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28. Social media and online networking forums

Updated 21 September 2021


28.1  ‘Social media’ is the term used to describe websites and online applications that encourage social interaction between users and content creators. It encompasses all technology that can be used to share opinions and insights, information, knowledge, ideas and interests, and enables the building of communities and networks. Examples include media sites that allow public posts and comments (e.g. Twitter), content sharing websites (e.g. YouTube, Instagram and Flickr), professional and social networking sites (e.g. LinkedIn, Facebook), internet forums (e.g., discussion boards, blogs (Tumblr, Wordpress) and instant messaging.

28.2  It is recognised that social media is likely to form part of veterinary surgeons’ everyday lives and they are free to take advantage of the personal and professional benefits that social media can offer. Social media can for example be a valuable communication tool and can be used to establish professional links and networks, to engage in wider discussions relating to veterinary practice, and to facilitate the public’s access to information about animal health and welfare. However, the use of social media is not without risk and veterinary surgeons should be mindful of the consequences that may arise from its misuse.

28.3  Veterinary surgeons have a responsibility to behave professionally and responsibly when offline, online as themselves and online in a virtual world (perhaps as an avatar or under an alias). This responsibility also applies to private forums as there is no guarantee that comments posted will remain private (for example, someone could take a screenshot and post it on public social media platforms.) Veterinary surgeons may put their registration at risk if they demonstrate inappropriate behaviour when using social media. The standards expected of veterinary surgeons in the real world are no different to the standards they should apply online, and veterinary surgeons must uphold the reputation of the veterinary profession at all times.

Protecting your privacy

28.4  Veterinary surgeons should also consider how to protect their own privacy when using social media. It should be remembered that online information can readily be accessed by others and once it is published online, the information can be difficult, if not impossible, to remove. Added to this are the risks that other users may comment on the information, or circulate or copy this to others. Veterinary surgeons should be thoughtful about what they post online as they may be connected directly or indirectly to clients, client's friends and other staff members. Private messages can easily be forwarded. For that reason, it is sensible to presume that everything shared online will be there permanently. Veterinary surgeons should also be mindful that content uploaded on an anonymous basis can, in many cases, be traced back to the original author.

28.5  Veterinary surgeons should read, understand and use appropriate privacy settings in order to maintain control over access to their personal information. It is advisable for veterinary surgeons to review their privacy settings on a regular basis to ensure that the information is not available to unintended users. However, veterinary surgeons should remember that this does not guarantee that their information will be kept private and personal information could potentially be viewed by anyone including clients, colleagues and employers.

Good practice when using social media

28.6  When using social media, veterinary surgeons should:

a. be respectful of and protect the privacy of others, and comply with the data protection laws and their own practice's privacy policy.
b. consider whether they would make the comments in public or other traditional forms of media. If not, veterinary surgeons should refrain from doing so.
c. be proactive in removing content which could be viewed as unprofessional
d. remember that innocent references to social activities that might be construed as taking place on duty / on call could be misinterpreted or used as the basis for a complaint
e. maintain and protect client confidentiality by not disclosing information about a client or a client’s animal which could identify them on social media unless the client gives explicit consent (see paragraphs 28.8 to 28.12 below)
f. comply with employer’s or organisation’s internet or social media policy (practices are encouraged to develop and implement a social media policy applicable to all staff)

28.7  When using social media veterinary surgeons should avoid making, posting or facilitating statements, images or videos that:

a. contravene any internet or social media policy set out by their employer or organisation (Remember that comments or statements made or facilitated by veterinary surgeons may reflect on your employer / organisation and the wider profession as a whole)
b. cause undue distress or provoke anti-social or violent behaviour
c. are offensive, false, inaccurate or unjustified (Remember that comments which are damaging to an individual’s reputation could result in a civil claim for defamation for which veterinary surgeons could be personally liable. Defamation law can apply to any comments posted online made in either a personal or professional capacity)
d. abuse, bully, victimise, harass, threaten or intimidate clients, colleagues, staff or others (the Codes of Professional Conduct states that veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses should not speak or write disparagingly about another veterinary surgeon or veterinary nurse. This covers all forms of interaction and applies to comments about individuals online)
e. discriminate against an individual based on his or her race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, age, religion or beliefs, or national origin (comments demonstrating hostility towards an individual’s race, disability, sexual orientation, religion or transgender identity may amount to a ‘hate crime’ and may be reported to the authorities and prosecuted in a criminal court)
f. bring the veterinary profession into disrepute (veterinary surgeons should be mindful that their online persons can have a negative impact on their professional lives)

NB: Please note that this is not an exhaustive list. There are many different types of social media misuse.

Maintaining client confidentiality

28.8  Veterinary surgeons have a legal and ethical responsibility to maintain client confidentiality. The Code of Professional Conduct states that veterinary surgeons must not disclose information about a client or the client’s animals to a third party, unless the client gives permission or animal welfare or the public interest may be compromised. See also Supporting Guidance Chapter 14 for more information.

28.9  This principle also applies to veterinary surgeons using social media. Veterinary surgeons should maintain and protect client confidentiality by not disclosing information about a client or the client’s animal, which could identify them on social media unless the client gives explicit consent. If consent is obtained, this should be recorded separately (ideally in the clinical records). Written consent may be particularly helpful in the event of any future challenges. Practices should ensure that such consent is compliant with the GDPR, namely freely given, specific, informed, unambiguous and affirmative. It must also be possible to withdraw consent easily.

28.10  It is recognised that some veterinary surgeons use social media websites that are not necessarily accessible to the general public, for example, to discuss veterinary practice and related issues. If a veterinary surgeon considers it is appropriate to discuss a case – for example to further an animal’s care or the care of future animals – steps should be taken to anonymise the client, and/or the client’s animal. Veterinary surgeons should note that although individual pieces of information may not breach client confidentiality, the totality of the published information could be sufficient to identify a client.

28.11  Some clients may use public forums to make negative or adverse comments about a veterinary surgeon or practice, or to raise concerns about the treatment provided to their animal(s). Veterinary surgeons should seek to avoid engaging in disputes in a public forum and may invite clients who make negative comments or raise concerns to contact the practice directly to discuss further. Discretion should be used when deciding how much to say publicly. Veterinary surgeons should be very careful not to breach applicable data protection laws and caution should be taken so as not to disclose confidential information, which could result in a complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) or to the RCVS. Those involved may need to seek specific advice from the ICO on matters of data protection, as appropriate.

28.12  Concerns about inappropriate comments may also be reported to the site administrator / internet service provider and it may be possible for such comments to be removed. If a veterinary surgeon considers that the comments are defamatory, legal advice should be sought from an independent solicitor, or from the British Veterinary Association (BVA) legal helpline.

Other members of the veterinary team

28.13  Veterinary nurses should also follow the above guidance when using social media.

28.14  Veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses should ensure that support staff for whom they are responsible are aware of any practice protocols on data protection and the use of social media.