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How to avoid - or come back from - being cancelled online

Image: @chloebailey/Instagram
Image: @chloebailey/Instagram

Fans cancel celebrities, employees face disciplinary hearings, and entrepreneurs lose their trading licenses, all because of social media posts. Managing director of Open CircleSolutions Anton Koekemoer’s here to help you avoid landing in hot water.

With the amount of time we're spending online due to the lockdown, we might find ourselves browsing mindlessly through our social media feeds as we try to navigate these uncertain times. Anton Koekemoer says that without being able to see co-workers, friends and family in person, many people are using social media as a way to stay connected. “A constant stream of updates, fake news and conspiracy theories has caused a growing sense of panic, confusion and frustration,” he says. “Many people are using social media to stay informed and to voice their feelings (whether positive or negative).” Consider his responses to these questions before you post your next status on social media.

Glamour: What measures can we take to self-regulate?

Anton Koekemoer: The most important thing is, ironically, one of the hardest to do. Check your sources before you post anything. Even before the lockdown, people were quick to share information they came across online without stopping to check whether it was true. Emotions play a role in social media because people tend to react before they think. Typically, they scan headlines without clicking through to the content that’s been shared. Stopping to check sources is the best way to self-regulate. Setting aside time to log on to social media, rather than staying on it all day, is also important, as is turning off push notifications. Thinking before you comment is another vital step.

As an employee or person of influence, what should you consider before posting or responding to comments online?

Employees must be aware that they’re not only representing their views but those of the company that employs them too. Those with linked employment should be very careful about what they post. Commenters click through to profiles and, in some cases, people have been ‘reported’ to their employers for inflammatory comments. If influencers allow their emotions to get the better of them, they could alienate their followers or go viral for all the wrong reasons.

Do you think social media gives people a false sense of security?

Definitely. Before social media, commenters and posters were able to use aliases, which allowed them to post, share and comment on things anonymously. Today, the majority of social media users are required to use their real names. Many still assume that they can get away with saying whatever they like without consequences, but that’s not true. Once something’s on the internet, it’s there forever. Even deleting your posts or comments won’t help if people have already taken screenshots of them.

Is social media a reflection of the mental state of our country at the moment?

In many ways, it is. But in other ways, it isn’t. Sadly, it’s usually the more vocal members of our community who spread false news, and angry, misguided or inflammatory posts. This creates the illusion that the majority of South Africans feel the same way. But in reality, most of us want to get through this difficult time without resorting to hateful comments and negativity.

How can we positively use social media during the pandemic?

By following and sharing official sources of information. You could support and share information about food drives, community upliftment programs, news that shows how the lockdown’s helping to flatten the curve, posts designed to provide solutions rather than complain and find other ways to help.

If you find yourself trending for negative reasons, what’s the best way to handle it?

Apologise as quickly as possible. Nothing goes viral as fast as a negative post – especially when it comes to brand fails. Letting things get to the point where hundreds of people, or even thousands, have shared your post, and just as many have commented on it, will make matters worse. Being defensive won’t help either. Never delete an offending post. Rather be upfront about it, admit you made a mistake and apologise.

Once your reputation’s tarnished online, is it possible to come back?

AK: Even the biggest scandal will die down, usually when the next shocking item of news goes viral. If you handle the issue quickly and professionally, it’ll be much easier to move on. Learning from your mistakes is essential, as is showing your followers that you’re doing everything in your power to prevent them from happening again.

What are the laws on fake news?

If you spread fake news during the Covid-19 crisis in South Africa, your punishment could include fines and/or jail time, criminal charges and a criminal record.

How do you drive engagement?

Many people assume that numbers trump content. Every brand and individual wants to go viral, but few succeed. Rather than focusing on the numbers, look at how you can create posts that genuinely encourage interaction and engagement. Sharing and creating content that readers and your target audience consider valuable is far more important than content that goes viral for a short while, only for consumers to forget about it just as swiftly.

Your thoughts on social media policy vs freedom of expression?

Freedom of expression applies to those posting in their capacity, but companies still have the right to set policies. As an employee, you’re a representative of the company you work for, especially if you show your place of work on your profile.

How do you navigate the digital space responsibly?

It’s all about using your common sense. If you wouldn’t say it in public, then it’s probably not a good idea to say it online. If there’s even a slight chance that a post or comment might be construed as offensive, incorrect, inflammatory or misleading, err on the side of caution: don’t share it.

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