or put their logo on do… so it travels with the meme… I can’t imagine there’d be anyway to enforce a law like that on memes as it goes against the very essence of what a meme is… though the profit thing, yes, I get that. It would have to be very unique and easy to prove the source to sue over that though…because so many memes use the exact same images or the exact same words and come from soooo many different places

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Could not love this post more!! The picture thing is certainly a learning experience- I think that the whole rise of Pinterest has really muddied it all. “I’m just sharing it, what’s the harm?” I almost wonder if WordPress should put a disclaimer up when you start a new blog?
    The “acquiring followers by less than normal means” always makes me laugh- most people don’t gain 5,000 followers in three weeks and go back to near-Zero growth! I wonder why people feel they have to do it, but I suppose they think it’s worth it?
    I’ve been burned several times by bad reviews, so reviews for free products hits home for me… For me personally, everything would be framed as- “I paid zero dollars for this, is it worth zero dollars?” Well, it probably is worth at least nothing… It automatically produces that bias, and none of us are immune!! WONDERFUL post 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, friend!! I totally agree about the photo thing. I was just telling Rae in another comment, I was totally clueless about the legal intricacies of copyright infringement when I began blogging. I mean, I think it is obvious to pretty much anyone that blatantly stealing a photo and giving no credit whatsoever is infringement. But I had no clue until recently that even if you give proper credit, they can still sue you if they want to. I do think it would be helpful if WordPress put something up there for newbies.

      And the follower thing is pretty hilarious, I agree. I mean, who do they think they’re fooling? I am genuinely curious about the psychology behind it too. Because, as I was also saying to Rae in her comment, I literally am not aware of any tangible benefit it has for your blog. I don’t think that an artificially inflated follower number boosts your search engine ranking, or gets you brand sponsorships (they look at things like click-through rates and daily page views), so I can’t think of why anyone would pay to do it. I guess if someone just has a really fragile self-esteem and wants to make themselves feel better?

      Oh and the reviews…Thank goodness everything I’ve ever purchased based on a blog review (which, now that I think of it, is maybe only one or two items) turned out well. But at the time, I had no clue about affiliate links or sponsorships, so in hindsight I feel duped by the blogger for not being clearer.

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  3. Hmmm. Guilty of #1. I fully understand the copyright issues on this one, but I still feel no regret over using images of public figures or products. Left to my own preferences, I wouldn’t use any images at all, but as my friend Annie says, many readers are guilty of “shiny ball syndrome” and can’t get through 1200 words without a picture. And I own no devices that make a picture. I just looked back over my recent posts, and I had to search back around 6 or 7 blog posts to find any image, so possibly I’m subconsciously responding to this concern already. Thanks for the reminder.

    Liked by 2 people

    • At least you fully understand the copyright issues. To be completely honest, I did not understand the full extent of copyright issues until alarmingly recently. I knew you had to give proper credit and link back to the original source. But I had no idea that even if you’ve done that, you can still get sued, at least in the States.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have a long standing tendency to separate ethics and law, with ethics being more important to me. In this case, I see the ethics of using an image colored by intent. For me, images are used to decorate a blog post, not to be the focal-point of the essay. And I know that my stolen image is going to be seen by, if I’m lucky, 100 readers. If I had 20,000 (real) followers, if I gained income from my site, I would find it horribly unethical to profit from another person’s art. With all that said, I’m now reconsidering the whole issue. I’ll shut up now.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I think you definitely raise a good point. I do know what you mean about the law and ethics not always coalescing. Personally I think that if I made a good faith effort to give someone credit for their art, and I linked it back to them in a way that is clear, I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong morally, because I gave credit where it was due. Unfortunately, US copyright law doesn’t see it like that.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I actually have had point 3 happen to me. GameSir provided me a free controller (well technically it was a dollar) to review it on my blog. My review in a nutshell was “this is a good controller, but it’s expensive and I probably never would have gotten one if it wasn’t given to me for free.” I didn’t want the free merch to influence my honest opinion of the product. But golly did I have second thoughts about clicking ‘publish.’ Luckily GameSir was still appreciative and promoted the review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is a great example, Ian! I would have had a similar trepidation as you describe. I really admire the fact that you stayed completely honest in your review; sadly, few bloggers will do that. The fact that you were honest and transparent in your review, in my opinion, makes you even more awesome (and ethical!). 🙂

