When you post content on social media platforms – an idea, a story, a photo or a video – you are invariably opening yourself up to differing opinions, negative comments and even, unfortunately, trolling or bullying.
The freedom that social media allows us to share and view content is in tandem with the freedom that users have to comment – especially if the post is done on an open platform.
However, this freedom does not extend to cyber bullying and harassment, both of which are unlawful.
So, while we can’t control what people say in their comments on our posts, be mindful that we can control how we respond or react, says Assoc Prof Dr Anasuya Jegathevi Jegathesan, dean of the Faculty of Psychology and Social Sciences, University of Cyberjaya.
“When you put things up on open social media platforms, you are opening yourself up to random comments – negative or positive. So, if you are posting, you must have the mental fortitude to delete, block or ignore comments that may be negative. Just like in real life, some people on social media are just going to be negative and take random potshots – the trolls.
“What you can do is ignore or delete such comments. Learn how to manage these comments. Or, if you can’t, put your content on a private space just for people who you know will support you,” she advises.
Or, disable comments on your posts. But for those whose livelihoods depend on the number of hits, likes or comments on their feed, this may not be a viable option.
“You need to balance the need for comments and engagement with taking care of your own welfare and sense of self,” says Dr Anasuya, “You engage on social media because you want that response and you can’t disable comments because your numbers may go down.
“Know that what you want and what you need are two different things. Comments may be good for your statistics but it may not good for your self esteem.
“So, I would suggest getting someone to go through your comments for you first,” she offers.
If it upsets you, reach for help
Just recently, a 44-year-old lady who was unable to endure the online harassment on her social media feed decided to take her own life. Her family said that the private tutor and mother of three could not take the negative comments and harassment on the videos she posted on her TikTok feed.
Two years ago, a 20-year-old woman in Penang, left a suicide note explaining that she was taking her life because of a viral video that ridiculed her and spread lies about an alleged relationship with a co-worker. She was engaged and about to be married at the time. Not everyone has the ability to handle or ignore negative comments or the harassment of trolls or bullies, says Dr Anasuya.
Those who are unable to brush off the negativity on their feed need to reach out for help, she says, and these comments could be the tipping point for something bigger that is affecting them.
“Some people get affected by negative comments more than others. If you have seven comments on a post, five are positive and two are negative. And if you find yourself focusing on the negative comments only, you need to find support or get help because something else is going on with your sense of self and how you view people’s comments.
“How we respond to comments online is really reflective of how we respond to and deal with people in real life. If you are unable to respond to comments in a effective and beneficial way, it could harm you or even kill you. If you find that these comments overwhelm or bother you, please get help, and please talk to someone,” she says.
For bystanders or friends who see such negative comments on a feed, a nice gesture would be to reach out and ask if the person is ok.
“Send a DM (direct message) and reach out. But be honest and sincere in your comments because if you respond with fake positivity and enthusiasm, the person will not trust you either and your good intentions will be of no use,” she cautions.
Influencer, entrepreneur and social media user Dina Sallehudin says that she’s had her share of haters too and while it is never pleasant, she chooses not to dwell on the negativity that finds its way onto her feed.
“I would be lying if I said I haven’t (been affected by trolls). It’s part and parcel of the job. Not everyone will like you and some people will just go out of their way to hurt or embarrass you for no valid reason. Netizens can be cruel but I learn to take it easy. Sometimes I give them a tongue in cheek reply or just simply reply kindly. I never retaliate or try to start a fight. To me, they are strangers and they don’t really know me. So I try to not spend too much negative energy on something I cannot control,” says the mother of three.
Dina admits that she was saddened by the news of the TikTok user who took her own life as she too has had “my share of mental breakdowns”.
“As a mum of three myself, I know it’s not easy juggling parenthood (with work) and trying to achieve a balance. The tragedy serves as a reminder to myself, and to others, to always be kind to others because we never know what sort of battle someone is fighting. And it is a reminder to be kind to myself, to take care of myself more. We should also set boundaries when it comes to social media,” she says.
Dina’s advice for those who are on social media, particularly those who depend on social media platforms for their livelihoods, is to “take everything with a grain of salt”.
“How we portray ourselves on social media is a reflection of who we truly are in real life. I am very transparent with my followers on what I share. Of course what you see might only be 40% of my reality, but it’s me.
“So my advice is just be who you are, be honest with your followers. And you have to be prepared for whatever that comes after you decide to open up to the world about your life. Take everything with a grain of salt. Try to respond politely, or if there’s too much negativity, or if your followers are just toxic, you can always block them.
“Focus on your family, friends... what they think is much more important that what strangers think of us. And if you feel like it’s getting out of hand, and it affects your mental and emotional health, take a break from social media and get the help you need from professionals,” she says.
Troll, bullies and differing opinions
While differing opinions are to be expected on social media, as in real life, this is quite different from trolling or cyber bullying.
Trolls seek attention... in a negative way.
“A troll believes that he or she is the only one who is right, who knows best and he feels the need to leave a comment. Trolls want engagement, to cause arguments,” says Dr Anasuya.
The best way to deal with a troll is to ignore them, she says.
“If you engage, it becomes a whole ‘session’ because you are never going to change their mind. Just like the troll under the bridge (from the tale Billy Goat Gruff), cyber trolls are just waiting for an opportunity to say something. They don’t care who you are or what you have to say... they are just attention seeking, bored and want to have fun.
“Some may not even believe they are being mean, they’re just spoiling for a debate,” she says.
A troll, she says, is different from a bully as they target random people.
“A bully is different. A bully targets a specific individual... someone who they think is less powerful and is incapable of responding in an effective manner. If you tell a bully to stop and they don’t, this borders on harassment and you can report them,” she says.
Users who leave negative comments on posts, however, aren’t bullies or trolls.
“What is a nasty comment versus a different opinion? Here is the thing about engaging on the internet – you are always going to get people with different opinions who leave comments that are opposing or that you may not like.
“When you have put yourself or your work - a comment, a piece of writing, or art - on an open forum, you are going to get people who don’t like your content. And no one is spared - recently we’ve seen athletes at the Commonwealth games who were trolled. What can you do? Delete and block the users,” she says.