The Ethics of The Social Network

In analyzing the ethics of David Fincher’s The Social Network, one must first start at the creation of the film, which is a film adaptation of Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires. Before the film’s release, controversy surrounding the film as Facebook CEO first refused to see the film, then denied claims made by the film. Questions then followed the film leaving audiences confused about the factuality of Fincher’s film.

Social_network_film_posterInside the world of writer Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, the first ethical dilemma approached in the film is that of computer hacking. After his break-up with Erika Albright, Mark illegally hacked into Harvard’s social networking database and created a website comparing female students “based on their hotness”. While his actions were against school policy and he was charged with 6-month academic probation, Mark had abused students’ online privacy and disintegrated the already slim trust between other students and himself.

The overarching ethical issue surrounding The Social Network is the idea of intellectual property and the ownership of the original idea of Facebook. According to the “Winklevii”, the idea for “The Facebook” was stolen by Mark Zuckerberg while he was working on the Winklevoss’s own social networking site, Harvard Connection. Before delving into the ethics of intellectual property, one must first establish a definition of intellectual property. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), intellectual property “refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names and images used in commerce.” The idea for Facebook, which is what Mark is being sued for stealing, is just that, an idea. It is not copyrighted material or a trademarked product. The philosophical term for the protection of idea is referred to as the “law of ideas”, where individuals can protect ideas as personal property. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the law of ideas is typically applied in cases where “individuals produce ideas and submit them to corporations expecting to be compensated. But when ideas are used (by anyone) without authorization, compensation may be required.

The question then becomes, is Harvard Connection the same as Facebook, and did the Winklevoss’s “submit” their idea to Mark Zuckerberg? The Winklevoss’s lawyers attest to the idea that Mark stole the idea after the Winklevoss’s employed him to work on Harvard Connection. The lawyers lay out email exchanges between the two parties demonstrating Mark claiming to be working on Harvard Connection, while the film shows him working on “The Facebook” simultaneously. Gage, the legal representation of the Winklevoss twins and Divya Narendra, reads aloud the email exchange, keying on the final email from, in which was the first time he expressed any concern about “the sites functionality”. Days later, Mark and Eduardo Saverin launch According to Gage, Mark was leading his clients on to “give himself a 42-day head start”.

The ethical divide is not only between Mark and the Winklevoss twins, but between the Winklevoss twins themselves. After the launch of TheFacebook, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss disagreed on the correct approach against Mr. Zuckerberg. Cameron’s belief was that “we are gentlemen of Harvard” and it was not moral of them accuse Mark of stealing their idea without factual evidence. Divya, however, would prefer them to hire the Soprano’s “and beat the shit out of him with a hammer.” Tyler disagrees with both, saying that is not necessary, “I’m 6’5 220 and there’s two of me.” Both brothers were brought up in the same upper class home in Greenwich, Connecticut, where they both attended the prestigious Brunswick School before attending Harvard. However, throughout the film, we see the character divide between Cameron and Tyler, where Tyler is more aggressive and emotionally, and Cameron is more calm and cerebral. We see the extreme of this with their approach to Mark Zuckerberg, where Tyler takes a more personal choice and responds with emotion, and Cameron is attempting to make the best possible business decision.

Mark is also no stranger to life in the 1%. Growing up in Westchester County outside of New York City, and attended the Philip Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. But we see ethical difference between Mark and the Winklevoss’s in Mark’s friendship with Sean Parker. Mark admired Parker, who founded Napster at 19 and changed “the music industry forever and for always.” Sean and Mark come from the same technological generation of early Internet and the dot com boom. The both approach the Internet as this free world where law does not apply. But Napster was also illegal, and so was Mark’s FaceSmash stunt, as Mark puts Facebook on ethically questionable ground by involving Sean Parker in the project. Sean Parker is no longer 19 and Mark is no longer in his dorm room at Kirkland. Billion dollar corporations cannot operate with the “free Internet perspective”; Facebook became the property of not only Mark, but also the users and the new investors.

During a deposition scene, Gage asked Mark if he had his full attention. Mark denied, saying that he the minimum amount, and that his attention was back at the offices of Facebook doing things that his clients (The Winklevoss’s) were not intellectually or creatively capable of doing. Here is where Fincher is making a comment on the idea of intellectual property of Facebook. Even if Mark did steal the idea, and even if settled with the Winklevoss’s, the idea became Mark’s. As time passed, Mark was the CEO and Mark brought the company to heights unachievable by the Winklevi. Earlier in the scene, Divya says to Mark “I can’t wait to stand over you and watch you write us a check.” Mark replies, “I know,” demonstrating the different motivating factors between Mark and the Winklevoss’s. Mark is not motivated by money, the Internet is a part of Mark as a person, and that is what motivates him, unlike the Winklevii, who are motivated by the economic success of Facebook.

