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Issues in Ethics: Ethical Use of Social Media

About This Document

Published 2020. This Issues in Ethics statement is new and is consistent with the Code of Ethics (2016). The Board of Ethics reviews Issues in Ethics statements periodically to ensure that they meet the needs of the professions and are consistent with ASHA policies.

Issues in Ethics Statements: Definition

From time to time, the Board of Ethics (hereinafter, the "Board") determines that members and certificate holders can benefit from additional analysis and instruction concerning a specific issue of ethical conduct. Issues in Ethics statements are intended to heighten sensitivity and increase awareness. They are illustrative of the Code of Ethics (2016) (hereinafter, the "Code") and are intended to promote thoughtful consideration of ethical issues. They may assist members and certificate holders in engaging in self-guided ethical decision making. These statements do not absolutely prohibit or require specified activity. The facts and circumstances surrounding a matter of concern will determine whether the activity is ethical

Introduction

Social media is communication through websites and other online platforms (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn) that are used by large groups of people to share information, develop social and professional contacts, and promote business.

ASHA encourages its members and certificate holders to engage in the discussion and exchange about controversial audiology and speech-language pathology topics. Unfortunately, colleagues sometimes post inflammatory comments on group Facebook pages, listservs, bulletin boards, and other online platforms. ASHA urges its members and certificate holders to exercise good judgment by avoiding personal attacks against others while using social media. Consult the ASHA Civility Digital Toolkit to learn what you and ASHA can do together to promote civility in the professions.

Under some circumstances, the inappropriate use of social media may lead to ethical violations under the Code. Examples of such violations include (a) posting distinctive personal information about your clients or research subjects that breaches confidentiality and (b) misrepresenting to the public the services you provide, the products you sell, or your level of expertise. The posting of insulting or offensive opinions, including writing such remarks in documents, usually does not violate the Code, even though doing so fails to engage in civil discourse. If such remarks are determined to constitute defamation, then posting them would be considered a violation of the Code.

Guidance

Breaching Confidentiality 

Posting a detail or details about a client, no matter how insignificant, may allow others to identify your client and reveal that this client is receiving treatment from you. It is imperative that you protect your patients’ identity and keep treatment details confidential. A breach of confidentiality could occur from situations such as (a) posting a seemingly innocent Facebook comment that could potentially allow others to identify your client, (b) posting an unredacted or partially redacted page of a patient’s treatment records to Instagram to show how much progress a client has made using your services, or (c) seeking online guidance through a listserv to treat a difficult medical issue that could inadvertently reveal your client’s private information. Similarly, you have an ethical obligation to keep confidential any personal information about persons participating in your research projects.

These specific Code Principles and Rules may especially apply to confidentiality: 

  • Principle I, Rule O: Individuals shall protect the confidentiality and security of records of professional services provided, research and scholarly activities conducted, and products dispensed. Access to these records shall be allowed only when doing so is necessary to protect the welfare of the person or of the community, is legally authorized, or is otherwise required by law. 
  • Principle I, Rule P: Individuals shall protect the confidentiality of any professional or personal information about persons served professionally or participants involved in research and scholarly activities and may disclose confidential information only when doing so is necessary to protect the welfare of the person or of the community, is legally authorized, or is otherwise required by law. 

Avoiding Misrepresentation in the Promotion of Services and Products, and the Listing of Credentials 

Social media can be an effective tool in which to (a) communicate with colleagues and friends and (b) promote your services and the professions. However, posting information on social media that misrepresents your services or credentials, or products you have created or offer for sale, may violate the Code. For example, a private practitioner who uses social media as a no-cost advertising platform to post, "Cure stuttering in just one day! Buy my book!" violates the Code because the private practitioner has no evidence to support these claims. Similarly, an audiologist in an area ear, nose, and throat (ENT) practice who promotes himself by posting that he is the "most highly qualified practitioner in the city" violates the Code because it is misleading to the public if no basis exists for the statement.

Social media postings may also violate the Code as misrepresentations in circumstances such as the following:

  • An audiologist in private practice inaccurately identifies a doctoral student as an audiologist on the practice’s website.
  • A speech-language pathologist (SLP) identifies herself on LinkedIn as having the Certificate of Clinical Competence (CCC) when she has only applied for, but has not yet earned, the CCC. 
  • An audiologist or SLP includes in their biography for an online conference that they have co-authored "dozens of scholarly articles" when they, in fact, have not done so.

Posting information such as the scenarios depicted above—an act that misrepresents credentials or services—may violate the following Rules:

  • Principle I, Rule D: Individuals shall not misrepresent the credentials of aides, assistants, technicians, support personnel, students, research interns, Clinical Fellows, or any others under their supervision, and they shall inform those they serve professionally of the name, role, and professional credentials of persons providing services
  • Principle III, Rule A: Individuals shall not misrepresent their credentials, competence, education, training, experience, and scholarly contributions.
  • Principle III, Rule F: Individuals’ statements to the public shall adhere to prevailing professional norms and shall not contain misrepresentations when advertising, announcing and promoting their professional services and products and when reporting research results. 
  • Principle IV, Rule C: Individuals' statements to colleagues about professional services, research results, and products shall adhere to prevailing professional standards and shall contain no misrepresentations.

