The American Pharmacists Association (APhA) Code of Ethics for Pharmacists36
and APhA-ASP/AACP Pledge of Professionalism37
are 2 documents that traditionally have provided guidance for appropriate ethical and professional behavior. However, they were both adopted before the onset of social media, and hence are somewhat open to interpretation when it comes to personal attitudes and behavior in the virtual sense. Social media use runs the gamut from purely personal communication with friends and family to purely professional communication with colleagues and clients. Sometimes contexts (eg, student pharmacist, sorority sister, high school friend) overlap, and when viewed through social media, are rendered inseparable.38
Because of this blending of public/private lives, discussions pertaining to ethical use of social media can quickly disintegrate into a seemingly unending web of controversies. The initial set of ethical issues identified in the earlier review4
still have not been resolved entirely and more have arisen. However, identification and comprehension of the base ethical issues have increased due in part to research on the topic and attention from the media.
The crux of social media ethical dilemmas is that social media was designed for social communications, which for most adults traditionally has been considered a private and protected space. However, the inherent nature of social media makes those communications available to a wider public. Once information becomes public, then the way it is used is no longer under the control of the presenter. This root dilemma is central to the ethical debate from which several other ethical questions develop. Those ethical questions can be categorized according to 5 primary criteria: (1) who is viewing the social media information; (2) how is the social media information accessed; (3) for what purpose is the social information used; (4) what are the criteria one uses for making judgments about social media information; and (5) what is the nature of “relationships” in social media. In order to provide the reader with a succinct understanding of the ethical issues, the following sections provide a brief synopsis of those issues, including some of the primary questions being asked by pharmacy and other educators.
Who Is Viewing the Information?
One of the core ethical questions is, “Is it acceptable for someone outside an individual's social network to view that person's social media information?” Although one can argue that information placed online can be considered “public,” there is still an ethical issue of whether that “public” is an “open public.” Much of the conversation occurring through social media is directed at a select group of friends, colleagues, and cohorts. According to some, anyone outside of that intended audience who views social media may violate the basic concept of individual privacy.
How is the Social Media Information Accessed?
How someone becomes privy to the social media information of another is an important ethical issue. It is one thing to view social media information of someone who specifically granted access to it. However, it is a different matter to access that information if presented by a third party, such as a fellow student, colleague, or competitor for an award, honor, or job. Philosophically, many feel that information freely and voluntarily provided to the public is open for scrutiny regardless of how it is exposed. Others believe that only information to which one has specifically been granted access should be open for judgment and interpretation. The ethical question for faculty members and administrators to consider is, “If a student actively attempts to keep his or her online persona private from those in authority, should that information be used if brought forth by someone else who has access to it?”
What is the Purpose of Viewing Social Media?
The issue of the ethicality of using online social media information for other than social reasons still exists. Because most of these applications were designed for socializing, many are uncomfortable with viewing social media information for purposes of anything except social communication. The central question is, “Is it right to use social media to make judgments related to school admissions, employee selection, disciplinary matters, or any other decisions of a non-social nature?”
Using social media information for consideration in admissions and employment decisions is a frequent topic for discussion. One can argue that this information may be more revealing than what is discoverable through transcripts, applications, and interviews. Perhaps this information might lead admissions committees to make better decisions about candidates who present similar scores or ratings on the above-listed criteria. Questions that counter that perspective include, “Is it fair to judge some individuals' information if the information of others is inaccessible due to privacy features?” and “Unless stated in admissions or employment criteria, is it ethical to use this information?” Some address this question by citing that how one chooses to present oneself publicly in an online environment is an indicator of judgment and attention to detail. Individuals who are not careful with the information they provide online or who are not sufficiently diligent in protecting access to it may not possess the appropriate skills or judgment necessary to work in a professional environment.
What are the Criteria for Judging Online Personas?
Interpreting character, professionalism, and other personal characteristics from information contained on social profiles is a complex task. While online personas may provide clues to a person's true personality, they may or may not be a completely accurate reflection. The primary ethical questions are, “Who decides the criteria on which an online persona is evaluated and what exactly are the criteria?” For example, how would someone determine from a Facebook profile if an individual showed signs of alcohol or drug abuse; what on the profile would reflect that? What defines an indication of alcohol abuse? Is it the number of photos with alcohol, affiliation with alcohol-related groups, a specific combination thereof, or some other criteria? Another question that is almost impossible to answer with any degree of certainty is, “To what extent does an online persona reflect professional ability and attitudes?”
How Appropriate are Social Media Relationships
A final category of social media ethical issues pertains to the nature of social networking relationships. Faculty members becoming Facebook “friends” with students is a somewhat controversial issue. Does this blur the line of professional relationship between a faculty member and student? Even if a faculty member is very conscientious in what is posted, he or she may be made privy to personal information from student “friends” who engage in illegal acts, commit eprofessionalism transgressions,39
or exhibit signs of depression or rage that could ultimately result in harm to that particular student or others. Although there may be benefits to social media relationships, overexposure to each other's private lives may result in negative outcomes for one or the other. Every faculty member should at least consider the implications of connecting with students via social media.