      I’m also glad, although kind of surprised, that the company still appreciated your review. I think that would be my biggest fear if I ever got offered something in a situation like that. What if I truly didn’t like it? Would the company never speak to me again?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah, I was super worried about that. To be fair, the total score I gave them was still 8/10, with the main complaint being that the price tag is very high if you intend to use the controller for only one thing (it was compatible with multiple devices). When they retweeted the review, they said “see, we share all the posts about our controller, good and bad,” which I guess could be interpreted as somewhat backhanded. But I feel like if they didn’t approve they wouldn’t have promoted it at all.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a FABULOUS post, chick. The copyright infringement thing scares the crap out of me! I JUST learned about the legal issues involved and it’s really a tricky thing. In reading through the comments here, I totally agree with Jeff. I’m not profiting off using an image I got from someone on Pinterest (who also “stole” it) and I give credit where it’s due (when possible). Most of the images I use are memes. Everyone and their freaking brother makes memes. They make them using their phone and a free app. They take seconds to create. If some zit-covered pubescent teen tried to get sue-happy with me over their meme “art”, I’d lose my shit. Also, why is it not easier to track down the original creator of internet art?! I mean, can we make it more difficult? Gah!
    The buying followers thing…I can’t even right now. I just…😂💀

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad you like the post! I agree, number three is definitely a grey area. No one can ever be completely unbiased when they receive something for free. However, I think that many, if not most, style and beauty bloggers who receive items for free to review never say anything at all negative, which makes me suspicious that they are concealing how they really feel in order to get more free stuff.

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  6. I completely get what you’re saying! I think about Influenster for example, and I don’t think there’s an issue. When it’s something that anyone would sign up for and get the free products, I think it’s fine. Also, if you’ve read any of my reviews you know I’m still honest 😉
    I think it’s just one of those things on a case-by-case basis.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What a great post! I try to use my own pictures (though in the very beginning I used a few I grabbed from the internet). I also use Canva.com to make some of my own images. It’s mostly free – you can pay for some images – and you can make things from blog images to social media posts to posters! And then they are definitely original.
    I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about followers so I really didn’t know that you can buy them, though the knowledge doesn’t shock me. I feel that followers should be earned not bought. If my content is good, and good enough to be shared and followed then YAY! If not… then I need to up my game!
    As for the financial interest… I am a consultant with a Direct Sales company on top of my ‘day job’ and blogging. I try not to sell my products in my blogs. I have shared some info mostly about the sisterhood but I feel that my blog is not the place to sell. I have mentioned a company from which I have bought products simply to help get their name out there. But I have bought the products! I was not given them. I think that the Blog-isphere is a great place to give your opinion, suggestions, guidance, help even. If someone wants to put a review about products, I’m OK with it. BUT I definitely agree that there should be some disclosure about how the product was obtained.
    Thanks for giving us a forum, Charlotte!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I loved reading your perspective on all these issues! I am right there with you when it comes to using photos from the Internet. For a while in the beginning, I really didn’t know any better! I’ve since gone back and reviewed all my old content to either take photos down or make sure they fall under fair use laws.

      I totally agree with you about wanting to earn my followers the old fashioned way. I think that’s the honest way to “do business,” whether that business is blogging, or anything else in life!

      And I totally get what you mean about the whole financial conflict of interest. I think as long as a blogger is up-front about when they are given stuff for free, it’s all good 🙂 I think it’s impossible for anyone to be 100% unbiased, but the best we can try, the better. If I were to ever open an Etsy shop or something like that, I would certainly advertise my goods on my blog, but as you say, I would try not to be my main focus on here.

      Thanks, Teressina! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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