Is It Plagiarism or Jumping on a Trend? The Ethics of Social Media Content
For today’s content creators and content marketing teams, unique original content is always the best route to take. So, what does plagiarism look like in today’s world? The difference between borrowing and stealing can be blurry on social media, where memes, sounds, and other types of content are widely redistributed by brands and users alike.
Social copying happens across all social platforms: Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and the like. With all that’s out there, you might not even realize that what you’re doing could be considered social plagiarism.
How can you help protect your team and contractors from accidentally stealing content? And what can you do if your brand is affected by this activity? Read on for our tips to keep your brand’s content above board.
What is social media plagiarism?
A 2018 report by Jeff Allen, Facebook’s senior data scientist, noted that: “About 40 percent of the traffic to Facebook pages…went to pages that stole or repurposed most of their content.”
While many top-performing pages in the report were re-sharing sensationalized content or misinformation related to political issues, the lack of consequences faced by those page admins demonstrated the ease—and potential value—of plagiarizing viral content to reach a larger social audience.
For example, despite existing platform policies that expressly prohibit the posting of stolen content, Facebook was reluctant to remove stolen content related to anti-vaccination and QAnon conspiracies. Yes, it feared legal retaliation. But the company also lacks moderators to enforce these policies.
But not all cases of posting unoriginal content qualify as plagiarism. For instance, one daytime talk show in Texas reached more than 58 million users when they asked their social followers to name the one food they would never, ever eat. Of that audience, 2.7 million responded. Yet this was far from an original question. The same prompt had circulated online for years, to the point that its original creator can’t be traced.
There are instances where copying is often the point. Memes, sounds, trends, content formats, filters, and other types of content are made expressly to copy and/or reuse.
The problem is when brands rip off “original” content and try to pass it off as their own. As more creators become victims of this theft themselves, a backlash against this online behavior is gaining steam.
And brands often face significant criticism if they rip off the wrong creator. For example, Kylie Cosmetics went viral for all the wrong reasons for plagiarizing smaller cosmetic companies.
It’s a situation nobody wants—not brand marketers, not the brands they represent, and not the online content creators seeking compensation and/or attribution. Fortunately, this kind of PR disaster is one your brand can easily avoid.
How to avoid plagiarizing content
Here are four tips to help you build better content creation practices by getting inspired and taking inspiration from others—without crossing any ethical lines.
1. Be inspired
Every good social content creator pays close attention to the types of content that succeeds on social. But borrowing from this success doesn’t have to mean stealing the content outright.
Instead, pay attention to the structure of witty or catchy text, as well as the intent. Even the way brands use memes and other visual content can inform your own strategy and give you an opportunity to get involved in viral trends. When the “She’s a 10 but…” meme began trending in June, for example, many brands like YouTube were eager to craft their own custom response that aligned with their brand and gave their followers a laugh:
2. Give credit where credit is due
In some cases, it is appropriate to copy and paste a post from a different account. When you do, make sure you clearly attribute the original creator. Putting content in quotation marks, mentioning the original author in the text, and tagging their account page is a great way to provide transparency and citations. It will also spare you from accusations of plagiarism. This is a great example from managing editor Benjamin Freed on Twitter.
Seek out opportunities to build on original content by adding your own perspective or response. This is a great tactic for thought leadership content, in particular. Market research or consumer surveys relevant to your audience, for example, could be expanded through social video posts. Or you could re-share thought leadership on LinkedIn while adding your brand’s perspective. Again, make sure you attribute the original content to the original creator.
3. Recycle your high-performing content
Many successful social content creators build upon their own success by maintaining a database of high-performing content. Over time, you can repackage and repost this content online—indefinitely, in the case of evergreen content—to continue reaching and engaging your audience. In this scenario, you’re still borrowing from the success of existing social content. The only difference is that the high-performing content getting recycled is your own.
4. Check your work before publishing
You should also run all text-based content—including video scripts—through a plagiarism checker before that content goes live. PlagiarismDetector.net offers a free plagiarism checking solution. For a paid version that also identifies grammatical errors in the content, consider Grammarly. Contently has a plagiarism checker built-in to the platform that watches out for this as well.
How to prevent your content from being stolen
Want to stop content theft before it starts? Your content team can deter would-be plagiarism—and even ensure proper attribution of your original content—by taking the following steps:
1. Add your logo to graphics, videos, and other visual content
Even if this content is re-shared elsewhere—which may be your intention for certain types of content!—you’ll have a brand logo crediting the source.
2. Protect your content
If you don’t want content re-shared without approval, consider adding a watermark to brand the content and make it less visually appealing to the audiences of any account stealing your content.
Since many cases of stolen content may be generated by creators who don’t realize they’re committing plagiarism, it can be helpful to publish a copyright notice to your website and other web properties to remind them about the rules regarding the unauthorized use of your content. You may also want to indicate which types of content are free to redistribute—or you can help facilitate distribution through social sharing buttons embedded into your blog posts, white papers, and other content.
How to take action if your content is stolen
You need to be prepared for a situation when your content is stolen. This is particularly likely with high-performing content that achieves some degree of viral reach. While your options may be limited, some tactics to consider include:
1. Look at the optics
Be aware of how your conflict with the alleged content thief may play out in public. While you may not face reputation risk if you go after the offender, the effort and cost it takes to pursue it may not be worth it beyond reaching out and asking them to take it down. If you’re a smaller business, weigh the pros and cons of engaging among leadership before taking any action. You don’t want to create a nightmare for your PR team—and you definitely don’t way to pay their subsequent therapy bill.
2. Reach out
This may be the most effective option for getting a positive outcome. Of course, you can’t force any account to take a specific action. But a firm-yet-cordial request is often enough, especially if the offender made an honest mistake. If you’re feeling particularly wronged, you can take more steps to call out the creator. Commenting on their plagiarized post is always an option, as is creating your own social posts that accuse them of stealing.
3. Report it to the platform
LinkedIn and Facebook, for example, allow users to report posts that infringe on content copyrights. However, reporting it doesn’t mean it will be dealt with. As mentioned earlier, social platforms like Facebook aren’t always on top of policing their platforms. So this option is useless for the vast majority of cases of alleged plagiarism. Still, take advantage of this reporting option if you do believe copyright infringement has occurred.
4. Turn content swiping into a branding opportunity
When you notice other online users and even businesses borrowing or riffing off of your content, your first impulse might be to assume they’re stealing from your success. But playing off of your brand’s content could be an exciting opportunity to inspire additional social engagement and user-generated content to advance your brand marketing goals.
A very early example of this occurred when fans created the Coca-Cola brand’s Facebook page—so early on in the social media era that the brand hadn’t even created one. Rather than force the fans to hand it over, Coke collaborated with fans to grow and maintain the fan page, turning it into an online community. It now has more than 109 million followers.
As social content and social interaction have evolved, the old rules regarding plagiarism have been adapted to accommodate new platforms and the content they inspire. But this doesn’t mean sourcing and attribution no longer matter. For brand marketing teams, the opposite is true: by taking time to identify source material, attribute original creators, and manage your own social content library, you can elevate your overall marketing performance—and fully realize the value of a diversified, engaging social content strategy.
By Jonathan Crowl, September 20th, 2022
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