Ethical Use of Social Media

The ASHA Code of Ethics (2016) (hereinafter, the "Code") provides guidance across many areas of practice and research, including areas related to the use of social media. “Because the Code is not intended to address specific situations and is not inclusive of all possible ethical dilemmas, professionals are expected to follow the written provisions and to uphold the spirit and purpose of the Code.“ (Code Preamble). 

What Is Social Media?

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. 

Can the Inappropriate Use of Social Media Constitute an Ethical Violation?

Yes, under some circumstances, the inappropriate use of social media may lead to ethical violations under the Code. Examples of this 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 Code is usually not violated, however, when individuals post insulting or offensive opinions, even though doing so is failing to engage in civil discourse.

The Code is not a civility code. Rather, the Code is "a framework and focused guide for professionals in support of day-to-day decision making related to professional conduct"; and the "Rules of Ethics are specific statements of minimally acceptable as well as unacceptable professional conduct." (Code Preamble)

Breaching Confidentiality 

Posting a detail or details about a client, no matter how seemingly insignificant, may allow others to identify your client and reveal that this client is receiving treatment from you. It is imperative that you protect the identity of your patients and keep treatment details confidential. A breach of confidentiality could occur from situations such as (1) posting a random comment so specific that the client is readily identifiable or (2) posting an unredacted page of a patient’s treatment records as an example of how much progress a client has made using your services. Similarly, you have an ethical obligation to keep confidential any personal information about persons participating in your research projects. Applicable Rules include the following: 

  • 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 to communicate with friends and promote 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 a metropolitan area ear, nose, and throat (ENT) practice who promotes his practice by posting, "Highest qualified practitioner in the area!" violates the Code because no basis exists for the statement and it is misleading to the public.

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

  • 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 does not. 
  • An audiologist includes in their biography for an online conference that they have co-authored "dozens of scholarly articles on cochlear implants" when they, in fact, have not done so.

Posting information such as the scenarios depicted above—an act that misrepresents credentials or services—may be a violation of 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 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

Although ASHA encourages its members and certificate holders to engage in the discussion and exchange about controversial audiology and speech-language pathology topics, it is all too common that colleagues post inflammatory comments on group Facebook pages, listservs, or bulletin boards that are linked to organizations’ websites. ASHA urges its members and certificate holders to exercise good judgment and to avoid engaging in personal attacks against others while using social media. Posted statements that are offensive and insulting to individuals (or constituencies or organizations), however, typically do not alone violate the Code. This is because the Code is intended to address ethical standards—it is not a guide to appropriate civil conduct. Accordingly, there is no Code provision that explicitly addresses or is directly applicable to the posting of offensive remarks on social media.

One notable exception to the above is that statements made on social media, or elsewhere, which violate applicable defamation laws may give rise to a Code violation. The term defamation can include 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 factual statements that could harm their reputations. One key element in proving defamation claims in most states is that the aggrieved party must establish that the defendant uttered or published a false factual statement to a third party. Rarely are statements of opinion deemed defamatory.

Principle IV, Rule R provides guidance in determining whether a statement may rise to an ethical violation under the Code. It states, "Individuals shall comply with local, state, and federal laws and regulations applicable to professional practice, research ethics, and the responsible conduct of research."

Please note that some state licensing laws for audiologists and SLPs include "derogatory" statements as "unprofessional conduct." For example, Delaware’s Code of Ethics for Speech-Language Pathologists, Audiologists, and Hearing Aid Dispensers (Sec. 9.4.1.3) 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." 

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

Scenario #1

A colleague posts on his Facebook page, "I can’t believe we accepted such a poor group of Clinical Fellows this year—what a waste!"

Analysis: Is this statement defamatory? No. The statement that a group of individuals are "poor" is the speaker’s opinion, not a fact. Although this statement is unprofessional and inappropriate, it would not likely violate the Code because it does not rise to the level of defamation.

Scenario #2

A colleague sends out the following tweet under the hashtag, #NewResearchersForAutism: "It is time for a ‘new wave’ of researchers to take the helm in autism research. Kick out the same old, same old!" 

Analysis: Is this statement defamatory? No. Here, the identity of the injured party is not clear. Is the speaker referring to all current researchers?  A subgroup of current researchers?  All current researchers over a certain age? Additionally, this appears to be a statement of opinion by the speaker, indicating that he or she would like to see a new approach in autism research, not a statement of fact about current researchers. For these reasons, this statement would most likely not support a successful defamation claim or violate the Code

Scenario #3

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. Yuck!" 

Analysis: 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 #4

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!"

Analysis: 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. However, the colleague’s statement about ASHA reflects her opinion rather than fact, and thus her statements are unlikely to violate applicable defamation laws

Could This Be A Violation? Practical Steps to Consider

As some of the above examples illustrate, determining where the lines may be drawn by a court in a defamation case based on state law can be hard to predict. The safest course is to refrain from making disparaging comments that may be found to violate applicable defamation law and the Code. 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. 
  • 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..." 

Additional steps to consider:

References

Further information can be found by reading the following:

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. 

ASHA Corporate Partners