The digital divide and social media – An ethical discussion

The proliferation of social media has brought with it an influx of ethical challenges but what exactly does ethics mean?

Sources: Ethics definition, cyberethics definition, computer ethics definition

Whilst not exclusive to social media, one particular ethical issue emphasised through its use is the ‘Digital Divide’. This is widely accepted to denote the division between those with access to cyber technologies such as the internet and those without.

The above video shows that the issue is very much close to home with discussions around the homeless, the elderly and the disabled. The Digital Divide is often simplified to an issue around material access but skills access, mental access and usage access are also significant (van Dijk & Hacker, 2003).


Source:  (ONS, 2016)

The above figure demonstrates that barriers to internet access are receding, suggesting a diminishing divide. However recent steps away from Net Neutrality (see here for a debate) risk undoing such good work. Net Neutrality states that all internet data should be treated equally. President Trump’s office recently challenged this and stopped companies from providing low cost internet access (King, 2017). Expense is a major contributor towards the digital divide (Kelion, 2013). A  rise in internet prices could in fact widen the gap.

Whilst inequalities catalysed by expense are at the core of the issue, I’d argue that today qualitative usage inequalities have formed between those who do have access based on factors such as age. I touched on this in my first post, highlighting work which suggested that older people in fact perform better than their younger counterparts in terms of content related skills (van Deursen, van Dijk, & Peters, 2011).

What’s this got to do with Social Media?

In last week’s post I explored the business use of social media in recruitment. Additionally, throughout this module I’ve been encouraged to use Twitter to share relevant resources to aid education. I’ve outlined some issues in each context below:


So, is it right for businesses and educators to advocate Social Media?

As I mentioned previously, ethics is subjective. Whilst the digital divide may disadvantage many, how many more would be disadvantaged if we stopped using social media all together? I feel there is always going to be some form of inequality and we should instead focus on minimising these divides as much as possible. Business and education should use social media but ensure that an increase in convenience for users doesn’t marginalise the minority further.

This is just one example, do you have any thoughts on the ethical issues below?


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Word count: 394


English Oxford Living Dictionaries. (n.d.). Definition of ethics in English. Retrieved from

Greenwald, G. (2014, October). Why privacy matters. Retrieved from TED:

Kelion, L. (2013, October 7). UK jumps up internet scoreboard as digital divide grows. Retrieved from BBC:

King, C. (2017, February 5). Trump’s F.C.C. Pick Quickly Targets Net Neutrality Rules. Retrieved from NY Times:

Kleinman, Z. (2015, March 5). Who’s that girl? The curious case of Leah Palmer. Retrieved from BBC:

ONS. (2016, August 4). Internet access – households and individuals. Retrieved from Office for National Statistics: netandsocialmediausage/bulletins/internetaccesshouseholdsandindividuals/2016#householdinternet-acces

PlugandPlay. (2014, May 16). PlugandPlaytechcenter. Retrieved from Four and Against – The Net Neutrality Debate:

Ronson, J. (2015, February 12). How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life. Retrieved from NY Times:

Tavani, H. T. (2011). Ethics and technology: Controversies, questions, and strategies for ethical computing. John Wiley & Sons. Retrieved from:

Travis, A. (2016, November 29). ‘Snooper’s charter’ bill becomes law, extending UK state surveillance. Retrieved from The Guardian:

van Deursen, A. J., van Dijk, J. A., & Peters, O. (2011). Rethinking Internet skills: The contribution of gender, age, education, Internet experience, and hours online to medium- and content-related Internet skills. Poetics, 39(2), 125-144. Retrieved from

van Dijk, J., & Hacker, K. (2003). The digital divide as a complex and dynamic phenomenon. The information society, 19(4), 315-326. Retrieved from:


11 thoughts on “The digital divide and social media – An ethical discussion

  1. Hi Callum,

    Thanks for a comprehensive overview of the ‘digital divide’. Particularly your analysis of what causes the ‘digital divide’ (costs etc.).

