Social media: Ethics and professionalism


Social media: Ethics and professionalism

BY Melva Armstrong

Thursday, August 08, 2019

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Opinions and information are freely shared across the Internet using social media platforms. However, the cost of this freedom of expression is the possible encroachment on the ethical principle of respect for people's rights and dignity. With the potential breach of ethical principles, standards and codes should be developed to guide social media posts.

Freedom of expression plays an important role in the healthy evolution of society and is a basic human right. However, the conundrum is the tension between the right to express one's beliefs without restraint or legal punishment versus the possible violation of the ethical principle of respect for other people's rights and dignity.

The advent of the digital age brought new communication tools for every facet of life and social media platforms have facilitated freedom of expression, despite this, the standards to guard against the infringement on the privileges and the morality of individuals are lacking.

A study conducted using student nurses in a programme in the United States evaluated their unethical behaviour on social media, which revealed that the students used pictures of patients for homework and posted the pictures on Facebook with comments and patient information. Another article revealed that two licensed nurses were being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for violating the Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act (HIPAA), as they posted images of an X-ray with a device lodged inside a patient. These examples from the nursing profession have clearly demonstrated the infringement on the rights and dignity of the patients.

The selection of health care professionals can be affected by the reviews posted by patients on social media. The axiomatic phrase “the customer is king” has erupted within the context of social media. The customer/patient/user now has the freedom to share reviews on the product or service received. These reviews are then used by others when selecting the service or product. Health care professionals and other providers of products and services are concerned about information and its contextual accuracy as these reviews can have dire consequences.

The impact of social media postings are governed by the anecdotal 1/9/90 rule, which states that one per cent of the users on social media will initiate posts, nine per cent will respond on social media to the posts, and 90 per cent will read, not respond, but will react to the post. In this case, potential customers/users could be unduly prejudiced by unfair reviews on social media sites.

The teaching profession has not escaped the unethical use of social media. One teacher from the American school system posted on social media that papers were graded which were never read. Other teachers' posts made derogatory comments about students, and parents and showed hostility towards racial and ethnic groups. These blogs and reviews on social media contribute negatively to the image of the teaching profession. Moreover, the respect for the rights and dignity of the individuals who were the subjects of the postings were desecrated.

The exponential use of social media postings has changed the landscape of politics. Prominent western world leaders and politicians have weaponised Twitter to ridicule detractors and naysayers. The use of social media in Jamaican politics has resulted in various verbal attacks on political opponents, which have subsequently been withdrawn with the writer apologising for the abrasive statement(s) posted. These illustrations from politics have demonstrated how the ethical principle of respect for people's rights and dignity has been trampled on.

The issue is that one's digital footprint is relatively permanent; therefore, it is essential that users of social media sanitise the information for blogs and reviews before posting. To address the unethical social media postings in health care, standards and codes for blogs and reviews must be established. This is particularly important in the medical profession as patient confidentiality is one of the pillars of medical ethics. Health care professionals who fail to adhere to these standards and codes should face negative consequences for their action. Further, the action taken for undesirable behaviour should be public information. The monitoring of social media platforms could be very onerous; however, technology should be employed to provide reports of possible breaches of standards and codes.

The Jamaican teaching profession currently has a code of ethics which does not specifically address the standards for social media postings. With the digital age and the liberal access to blogs and reviews on the Internet, the governance of standards and codes of ethics should be stringent. To be effective, non-compliance with standards must be closely monitored and disciplinary actions taken against non-conformers.

The appointment of a political ombudsman in Jamaica is a move in the right direction. The examples of the political social media posts which have infringed on the basic human rights of individuals have been subjected to scrutiny by the political ombudsman. The ombudsman has proven to be effective in identifying the most glaring violations of people's rights and dignity.

The recommendations to professional bodies to combat the atrocities of unethical social media posts are as follows:

1. ensure that the code of ethics for the profession specifically addresses the standards and codes relating to social media posts;

2. punitive action for non-compliance of the standards and codes must be explicitly stated;

3. an appropriate monitoring system must be established, this could be achieved using technology; and

4. information on the action taken for non-conformity should be publicly available as this could deter others from violating the codes.

Social media has encouraged freedom of expression, which is imperative in any society, but this must be balanced with the ethical principle of respect for people's basic rights and dignity.

Melva Armstrong is a lecturer at the University of Technology, Jamaica. Send comments to the Observer or

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