deonandan“A right????” I can hear you shouting at me through your keyboard.  “How can it possibly be a right?  And why are you asking these stupid questions?”

Let’s think about it.  How many people under the age of 50 do you know who don’t engage in social media to some extent?  Whether it’s reading or writing a blog, sending a tweet, lurking on Facebook, posting a photo on Instagram, or putting a resume on LinkedIn, the silent weaving of these platforms into our daily lives has happened quickly and unobtrusively.  They are so intertwined in the process of modern life that it can be argued that one cannot fully engage in society without using social media sites to some degree.  

If you don’t buy that people gutturally need social and emotional interaction online, then you’ll certainly agree that professional sites like LinkedIn are now essential tools for jobseekers and those seeking to expand their professional networks.  Certainly, an increasing number of staffing agents, or “head hunters”, are prowling those types of sites seeking candidates.  Failure to be active on such sites, then, might be a measurable disadvantage in the unending contest for advancement and prosperity.

This question of whether access is a right was actually the centrepiece  of a recent court case against Facebook, argued by the ACLU.  It seems that Facebook had a policy of denying registration on its site to registered sex offenders.  The ACLU successfully argued that Facebook has become such an essential aspect of 21st century living that denying it to a specific demographic constituted a violation of human rights. I discussed the case on my personal blog [http://blog.deonandan.com/wordpress/2013/09/facebook-and-registered-sex-offenders.html], but from the perspective of drawing comparisons between those who opposed and supported the ruling.

Regardless of how you might feel about whether sex offenders should be on Facebook, you must agree that the case introduces some interesting philosophical questions.  At the very least, it’s a signal that we have experienced a profound paradigm shift with respect to the role of these new technologies in our society.  Much like during the introduction of other media technologies historically –the telephone, television, the personal computer– we seem to have passed the initial phase when the new thing is a mere vanity, toy, or luxury, and have entered the inevitable phase where it is a background part of our social infrastructure, assumed to always be there at our disposal, and a source of frustration when it is not.

The arrival of social media as societal infrastructure has not been without its hiccups.  If access to Facebook is a human right, does it then logically follow that perhaps access to specific people is also a right?  Yes, that’s quite a logical leap, I know.  But the question lead me and a colleague, Dr Kamila Premji, to consider the extent to which certain professionals are accessible on Facebook.  We chose to look at family physicians, since they are a demographic much in demand.  Anecdotal evidence suggested that many doctors were being contacted via their personal Facebook accounts by patients for medical communication purposes.

So we got a public list of 1000 family doctors in Ottawa, and unleashed my student and co-author Andrea Nwosu on the names.  Andrea spent months “creeping” those doctors on Facebook, determining how accessible they were, and what personal details they were sharing with the world, whether intentionally or inadvertently.  (And yes, we consulted the University’s Research Ethics office before conducting this study.  Since Facebook accounts with low privacy settings are considered “public” information, they were legally and ethically fair game for collection and analysis.)

What we found, thankfully, was that most doctors had their privacy levels cranked quite high (only about 10% were “creepable”).  But some personal information was being widely shared.  Over 81% had publicly visible profile photos.  And 24% had made public their place of work.

And of course, there were those few who probably didn’t realize how transparent their lives had become.  For those individuals, we learned so much about them that if they walked by us, we’d recognize them, know where they’d gone on vacation, whom their kid had married, and what kind of food they like.

If you’d like to read the full study, you can access it here: http://www.ruor.uottawa.ca/en/handle/10393/26156

So what’s the lesson here? Certain people, like family doctors, are at greater risk for invasions of their online privacy. Yet, as we’ve established, there’s a belief now that engagement with social media is a right and possibly even a necessary aspect of full social health in today’s weird and wonderful wired world. So such people may need to consider both the electronic privacy control options available to them, or indeed whether they need to be online at all. It would be a shame if a certain professional demographic were “chased” off of social media due to their online vulnerabilities, since they would then be denying themselves some of the advantages already listed.

The flipside to all this, of course, is the extent to which people actually expect their doctors (and indeed other much relied-upon professionals) to be available on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites.

To explore this phenomenon,  another student, Priscilla Karnabi, and I have been propagating an online survey – – “virally”,  as they say– via email, Twitter, blogs, and Facebook, to ask the world about the pros and cons of being able to access their doctors via the latter’s personal and professional social media profiles.

I love the idea using social media to study social media. It introduces some interesting challenges in sampling bias, but the symmetry is too poetic to dismiss.  

The initial data are quite intriguing. But I don’t want to bias any subsequent results by describing them here.  However, if you’d like to participate, feel free to take the survey (only available in English) by clicking on the following link, and/or share the link via your own social media tools. Everyone is invited to participate, so long as they are 18 years of age or older:  http://svy.mk/19kp31F

It’s a challenging and sometimes frightening world of new electronic social opportunities unfolding before us.  The inspiring part, for me, is that despite the complexities, morasses, and temptations, we’re forging ahead through it all together as a global community.  I guess that’s why they call it “social” media.

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Dr Raywat Deonandan is an Epidemiologist, author, global health specialist and Assistant Professor with the Interdisciplinary School of Health Sciences at the University of Ottawa in Canada. He is the author of four books, including a recent textbook in International Health theory, over 100 newspaper articles, and scores of peer-reviewed academic papers, and writes a regular blog for the Huffington Post Canada. Deonandan’s international research foci are on health education issues among AmerIndians in the Guyanese rainforest, and the ethics of reproductive tourism and maternal surrogacy in India. In addition, he lectures and gives workshops in India, the Caribbean, and parts of Africa on various topics in global health and capacity building.