    This has raised a couple of questions for me on this topic. Firstly, you mention how skills and factors other than costs can cause the digital divide (as said by Do you not feel that this is the crux of the ethical issue? It is a choice whether people pay to get online, as with anything else they will if they feel that the benefits to them are higher than the cost. However, if people do not have the skills or knowledge to make an informed choice, and, therefore miss out on opportunities (i.e. jobs you can apply for online, government services and access to information). This also applies to say rural internet access. Would you agree that this is what should be focused on, rather than an % of who has access? As they are the ones who are unable to make an informed choice.

    Secondly, with regards to ‘net neutrality’, I had not heard of Trump limiting cheap access to the Internet. I think we agree that this policy is a bad idea, as the positive externalities of the Internet are very great. But, to play devil’s advocate for a second, imagine traffic on the Internet could be prioritised based on cost. Would you not agree that this would allow the Internet to reach more people? For many people, the Internet in a basic form would be better than no Internet at all. You can see this in Mark Zuckerburg’s (see This is where a subset of the Internet is cheaply given out to those in poorer countries. Of course, Facebook is doing this to increase it’s user base and revenue, but it is giving more people access to online services. If ‘net neutrality’ legislation forces all Internet access to be the same, then fewer people will be able to access the Internet. I’m not sure where I personally stand on this issue, but I’d love to hear your thoughts!

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking post!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Mark
      Thanks for your comment.

      I definitely feel that today this is what the digital divide represents. Whilst we are not where we want to be yet, more and more people are being granted access to the internet. As such I think we should instead focus more heavily on the divides arising through the use of the technology.

      I agree that Trump’s policy seems a bad idea and risks marginalising those worse off in society even further. I suppose traffic could be prioritised on cost as you said. This may in fact benefit more people as in your Facebook example, though I fear other corporations wouldn’t follow suit and would instead look to charge extortionate prices. The issue of Net Neutrality is certainly complex and not as clear cut as it may seem. I must admit when first researching the issue I couldn’t see why anyone (other than the corporate elite) would be against it. However several individuals such as Nicholas Negroponte have put forward valid arguments criticising Net Neutrality. Negroponte gives a good example of someone in the future using an IOT pacemaker linked to a cloud ( Why would they want to treat the traffic equal to someone watching Netflix? I definitely lean towards favouring Net Neutrality but it’s important not to discount the pitfalls of neutrality.


      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Callum,

        Thanks for your reply, apologies I’ve only just seen it!

        I agree with your point regarding the digital divide, the problem of access is definitely becoming less significant. However, the lack of education and other factors are the new ways in which the divide manifests.

        Of course, net neutrality is a complex issue, and my views generally align with yours. This also taps into the international issues that so often accompany the Web and the Internet. In particular, the range of approaches around the world. You mention the US and the Trump administration, however, the EU also have their own approach (see, also In essence, this defines a ‘fast lane’ as a comprise. Do you think this is sufficient to effectively cover problems such as the IoT pace maker you mention?

        Furthermore, factors such as brexit are only going to increase these complex issues, as the world becomes more protectionist. Could this be an opportunity for the UK to lead in net neutrality? Encouraging high tech companies and services to be run out of the UK would be a good thing. But should this be at the expense of users and consumers?

        I’d love to hear any further thoughts you might have.


        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hi Mark,
        No worries, I’m sure we’ve all been buried under with dissertations etc.!

        Thanks for the link, a lot of the news surrounding net neutrality seems to come from the US and most recently Canada (see here It’s refreshing to see something closer to home (if I can say that after Brexit!).

        I suppose in practice this ‘fast lane’ should work but again the cynic in me fears this may be exploited by corporate companies, though it is good to see measures being taken to address this.

        You’re right, the UK certainly does have an opportunity to lead the way and I wonder if we’ll see an increase in discussions surrounding in this in the run up to the election. We’ve already seen the government take strong measures with regards to the internet in the form of the investigatory powers bill. Only time will tell if Net Neutrality will be addressed with similar tenacity.

        Thanks for your insight, some really interesting points here!


  2. Hi Callum,
    I found your blog post very interesting. Your focus on the ‘digital divide’ , it really got me thinking, I can imagine many people would have never have thought about the issues and the struggles of people who cannot easily access technology. The video used was very helpful in explaining from peoples own point of view how they feel. I agree with the statement that equal access to the internet is a right, because today practically everything a person need to access can be access online with ease, do you agree?

