If genetics professor David Smith happens to mention, during a seemingly private office-hours chat with a student, that there will be questions about algae on the midterm exam, the information instantly goes viral.
It doesn't take long before he is inundated with e-mails from other Western University students who have "heard that the midterm is going to be focused on algae" Could he elaborate?
"Oh my God, everything you say goes to everybody immediately, you have to be so careful," said Prof. Smith, who, at 35, grew up in the digital age.
He is well aware of the benefits of Internet access to a wealth of information, the ease of conveying new scientific ideas through blogs (he is a self-confessed "blogaholic"), and the intellectual stimulation of collaborating with peers on professional networking sites. Still, Prof. Smith said in an interview, he is struggling to navigate the complexities of teaching in the age of social media. If he is slow to respond to a student's e-mail, citing time pressures, that student might have spotted his personal Twitter post about a particularly satisfying training run and note, "well you couldn't have been that busy."
In addition to the fact that his comments in the lecture hall, or during office hours, "are being tweeted, Facebooked and blogged about in real time," he is also being rated, through anonymous posts, on online sites such as Rate My Professors. Although, in Prof. Smith's case, the comments tend to be generally positive – he gets a lot of "awesomes" – they can be particularly derogatory after exam time. "More and more of our public, private and professional lives are migrating online. There is little doubt that social media will infiltrate every aspect of our day-to-day existence. If used effectively, online tools are revolutionary for communicating and stimulating important conversations. They can also be a distraction, and the messages they broadcast are too often abusive and toxic. As a person and a teacher, I will try to embrace these changes, but I'm worried that an endless stream of online abuse and vitriol will overshadow any positive changes," Prof. Smith wrote in a recent article published by University Affairs magazine.
Professors and doctors, especially, are singled out for judgment in online ratings sites, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada noted in its 2016 discussion paper, Online Reputation: What are They Saying About Me? But professors and doctors are not the only ones stung by negative online comments or misinformation posted about them by others.
An arbitrator's decision, released in Ontario last year, found that employees of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) had been subjected to "vulgar, offensive, abusive, racist, homophobic [and] sexist" comments posted on the TTC's own customer service Twitter platform. The employer had failed to protect them from harassment, arbitrator Robert Howe said in ruling on a grievance filed by the employees' union in 2013.
The TTC Twitter account remains active, as a useful social-media vehicle for conveying service information and engaging with customers, but the discourse now is far more civil.
The federal privacy commission aims to publish a position paper later this year on possible technical, policy or legal solutions that could help reduce the reputational risks people face when they go online. "Once a reputation has been tarnished by negative content, it is difficult to rehabilitate," the privacy commission wrote.
However, any remedies aimed at protecting online privacy and reputation must be balanced with other societal values such as freedom of expression and public interest, the commission was told by people and organizations responding to its discussion paper.
With so many organizations now using social-media platforms to communicate and invite feedback from customers, last year's TTC arbitration decision "provoked a discussion within the labour law community" about the obligation of employers to protect their employees from online harassment related to their work, said David Doorey, a professor of labour and employment law at York University.
"Some employers are now preparing social-media policies that describe how the company will deal with and respond to online abuse of its staff. That's a positive development," Prof. Doorey said. Human-rights tribunals have also stepped in to investigate discriminatory social media comments about co-workers, he said.
In another development, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada "has very recently received two complaints involving the issue of professional rating sites," a spokeswoman said. While she could not provide details because of confidentiality concerns, "we are beginning to look at these."
At Western, Prof. Smith says his door is always open during Friday-afternoon office hours, although he has come to realize that "the self-effacing student sitting on the couch beside my desk, is not typing notes – she is posting live updates to a Facebook group dedicated to my course."