Avoiding the social media faux pas trap


By Edwin Yapp

The advent of social media in recent times has ushered in a new wave of communication tools, which has brought both boon and bane to the people who engage it.

While the Internet is replete with heartwarming stories of how social media has been used for good both by corporations and individuals, often bad news and outcomes are what people remember, instead of these feel-good episodes.

From stories of how one party trolls another on Twitter to the ‘unfriending’ of life-long friends on Facebook just because of sharp differing opinions to the brash, embarrassing and thoughtless post when one is angry or intoxicated; social media is truly a double edged sword, which,when used wrongly, could have serious repercussions beyond one’s imagination.

Take for example the case of Justine Sacco, a senior seasoned public relations (PR) professional, who posted a racially-charged tweet before boarding a plane to Africa last December.

Her foolish tweet caused her ultimate downfall, when she discovered that her employer, InterActiveCorp, a New York City-based multinational, had sacked her upon landing 11 hours later at her destination. What was ironic about this case was that despite being a top PR practitioner having years of experienced behind her, she did the unthinkable.

Or for that matter, Anton Casey, who reportedly in January mocked the poor with his tasteless and offensive remarks made about Singaporeans. A wealth fund manager by profession, Casey, who had spent the last 12 years in the island-state and has a Singaporean wife and son, should have known better about how to go about behaving in this island-state.

He and his family have since fled the country after receiving death threats and being fired by his employee and has reportedly gone to Perth, Australia.

On the sidelines, it’s easy to criticise and question the sheer stupidity of such people. But thinking deeper, perhaps the pertinent question to ask is: “Why are all these cases happening in the first place, given that social media isn’t new?’

Jeremy Woolf, senior vice president, global digital and social media practice lead for public relations (PR) firm Text 100, believes that people have been complacent and the universality of social media means people have let their guards down and therefore aren’t checking their behaviours.

“That said, I feel there is a generation coming out of university that has grown up in social media and is aware of the potential pitfalls,” he says. “This generation will perhaps learn from the mistakes of their fathers and show more ingrained caution.”

David Lian, general manager at Zeno Group Malaysia, a digital marketing firm, is of the opinion that bad behaviour offline could easily translate into bad behaviour online.

“Actually, what I think social media has done is to make people more public,” he says. “But I’d also caution that very often, it could be just simply an honest mistake in reading the context of a social media /digital post.”

Lian says that in the world of social media, people need to understand the broader context.

Commenting on the two aforementioned cases, Lian points out that different people can have vastly different readings of a message – especially tweets which are so short – posted on social media.

“In many cases, the context is lost. When we’re posting, we need to remember that not everyone who is our audience – especially if we’re posting on a public platform like Twitter, where it’s not just between friends – is clued in to our context.

“I also think the Sacco case is different from the Casey case. My reading was Sacco meant to depreciate herself, while Casey seemed to understand what he was doing. But, that’s the point. It’s my reading.

“In the context of Sacco, unfortunately, that mistake was a big one given the racial-sensitivities in her country. Likewise, for Casey.”

When asked whether the reactions to the actions of two individuals were extreme and if they constitute cyber-bullying, Text 100’s Woolf believes that because the Internet have has a life, and it will swing from topic to topic, often magnifying mistakes to the point of hysteria.

“It is often a form of collective bullying disguised as righteous indignance,” Woolf said. Lian adds, “Again, I would not generalise that [all] the audience [on social media] are all bullies, but there are always one or two who will colour the crowd.”

Best practices?

Despite these extreme social media faux pas, many communication experts believe that the medium is here to stay. So are there guidelines and tips for people – especially those in business and high profile individuals – to follow?

Jason Juma-Ross, digital intelligence lead for PwC Australia, advised those on social media not to have their personal persona be too far different from that of one’s real-life persona as social media are filled with people with axes to grind.

“You can’t afford to be duplicitous in your character,” he told a recent forum panel organised by PwC Malaysia. “All of us are transparent on social media so you can’t have your social persona and your personal one too far removed from each other.

“A lot of strong public relations disasters have been caused by personalities having very strong differentials between how they project themselves in reality compared with how they do so in social media. It’s important to close the ‘authenticity gap’ between the two.”

Lian says that if he was trying to make a point opposing someone else, he’d pause first and try to understand what that person is really trying to say, noting that sometimes, people’s haste in consuming social media posts leads to misunderstanding.

“Then, I’d write my post as civilly as possible. Despite our opposition, civility should be kept at all costs,” he points out. “We need to learn mutual respect, even if we disagree on issues.”

Woolf adds, “Treat people with respect and don’t hide behind online anonymity. Look for context and don’t react to the latest comment in a discussion. Be prepared to support your case. And don’t feed the trolls.”


Edwin Yapp is a freelance contributor and co-founder of Digital News Asia, a technology news portal that covers the Southeast Asian tech scene.

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