Ethics and Health in Social Media

We don’t talk much about the ethics involved with social media, especially in Healthcare where it matters most.

Why not?

Is because everybody is so absorbed with “how to use social media to______”?” that ethics isn’t even a thought?

We developed schools of ethics because ethical issues can be hard to spot on the surface. A general “be kind, be good” doesn’t cut it. No matter how good we are, it can be easy for us to commit ethical slips.

What are the ethics of following patients on Foursquare (a geolocation service)? Yes, geolocation has it’s place in health care and crises. But isn’t it a bit weird that hospitals would follow people’s check-ins, especially when most check-ins have nothing to do with any kind of health care?

What are the ethics of scouring public posts, tweets, status updates, etc.? Can researchers mine public data without any ethical restraint just because that data are public?

We aught not carry a dismissive attitude about what doors social media are opening up.

Just because a tool creates a new opportunity for you, it doesn’t mean you have to use it.


The discourse and assumptions and philosophies we adopt right now – today, this very year, this very moment – will forever shape the kind of civilization we make. Let’s call it ethical lock-in.

Do you not realize how transformative this age – this momentous, changing-right-before-your-eyes age – we live in is becoming every day?

Do you not see how Twitter can be used by the charming Hitler’s of the world to lead us into destruction? Remember: evil empires always slip in theough the cracks unfilled by dismissive peoples. Tweet by Hilter:


Adolf Hitler


RT @.FDR The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. << Except…Adolf Hitler, bit*ches! LOL

March, 1933 via UberTwitter

The above tweet sounds absurd: but it’s physically possible – had Twitter been around in the 1930s, it would have shaped the course of history. I don’t mean any offense or lightening of history – the point is that a dictator could very easily use these media to exploit entertainment and spectacle to throw his evil into the shadows under the guise of “that whacky guy”. Would you follow Hitler on Twitter? It’s an ethical question: follow him and you help build his “following” and thus boost his ego and possible reach; block him and you might not see what he’s up to.

What are the ethics of a hospital following patients? No right or wrong answer per se. But there are ramifications to following on Twitter – I can use software to see who a hospital follows (and who follows a hospital), map out all the connections, mashup dashboards of content – metadata – and use that for purposes nobody even considered when they hit the follow button. Just a thought. What if an insurance company did exactly that?

Do you not see how boundaries on Facebook can be easily violated?

Do you not see that a conversation in an elevator is not the same thing as a tangle of @ replies on Twitter? We do not live in a linear universe – the online world is *not* necessarily a mirror of the offline one: to believe that is an error of logic –

Do you not see how geolocation services can open wide the chance for governments to achieve their long-dreamt hope of the perfect Security State?

Do you not see how the Facebook Wall might be like Plato’s Wall? This is important – for if we do not understand our reality, how can we form ethics?


I’m not saying these media are all bad.

I am saying that we owe it to ourselves to think critically.

But I suspect that our dopamine receptors may be getting too full to deal with the hard brain-work which all ethical discourses require.

Hurry – the window for us to create healthy and democratic spaces on the Web is fast-closing.

An unhealthy and unethical civilization creates unhealthy and unethical people until it vanishes.

Healthcare professionals (including marketers) have a duty – and a right – to scrutinize the ethics of how social media is used; how they influence our health; and how to ensure that social media’s deceptive simplicity ramifies and complexifies ethical matters we take for granted.

If you truly love social media and don’t think this is a big deal, then why would you be afraid to have your ideas filtered through the rigor of critical examination?

The question mark is the ultimate social medium.

@PhilBaumann – @HealthIsSocial – Newsletter


Leave a Reply