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This chapter is from the book

Deadly Sin #6: Violating Privacy

Online media is all about distributing information, which can be very unpleasant if the information being distributed isn't intended for distribution.

Legal issues aside, it's usually a bad idea to distribute private emails, contact information, and other material that the sender has not agreed, implicitly or explicitly, to let you distribute. It undermines trust in the organization, it contributes to burnout, and it generally drives people away. People like to be able to control access to their stories, their information, their identities, and if you deprive them of that control, they understandably tend to leave.

This isn't just theory. I can think of some real situations I've witnessed in recent years where people did not honor privacy and did real damage to their causes. Out of respect for the privacy of participants (see what I did there?), I haven't mentioned any names or identifying information:

  • A local pastor deals with a dispute with a local church board member by secretly forwarding copies of the board member's private emails, which include material of an obviously confidential nature, to the congregational president. After discovering this, the board member suffers an instant case of burnout; he disappears from the congregation within a year. The rest of the board is brought into the controversy and, within two years, the pastor and board president also leave the congregation.
  • An officer in a nonprofit advocacy organization makes some suggestions regarding possible online activism content to the local president in a private email. The president replies to the email, sends copies to several other officers who were not originally on the recipient list, and mercilessly ridicules the suggestions.
  • An organization decides to reward donors who have contributed more than $1,000 within the past year by honoring them by name in the online newsletter—without asking their permission first. The wealthy donors are horrified to be named, working-class donors are horrified that their monetary sacrifices aren't given the same level of acknowledgment, and fundraising plummets the next year.

Violating privacy, like the other six Deadly Sins of online activism, is a bad idea primarily because it's destructive to your cause.

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