Avoiding Remarks That May Constitute Defamation

Posted statements that are offensive and insulting to individuals (or constituencies or organizations) typically do not alone violate the Code, even though such postings may be viewed as uncivil, unprofessional, or demeaning to the professions. The reason that these types of statements alone don’t violate the Code is because the Code is focused on professional conduct that is unethical, not expressive statements that are rude or uncivil. In short, the Code is not a civility code. Rather, the guiding tenets of civility inform, but do not dictate, the professional conduct regulated by the Code to “ensure the welfare of the consumer and to protect the reputation and integrity of the professions.” (Code Preamble

However, those who do engage in a pattern of uncivil and unprofessional statements, such as a campaign against an individual or a group based on their protected status (e.g., race), may be found to have engaged in discriminatory or harassing conduct or power abuse in violation of Principle IV, Rule G. Moreover, if a court finds statements made on social media platforms to be defamatory, the author of those statements may also be found in violation of Principle IV, Rule R, which states, "Individuals shall comply with local, state, and federal laws and regulations applicable to professional practice, research ethics, and the responsible conduct of research."

Accordingly, some statements made on social media, or elsewhere, that violate applicable defamation laws may violate the Code. The term defamation usually includes verbal and written statements that are factually false. Defamation laws, which vary from state to state, are generally intended to protect individuals and organizations from false statements of fact that could harm their reputations. Rarely are statements of opinion deemed defamatory. Two key elements in proving defamation claims in most states are (1) that the aggrieved party must establish that the defendant uttered or published a false statement of fact to a third party and (2) that the publication of the defamatory statement must cause economic harm to the aggrieved party.

Additionally, some state licensing laws for audiologists and SLPs include prohibitions against the use of "derogatory" statements in defining "unprofessional conduct." For example, Delaware’s Code of Ethics for Speech-Language Pathologists, Audiologists, and Hearing Aid Dispensers  reads, "Licensees shall offer services and products on their merits and should refrain from making disparaging comments about competing practitioners or their services and products" (Delaware Admin. Code, Sec. 3700-9.4.1.3). Similarly, Nevada’s Code of Professional Conduct for Audiologists and Speech-Language Pathologists provides, “A licensee . . . shall not disparage the qualifications of any colleague” (Nevada Admin. Code, Sec. 637B.042-6).

The following hypothetical scenarios may be helpful to illustrate the general rules on defamation:

Scenario #1

A colleague posts on a Facebook page for SLPs with expertise in swallowing, "Did you see that Sue Smith is speaking at this online seminar? She’s a terrible speaker. I am SO not going!"

Is this statement defamatory? No. The quality of an individual’s speaking skills is a matter of opinion, not fact, because different listeners often rate the same speaker quite differently.

Scenario #2

When the annual ASHA Convention schedule is posted online, a colleague notices that Tom Jones is scheduled to lead a session on American Sign Language. Although Tom has recently published a book on sign language, he was invited to lead the session before he completed the book, due to his expertise on this subject. This colleague posts on Facebook, "I just saw that ASHA invited Tom to lead a session on American Sign Language at Convention. Everyone knows that he accepted the offer to speak only to promote his new book. ASHA should be ashamed of itself for facilitating his effort to increase book sales!"

Is this statement defamatory? Maybe. This situation comes closer to the line because the colleague makes a false statement of fact about Tom that could harm his professional reputation. It is unclear whether Tom will suffer economic damage from the posting in the form of lost sales; however, because the colleague’s statement about ASHA reflects her opinion rather than a fact, her statement is unlikely to violate applicable defamation laws and thus would probably not constitute an ethical violation.

Summary

Before you post on any social media platform, thoughtfully consider your comments to ensure that you are compliant with the Code. The most professional and collegial course is to refrain from making disparaging comments. If you are concerned that either you or a colleague may have crossed the line in the use of social media, although it may not rise to a Code violation, there are several practical options you can consider.

  • For yourself, make the appropriate correction or deletion to the message(s) on your social media account(s). For a colleague/other practitioner, discuss your observations directly with them, and encourage them to correct or delete the message(s) on their social media account(s).
  • If you don’t know the other practitioner personally, try to identify a third party who knows you both and who could fulfill an intermediary role.
  • Refer to the ASHA Civility Digital Toolkit for ideas on handling online disagreements and disrespect.
  • Review your employer's social media policy, if there is one, for information and guidance. 
  • Note that under Principle IV, Rule M, "Individuals with evidence that the Code of Ethics may have been violated have the responsibility to work collaboratively to resolve the situation where possible or to inform the Board of Ethics through its established procedures."
  • Contact ASHA Ethics at ethics@asha.org for further information and direction. 

Further information can be found by reading the following resources on the ASHA website: Social Media: To Friend or Not to Friend and Social Media: It's Different for Professionals.

Legal Disclaimer: The information and materials available through ASHA's website are for informational and educational purposes only. Nothing in this document should be construed as legal advice, and your use of the legal information provided on ASHA’s website is not a substitute for legal advice. ASHA has no knowledge of the specific or unique circumstances under which such information may be used by you. Your use of ASHA’s website does not create an attorney–client relationship between you and ASHA, or between you and any of ASHA’s employees or representatives. Each state has its own laws and they can vary widely, so you should obtain advice from an attorney regarding particular state laws that may be relevant. 

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