    I agree that social media has many ethical issues that need to be sorted out, as you pointed out the story of shaming using Justine Sacco’s story, I believe that free speech should be allowed online as it is a place where many people can openly express themselves, however there must be some boundaries as to what can be publicly posted, I know that Facebook and twitter are big on taking down any post they or others deem to be inappropriate. Even though recently Facebook have been under backlash for keeping up a video of a man being shot for over 2 hours, as well as the fact that people were publicly reposting and sharing it, which is extremely unethical.

    Here is an article explaining more about the situation. I believe it to be terrible that the post stayed up for such a long time, however I understand that people were posting and tweeting the video and once something is out on the web it is very hard to retrieve, so I do not solely blame Facebook, but also the people who participated in the sharing of the video, what are your opinions?


    1. Hi Charley
      Thanks for your comment.

      Yes, I’d definitely agree that as a society we are becoming more and more dependent upon cyber technologies such as the web, which makes it even worse for those without access.

      You’ve identified an extremely relevant example with the case of the murderer in Cleveland, it really highlights the ethical challenges social media can pose. I do wonder why it took so long to take down considering it went viral pretty quickly. I remember seeing the video trend on Twitter before any news stations were reporting about it. I also remember making a conscious decision not to watch the video, particularly after seeing tweets from people who had done so and regretted it. This shows how Social Media can also be used to solve certain issues. Though, I do appreciate that others may not have been as fortunate to have read these tweets and consequently watched the video out of curiosity.

      Thanks again for your comment, it’s given me a lot to think about.


  3. Another great post Callum. I feel you have picked up on some important points. I think that the idea of a person without an Internet connection being disadvantaged is interesting.

    From the education perspective I feel that the divide is negligible in England as the standard for technology in schools is high and almost every institution provides adequate IT facilities for students to access online resources.

    However, the dependency on an Internet connection is growing. The problem is that ISPs and nation states view the Internet as a resource. Their resource. The ‘net neutrality’ argument is really a social movement to redefine the Internet as a right to citizens and it is a shame this is not properly understood in politics.

    I am definitely in favor of the regulation of ISPs, do you believe in packet equality? And do you think there should be a mandate on IPv6 rollout?

    [149 words]

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jordan

      I did reply to you on Wednesday but as I was looking back through my comments for my reflection I noticed the reply either has been removed or wasn’t listed in the first place? I’ve copied the reply below, thanks:

      Hi Jordan
      Thanks for your positive comments.

      I agree that the marginalised is relatively small in the UK, though the same cannot be said elsewhere in the world. That’s an interesting way describing Net Neutrality. I wonder if we’ll see an increase in discussions around this in the run up to the election. As I stated in my post, I do lean towards favouring Net Neutrality, as discussed in my posts however some services inherently shouldn’t be treated e.g medical services.
      The mandate of IPV6 is certainly a possibility and an extremely interesting discussion is outlined here I do feel this could help the situation.

      Thanks again


  4. Hey Callum, thanks for the great post!
    I loved your use of media in this article and found both videos you linked to be extremely interesting and useful at understanding the topic at hand.
    This is a very interesting ethical issue, one which I had not previously considered. Do you think that this ethical issue exists because people who are unable to use social media lack of material access or because they lack the skills required to be able to access the internet? It could be argued either way, but I feel most individuals who are being encouraged to use social media by businesses are job seekers, as you said. If that’s the case, I think it most likely lies in a lack of material access.
    What’s your take on this?
    Thanks for the article

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Ed
      Thanks for your comment.

      I certainly think that material access is the factor which has come to constitute the digital divide. However I feel the divide is now changing to predominantly constitute those with the lack of skills rather than lack of material access. Take older people for example who may not be comfortable with the use of LinkedIn to apply for jobs. Whilst the number of people falling within this bracket may be small, I still feel a clear divide is present. With the decreasing prices of technology to access such tools, I feel the divisions lie elsewhere.

      Thanks again


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