Ranting online equals big trouble

Several studies have identified social media personality types and across all these studies one common personality type that has emerged is the "ranter".

Ranters are described as "highly opinionated online", "soapbox" and "very loud online", posting remarks and comments about virtually anything they encounter at the office, on the street or at home.

While some ranting can be harmless and go unnoticed, there are those whose ranting is quite harsh, tactless and offensive.

Take for instance the recent incident where a local well-established hair salon was put in a bad light when a customer went on a tirade on Facebook about her bad experience following a visit to one of its outlets.

Her Facebook page to boycott the salon drew more attention when the owners responded to the allegations.

Ranting on social media seems to be a norm these days and, to a certain extent, an accepted culture among netizens, said Choo Mei Sze, the founder of a social media marketing firm.

The idea that they can earn a reputation by tarnishing the image of someone or something, leads them on and they do not bother whether using aggression may backfire on them, she said.

"Social media does make it easy for individuals to post whatever they feel about anything at any given time and the reach is fast and wide. One post made here in Malaysia can quickly reach many in other parts of the world.

"Some users love the idea of becoming famous on social media. They get a sense of gratification when their post gets lots of views, re-tweets or likes, and this encourages them to criticise, be it about products and services, or direct their anger at others."

Choo, who holds a master's degree in developmental psychology, said these ranters fail to realise that bosses, colleagues, business partners, head hunters, potential employers and even the authorities can view their virtual personas as a reflection of their true self (in the real world).

"They feel they can express themselves more freely and that there are no societal restrictions when it comes to the online world.

"These self-absorbed people seem unconcerned that their impulsive and vile ranting can lead them into trouble, if not immediately, in the future."

The number of cases of social media users in Malaysia getting onto the wrong side of the law over their virtual screaming may be small but everyone should take stock of what's happening around the world, said Choo.

In Britain, for instance, hundreds of people are prosecuted yearly for posts, tweets and emails deemed offensive, indecent and threatening and the number is growing as more get on cyberspace.

Choo cautioned that the era where one can remain anonymous online is ending.

"The truth is you are no longer faceless on social media. Though virtual, it is there for everyone to see, and what you say may haunt you, if not today, in years to come."

There's a false sense of protection and anonymity when users go behind platforms like Twitter and Facebook to complain, grumble, nitpick and criticise, said Dr Adrian Budiman, a senior lecturer at the School of Multimedia Technology and Communications at Universiti Utara Malaysia.

"One of the biggest mistakes a person can make is to assume that he or she is safe and protected by anonymity when online.

"In today's digital domain, all interactions can easily be traced if necessary unless stringent measures are taken.

"What makes it more worrisome is that all of our interactions are permanent and cannot easily be erased.

"There are cases, where careless offhand remarks may result in losing a potential job or even being taken to court on civil or criminal charges."

The notion of using a non-provocative and impersonal medium which has a far-reaching audience will always remain attractive, he said.

"There will always be the polite, well-mannered individuals as well as the trolls, people who deliberately attempt to upset others.

People are generally more expressive and in some cases more honest when they don't need to assume socially acceptable roles and when they can hide behind anonymity.

"They think they can be offensive and rude without having to face future consequences.

"In some cases, they experiment with different personalities to see which one will be accepted by the community.

"If one doesn't work, it can be easily abandoned without any serious consequences."

The show of indignation on social media, said Dr Faizal Kasmani, deputy director of Strategic Communications Centre, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia, is also encouraged by the support from the circle of friends in the network.

"On social networks, the tendency is for people who share a common interest or viewpoint to come together. And it is a norm for the network of friends to support any outbursts and encourage each other."

However, Faizal said the show of anger over social media platforms is not new.

The difference now is that it has become increasingly visible as society becomes more connected.

"Once blogs and online forums were popular platforms for people to huff and puff in anger and they were really brazen because they could hide behind a fake identity and not worry about the repercussions.

"But the situation has changed now with the likes of Facebook and Twitter -- you are even more visible due to the connection that you have with your friends or followers.

"Also today, whatever happens online is followed closely by the media. So, when something goes viral online, it is quickly picked up."

Faizal's research on Twitter usage among Malaysians during the last general election showed that there are six categories of communication.

Users tend to use social media to share information, to complain or give opinions, to post random statements, to tell people what they are doing, to ask questions and to share anecdotes about themselves or others.

"We found a small number of overtly racist posts but luckily that did not define the conversation during that period.

"People have a tendency to say whatever they want even if it is offensive.

"This becomes a problem especially in a multiracial society like Malaysia.

"No doubt social media is an effective platform for communication and self-expression but we've got to exercise some self-restraint and be tactful.

"We have to remember that it is an open platform and everyone can use it to their own advantage."