Social Media Rule #1: Shed Your Idiots Now

I’m fond of noting that “the difference between Heaven and Hell is who you’re with.”

Consider the sad story of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. They’re being sued for $1.5 million in compensatory damages for having hired someone who from my distant viewpoint seems just too “stupid, greedy or horny” for such responsibilities. See if you agree.

In June, a Northwestern University student, Elena Chernyakova, was taken by ambulance to a local emergency room after consuming too much alcohol. According to her complaint, during her stay in the ER, Dr. Vinaya Puppula, a fellow at the adjacent Northwestern University medical school, came to her room and asked to look at her medical records, even though, as the complaint says, “the plaintiff was not his patient”…and that his only apparent professional connection was working next door. 

Let’s let the complaint continue the story, as quoted on Courthouse News Service:

“At or around 4 p.m., on June 13, 2013, Dr. Puppala came down to the ER again and commenced taking pictures of plaintiff while she was on the hospital bed, crying, and attached to an IV.”

“Dr. Puppala was seen by hospital security in the hospital taking the pictures and was asked to delete them immediately, which he refused to do.

“Dr. Puppala decided to publish said photographs on the Internet through Facebook and Instagram online sharing programs.

“Dr. Puppala attached statements of commentary describing Ms. Chernyakova’s condition in those photographs.

“The photographs were recognized as being photographs of the plaintiff by at least four persons…

“At all times, while in the hospital, plaintiff did not consent to her pictures being taken by Dr. Puppala, nor was she capable of giving any such consent.”

Proving medical malpractice is hard, but it’s easy to recognize social stupidity. Was the doctor shocked by the deleterious effects of alcohol and hoping to warn the public?  That doesn’t seem likely.

It turns out that Chernyakova is a model and former pro tennis hopeful pursuing graduate studies at Northwestern. Dr. Puppala shared a common acquaintance with her who had called and told him of her admission. This personal connection might make the fact pattern of dashing over to the next building, taking photographs, refusing to delete them, and posting them on two social networks seem less like random poor judgement and more of a malicious act.

I’m not a lawyer, but Joel Brodsky and the Karlin Law Firm who represent Chernyakova are. To me, their claim of $1.5 million in damages seems modest considering the possibility of malice represented by the doctor’s actions, his acquaintance with the plaintiff, and his likely knowledge of her profession and the damage such photos would do to her career.

Maybe its lucky that I wasn’t empaneled on that medical malpractice jury last week. If Chernyakova’s factual claims held, I’d have gladly awarded damages and gone a step further.

Would you consider a punitive measure of forcing Dr. Puppala’s supervisor to hold a sign saying “I Hire Jerks” (thanks M. Night Shyamalan) and Dr. Puppala holding a similar sign that says “That’s Me” to be too extreme? (Poor people and kids have to hold signs, why not doctors?) Of course, at our worst moments we’re all short sighted. But short sighted and mean isn’t a sustainable pairing.

The problem here really isn’t social media, or technology. The problem, as Dilbert creator Scott Adams noted, is that “humans are too stupid, greedy and horny.”

“Don’t Be an Ass” is a good start for all policies
So, before anyone at Northwestern tweaks their social media policy, or sends a memo about HIPAA and the ethical duty to maintain patient confidentiality, it might make sense to think more broadly.

Consider Stanford Professor Robert Sutton’s No Asshole Rule.  Of course tweaking social media policies is easier than addressing corporate culture.

But the difference between Heaven and Hell is who you’re with. If you get that right, the social media stuff really isn’t that hard.

2 Responses to "Social Media Rule #1: Shed Your Idiots Now"

  • Louis Gudema

    September 5, 2013

    It used to be that the rule for business ethics and behavior was, Don’t do anything that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the local newspaper tomorrow morning. Now, though, people shamelessly act like assholes online without — in many cases, such as the one you cite — any concern for others seeing it, let alone the consequences for others. An unintended consequence of the Internet and social media is empowering sociopaths to wreak far faster and broader harm.

  • Ron Coleman

    March 9, 2016

    Great article, and truly depressing to read about that conduct of someone who is what we used to call a “learned professional.” All the same it’s a little ironic, and telling about how our standards have sunk, that I didn’t feel I could tweet or link to this piece of “language” (“a-hole”).

    Maybe Louis’s “front page” rule needs resurrection. In this cultural and political climate, though, this seems like a losing battle.

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