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When I qualified back in the early 1990’s, social media wasn’t exactly on the radar. The thought of being able to connect with a multitude of people instantly was the stuff of imagination. The Pub was our Facebook, and the only ‘likes’ we had were the various guest beers.
Now it’s such a part of our everyday lives that normal channels of communication are seemingly used in the minority. When you can connect with the entire world’s population from the comfort of your home, and carry on multiple conversations about multiple subjects simultaneously, the days of popping out for a beer and a chat with a mate seem numbered.
But what about the social etiquette, and more importantly the professional etiquette we employ when online? The GDC have standards that we should adhere too, and indeed GDPUk is actually specifically mentioned in them such is the impact social media has made on the profession. Specific specialist sites like GDPUk aren’t generally the issue, and whilst there are sometimes a few comments made that might get the GDC or lawyers a trifle interested, these sort of sites are generally appropriately populated and commented upon.
The problem are the wider platforms especially those such as Twitter and Facebook. Some users don’t seem to get the fact they are in no way whatsoever a place to remain private and anonymous despite what you might think.
Whilst the ‘more mature’ professionals seem to have the general hang of the way we should conduct ourselves, I worry that some of the younger members of the profession haven’t quite got the gist of what being a professional is yet and how they should present themselves in public to the public. Because no matter what steps they take, if they have a social and professional presence on media like that, they are well and truly exposed to public scrutiny.
There are a multitude of Facebook pages for Dental matters. Some are better than others, but all suffer from the same fundamental problem. They are not private. In order to use them you have some sort of visibility. For instance, if I wanted to discuss a case over a beer in the pub with a mate, I wouldn’t be doing it whilst posing in a mirror with oiled muscles. But that’s what communicating with some of the personas on social media is like. Some of the fairer sex seems to be somewhat less than modest in their attire on occasion, and one has to wonder if this is what the public expect of its professional classes. A couple of clicks and you generally have a range of private information about ‘friends’, particularly the more self-obsessed ones.
What about commenting into the perceived anonymity of an electronic device in such a way that you wouldn’t do in person? I’ve witnessed many an argument that would never happen in real life due to the social ethics the majority of us have; but once in the safety of the digital world the ‘keyboard warriors’ tend to lose all sense of propriety and the moral compass seems to have lost its direction. And then there are the artists of self-promotion who feel every other comment has to be some form of pseudo advert for a business venture, or course you can’t possibly miss. I’m becoming guilty of the last one as my Twitter account now is used almost solely for the promotion of this blog and GDPUk. You see, the boundaries of who you are as a person, and who you are as a professional are becoming so grey with social media like Facebook that it feels safe to make that sort of comment, and think there is no comeback.
Finally, there are the vast numbers of photos of patients and cases that we see bandied around social media. The GDC is very clear on this, in standard 4.2.3, where it states ‘You must not post any information or comments about patients on social networking or blogging sites’. Period. We can use ‘Professional Social Media’ but social networking sites are a no-no according to the exact wording. Personally, I think the GDC are possibly a little behind the times on this, as there are a good number of very good Facebook pages where some quite good discussions take place; however it remains to be seen if the GDC feels this is ‘professional social media’ when used in this way, as after all, they are the ones who get to decide….
The big problem though is that many people forget just what can happen to these comments and photos once they've been posted.
I’ve heard stories of people using screenshots of comments made on social media and then threatening to use them as evidence to send to the GDC. Screenshots can be shared outside the domain we think we are posting in, and as such can be disseminated far more than we might have considered when we posted. Unfortunately the self-righteous are rife on social media, and often mistake what is only free speech for something to get offended by, and take draconian steps.
I’ve seen the fallout when comments in a public section of a site then get even nastier privately; and I’ve seen wholesale bar-brawls break out in some places (although they’re usually involving musicians ? ). This is like taking a voice recorder or video camera to every meeting you have with a professional in case they say something that offends you so you have evidence and can report them. Since the GDC love nothing better than a good old Fitness to Practice case, we need to really be aware of what we put on social media, how we do it, and the persona we use on there. I think it is only a matter of time before there will be a full-blown case against a registrant involving some indiscretion or inappropriate comment on social media.
Now I’m no Luddite, prude, or some ‘holier than thou’ observer; as a forthright Yorkshireman I tend to say how it is and if you don’t like that then that’s your problem not mine. I’ve got patients as Facebook friends, and I tend to be exactly the same person online as I am in real life. I’m aware that anything I say there is something that I should be happy to share in a professional environment. I’m a real person and don’t have any airs and graces or chip on my shoulder that mean I think I’m some sort of superior being because I’m a dentist. But I can’t help thinking that some of the comments, personas, and attitudes we see as the public face of some of those in dentistry give the GDC every right to be concerned about the public perception of the profession, because if people can’t differentiate between a digital persona and a real one when they are posting then they really do deserve the attention of our regulator. The rationality and politeness filters seem to disappear from some of our profession when they get infant of some kind of keyboard. Couple all this with a competing bunch of the self-righteous, and the self-obsessed and we have a recipe for the profession to start imploding.
It certainly feels like it is one rule for the GDC and one for us where social media is concerned; the sheer fact you can ‘like’ the fact a colleague has been struck off, suspended etc, is not what I call professional. There’s also no associated comment when a colleague has been exonerated, like in the case of the Scottish dentist Keith Watson, who then attempted to take a vexatious patient with an apparent history of suing dentists, to court for defamation, which unfortunately he has had to abandon at great financial cost to himself.
But, this case shows there can be huge good come out of social media and its immediacy. In the space of less than 24 hours a fund had been created to support Dr Watson, a newly qualified member of our profession who would no doubt be financially challenged by a huge legal bill this early in his career.
http://www.gofundme.com/keithwatson Not only that, the messages of support for Keith have been flying around social media all day and latterly on GDPUK itself. When used appropriately then, we have a fantastic medium to help people.
We need to embrace social media as its here to stay; it can be hugely useful, and massively informative; but we must use it appropriately, and think about the consequences of our presence in the virtual world. That’s what it means to be a professional.