The Ethics of Blogging

March 17th, 2008 by Kathy McManus

Should bloggers have the right to publicly and anonymously criticize and attack others?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

When a 40-year-old Chicago advertising executive named Paul Tilley died recently, the cause of death was officially ruled suicide. Tilley, who oversaw the “I’m Lovin’ It” ads for McDonald’s and the creation of the “Dell Dude”, jumped from a Chicago hotel. 

But some believe that Tilley was metaphorically pushed by a steady stream of malicious comments anonymously posted about him online in the weeks before he took his life. 

“We think he should get canned,” is typical of the remarks posted by the anonymous blogger of “Agency Spy”, a gossipy, advertising insider’s site, where many of the anti-Tilley jabs appeared, seemingly with no reason other than the chance to snipe at a big boss. The same anonymous blogger also wrote that Tilley lacked charm and “needs to go back to management 101.” 

In the aftermath of Tilley’s death, experts noted that while public humiliation could play a role in suicide, not enough is known about the role of online sniping in such deaths. The 2006 case of a 13-year-old girl who committed suicide after being taunted online resulted in no charges against those responsible, because, prosecutors say, no laws were broken. 

But Paul Tilley’s friends were adamant about the link they see between the anonymous words and Tilley’s suicide. “I knew him,” wrote one. “And I know that the vile attacks inflicted on him by you and others tortured his soul. He told me so.” 

Agency Spy’s anonymous blogger--who claims to be a 29-year-old woman posted her defense on the site--"I do not give myself enough credit to think that a blog posting can cause a lucid, intelligent man to jump from a building." 

Another observer zeroed in on the critical questions raised by the incident: “Are there ethics in blogs? Should people have the right to publicly and anonymously criticize and attack the private lives of private people simply for entertainment? This guy wasn’t a politician or a movie star. He just made commercials.” 

Tell us what you think--should anonymous bloggers bear any responsibility for words that hurt?