Moore, A. (2011, March 8). Intellectual Property. Retrieved from

World Intellectual Property Organization. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Fareed Zakaria And Modern Media Ethics

Thomas Cooper, a professor of Media Ethics at Emerson College, is the author of Between The Summits: What Americans Think About Media Ethics, in which he analyzes public perception of the news industry, and how it has adapted over the course of recent history.

Cooper’s research found that public perception of the news industry has been declining in recent time. According to Meyer (1987, p. 182.), between 1976 to 1983, those who found a “great deal” of confidence in the press dropped from +11 to -11 over the course of those seven years. Even more recent research found that “Americans reporting ‘great’ confidence in ‘news reports on TV’ slipped from 55% in 1988 to 25% in 1993. In newspapers, those having great confidence fell from 50% to 20%. In 2006, the ASNE report Anonymous Sources: Pathways and Pitfalls found that 60% of Americans believe news organizations to be politically biased. That number is up 7% from 53% two years prior.

Research has also found that ethical issues vary depending on the medium in which content in presented. For example, polls were taken in both 1993 and 2005, asking audiences “why are TV entertainment shows worse than five years ago?” The top responses in both polls, “despite the changing show times and programming”, were “too much sex” and “too much violence”.

For television news, questions of ethical integrity have been raised over the practices of Fareed Zakaria, the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS. Zakaria also writes for The Washington Post and is the editor of Newsweek International and the editor-at-large of Time. Two anonymous media watchdogs, who run under the name Our Bad Media, have accused Zakaria of serial plagiarism. The authors of Our Bad Media have found over three-dozen examples in which the CNN host has “lifted passages” for use of his books, columns, and his television show.

The majority of examples citied by Our Bad Media have been catergorized as “patch writing”—“using material generated by someone else, without attribution, but rewritten slightly so one cannot call it verbatim copying.” Two journalism experts have also reviewed the reports, Robert Dreschel, from the University of Wisconsin, and Kelly McBride, the vice president from academic programs of the Poynter Institute. Both agree that Zakaria plagiarized.

This is also not Zakaria’s first instance of plagiarism. In 2012, Zakaria was suspended by CNN and Time for plagiarizing sections of another writer’s article about gun control. In 2009, Zakaria was accused of plagiarizing sections from Atlantic magazine’s Jeffery Goldberg.

Strangely, this current case of unethical journalistic behavior has fallen on deaf ears in the industry. CNN has stood by their host, Zakaria has denied the claims, and little public outcry has come of his most recent scandal.

Five randomly selected, anonymous interviews have been conducted to give their opinion on the reports by Our Bad Media, and how it will impact Zakaria’s career. Each interviewee was asked to read the Our Bad Media report, and in a brief interview, give their opinion on the findings of the report.

Four of the five interviewees believed that what Zakaria was in fact plagiarism, and violated the code of ethics for journalists, and should be fired for his actions. One interviewee “found it appalling”, saying, “Zakaria violated the integrity of the CNN network and any other news outlet he has plagiarized on.” Another interviewee was disappointed, but not surprised, saying “We no longer live in a open news world; we live in a news oligarchy. I hope people can start to realize this and simply not tune into phony news sources like CNN. Examples such as Zakaria’s are proof enough that things need to change.” There was a single outlier to the majority, saying “It seems fairly clear that Zakaria plagiarized by public definition. Should he have been fired? That falls under legality and policy issues, which is secular from ethics.”

I think what Zakaria did was wrong and he should be fired for it. It also concerns me that CNN has not fired him. But I do believe there to be this almost seamless transition into saying “Mainstream media is biased. They are unethical. And therefore bad.” I do not believe these large news organizations to be inherently evil or have any negative desires for their reporting. I hear far too often from college students how modern media is “so unethical” and is controlled by big business. While that is rooted in some truth, it has also become a popular catch phrase only being said because everyone else is saying it. I still very much trust this idea of “mainstream media”. I trust damn near everything written under the New York Times title while Bill Keller was the executive editor (and I still do today). Just go read his conversation with Glen Greenwald and tell me that man doesn’t care about every single word printed in his newspaper. There is a tremendous amount of pride for the journalists who write for these institutions. And many of them uphold the ethical behavior we expect out of journalists. So to make a blanket statement like “I don’t trust mainstream media” is unfair to those who do their jobs well, and who do their jobs responsibly. Cooper also found that not all American’s believed the news industry to be corrupted by poor morality. While the majority of American’s do distrust mainstream media, there is still high-quality journalism being done, and is still fulfilling the necessities of the public, and keeping citizens informed of their world.


Byers, D. (2014). The wrongs of Fareed Zakaria. Retrieved September 14, 2014, from

Cooper, T. (2008). Between the Summits: What Americans Think About Media Ethics.Journal Of Mass Media Ethics23(1), 15-27. doi:10.1080/08900520701753106