Are You Sure You Want To Type That? When To STFU On Social Media

Denise Curtin looks at why it's important to think before you tweet and remember that your words can come back to bite you.

“You know the type, loud as a motorbike but wouldn’t bust a grape in a fruit fight.” I think Jay Z put it perfectly when he rapped these words in his 2003 track 99 Problems. Little did he know then that when social media would blow up, his words would perfectly sum up the millions of keyboard warriors that take to the internet every single day.

In the online world, everyone is a author and a publisher of their own words. Each user has the ability to say what they want, when they want and vocalise their thoughts on a global stage. And although that’s all well and good, when used incorrectly, social media also gives people the freedom to post offensive or inflammatory content, troll other users and basically, cause a lot of harm.

Long from the era of fairytales and legends, trolls these days don’t live under a bridge or in a storybook, they live online and they’re more common than they are rare. But what happens when you’re not an avid troll? What happens when you think you’re just simply joining the conversation online, but you get carried away and end up saying something inaccurate or derogatory? Is the fact you don’t “usually” post comments like that going to save you from the words you just published?

As global protests calling for racial justice continue, the power of words on social media has come into the spotlight yet again. Over the past number of weeks, many celebrities have been called out and held accountable for their past remarks and racist comments online. Just recently, Teen Mom star Taylor Selfridge was let go from the MTV reality TV show after racist tweets sent from her account back in 2012 resurfaced. Screenshots of the tweets appeared online and MTV made the decision to pull Taylor’s baby special from the programming schedule and cut ties with the star. Taylor later addressed her departure by apologising for her actions and the hurt caused in a statement. She then suspended her account. In contrast to Taylor, Star Wars actor John Boyega called out one user on Twitter who accused him of “jumping on the bandwagon” when he posted in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Explaining that the user doesn’t “know a thing about me”, the British-Nigerian actor felt it was important to defend himself and the inaccurate comments made online. One false accusation or fake statement that could hinder John Boyega’s career and that Twitter user could of had a legal case on his hands. It can happen that easily. Being behind a keyboard and a screen doesn’t protect you from saying nasty and defamatory things online and in today’s climate, it has never been more evident.

With cancel culture rife, it’s not just celebrities that need to watch what they say online. Yes, thousands of followers and a verified tick might put you at a higher risk of being called out, but any tweet can go viral these days and retweeting something without reading it properly, joining a conversation without educating yourself first or publishing something nasty out of spite and anger could land you in a lot of trouble.

“You don’t have to be famous to care about your reputation” says Digital Expert and Media Commentator Dr Laura Toogood. “You should be caring about your digital footprint for lots of reasons including security, safety, but also things like keeping your career in mind. It’s very common place now for employers to be doing quite a lot of due diligence and taking a look at people’s social media presence and digital footprint to see whether or not they fit with the ethos of their company,” explains Laura.

Working in the area of digital communications and social media for over a decade, Laura gives guidance to clients and businesses on managing their online profiles. As one of her number one rules on social media, Laura says “would you shout it on the street? If you would and you’re sort of happy to stand by that statement or opinion and have it stick with you, then fine. But if you’re not and you’re thinking ‘well maybe I shouldn’t say that’ or ‘I shouldn’t get involved in that debate’ then it’s probably important to err on the side of caution because of the issue with legacy of information and it staying in your digital footprint.”

And although everyone has the right to freedom of speech on social media, to share their views, and stand up for what they believe in, it still has to be within reason. It must respect the privacy of others and not wrongfully harm anyone else’s name or reputation. Stating you’ve freedom to express what you wish won’t always save you when what you’re saying is inaccurate or slanderous.

Social media is a powerful tool and when used correctly, it connects users and forms a global community. It helps voices to be heard, provides real-time news and keeps people informed. But we’re all aware of its wonders and just how addictive it can be, it’s making sure that the way we act online is in line with how we’d like to be perceived IRL that’s important.

Because we’ve been living with social media for quite a while now, Laura suggests everyone should check back on their past interactions online. Just because a tweet or an Instagram post was published in 2013 doesn’t mean it can’t come back to bite you.

“Perhaps what you posted on social media 10 years ago doesn’t reflect the person that you are today, it doesn’t matter. If old information is easy to find, people will form an opinion on the basis of what you posted, despite when you clicked publish,” explains Laura.

Keeping that in mind, it’s important to remember that any tweet or any comment has the ability to flair up in an instant. If you’re going to be active in an online discussion, you have to take responsibly for what you’re posting because it can leave a permanent information trail out there that can be very public and surprisingly damaging.

Do’s and Don’ts of staying smart online  

Do read an entire article or post before commenting and resharing. A retweet counts as you publishing something again, so make sure what your sharing isn’t defamatory. 

Do post about matters and issues that affect you, give your opinion, but do so while remaining honest and speaking from fact. 

Do think about the person on the other side of the screen. Is this something you’d say to them face to face? Would you stand by this comment in a legal case? 

Don’t forget that when you’re commenting underneath someone’s post or a news story, you’re still publishing your words. 

Don’t mix up emotions with facts. Although it’s easy to bang out a post or comment in rage, anger is often associated with impatience, so take a minute to cool down before you respond with something you might regret. 

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