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Adulting 101: Having a public-facing job made me less active on social media, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing

SINGAPORE — When I was still a university student, I had a habit of freely sharing various thoughts and opinions online.

Adulthood is an invigorating stage of life as young people join the workforce, take on more responsibilities and set their sights on the future. But its many facets — from managing finances and buying a home to achieving work-life balance — can be overwhelming.

In this series, TODAY’s journalists help young Singaporeans navigate this stage of their lives and learn something themselves in the process.

SINGAPORE — When I was still a university student, I had a habit of freely sharing various thoughts and opinions online.

It was common back then for me to craft lengthy messages for Facebook posts or to comment on other people's posts. I even started a blog to talk about various matters, from personal experiences to youth-related issues.

At the time I saw little risk in what I was doing. I was not particularly radical in my views and I was not trying to provoke anyone with what I was writing.

Besides, many of my peers were doing the same thing, voicing their opinions online on controversial issues such as race, sexual orientation and politics.

This changed when I embarked on my first full-time job.

When I joined TODAY as a journalist in July 2019 after graduating, one of the first things that was made clear to me was that whatever I post on my social media account could be construed as views that represent my company’s.

Moreover, as journalists, our roles are public-facing, with our names beside our articles and our photos sometimes featured as well.

I thus became more mindful of what I was saying on social media. I stopped posting things on my blog and avoided commenting on or sharing material related to controversial topics.

I also observed that many of my friends who used to share their thoughts liberally on social media had also gone quiet — save the occasional pet photo — after securing full-time jobs in various industries.

Then last year, I found myself revisiting my blog and thinking of how my old posts could land me in hot water should they be taken out of context.

There have been several incidents of high-profile individuals who have been “cancelled” due to their past social media posts resurfacing.

In 2019, Singapore actor Tosh Zhang, who starred in the series of Ah Boys to Men movies, had to apologise for his old homophobic tweets. He eventually stepped down as an ambassador for Pink Dot, a campaign that aims to raise awareness of issues that impact the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.

Last year, Singaporean blogger and influencer Wendy Cheng, known as Xiaxue, had a police report made against her in relation to her old tweets that were purportedly intended to wound religious or racial feelings and constituted harassment against minorities.

Seeing this, as well as other similar incidents, led me to decide to quietly take down my blog.

Should my posts unintentionally court controversy, the fallout may not be fair to me, whose opinion has likely changed over the years, and even less so to my company.

However, scrolling through the social media accounts of journalists from overseas, such as New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz and Insider reporter Kat Tenbarge, it appears that they had no qualms in freely sharing their opinions.

Here, there do not seem to be many practising journalists who are as outspoken on social media.

This is perhaps reflective of the culture of self-expression here, where people in general — not just journalists — are more careful with what they say online.

At the same time, I could not help but feel that my reticence online was an act of self-censorship. Had I overreacted?

'KNOW WHAT YOU ARE SAYING'

I reached out to Associate Professor Ben Leong from the School of Computing at the National University of Singapore (NUS) for his thoughts on the matter. He is well-known for giving his advice to students on anonymous confessions page NUSWhispers.

His advice was simple: People who post their views online had better know what they are saying.

“A lot of people have no idea what they are talking about,” he said.

He added that even when one is able to “write well enough”, there is still the possibility that people who hold opposing views get offended and thus the risk of matters getting ugly.

To post about controversial topics frequently without getting into trouble with one’s employer is a perk that comes with seniority, he said.

Assoc Prof Leong said that his senior position as a tenured professor at NUS gives him more confidence to share his views online, but even then, he is “very careful and precise” in what he writes.

Mr Lars Voedisch, managing director at public relations and social media consultancy PRecious Communications, said that whenever one decides to post something online, it is wise to visualise the post “on a billboard facing Nicoll Highway”.

“It stays there forever, so you have a responsibility to make sure that what you put out there, you still want to see it out there tomorrow.”

This should be so, even for temporary posts such as Instagram stories, which only stay up for 24 hours.

“Posts that automatically disappear have an advantage, but still, somebody might screenshot it, even in close groups,” he said. “So, be very clear on your privacy settings.”

At the same time, Mr Voedisch said that when something is already posted, it is important not to overreact at the first sign of trouble.

“Has the post really gone viral if two people leave a snarky comment? If you get trolled, you will just add oil to the fire if you engage with them,” he added.

RIGHT TO TERMINATE WORKER OVER A POST

Getting into trouble with online users baying for blood is one thing, but what about your employer?

Career coach Adrian Choo, who is chief executive officer of Career Agility International, said that potential employers may at times look through a candidate’s social media posts during the hiring process.

“If (the hirers) see things they don’t like or are not comfortable with, they may not offer you the job,” he said. 

“Even though your social media account belongs to you, your opinions may be construed as opinions of the employer, like it or not.”

The rule is: If in doubt, don’t put it out.

Mr Choo said. “Don’t expect that by posting online, there will be reasonable discussion… there will always be a certain segment of the public that is not reasonable.”

From a legal standpoint, employers have the right to terminate employees if they post something that goes viral for the wrong reasons.

Mr Chooi Jing Yen, a partner at law firm Eugene Thuraisingam LLP, said: “If an employer wants to fire you because of your (social media) post, as long as they give you notice, they can terminate you for whatever reason.

“That’s not something you have legal protection against.”

WITH GREAT POWER COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY

Personally, I have always enjoyed generating discourse and, in doing so, find out how others feel about a certain topic.

I was used to expressing my own opinion in the past, and friends and even strangers have left comments and thoughts on what I’ve said.

Things have changed now, but not necessarily in a bad way.

With my present job, I am now an avenue for others to express their views, while also creating public discourse.

I have seen some news reports that I have spent weeks chasing generate healthy discussions on various social media platforms. Some readers have even emailed me to thank me for highlighting a certain issue.

Sure, it is not the same as expressing myself, but with the added responsibility as a journalist, it is heartening to know that I can still chase the same joy as I did as a carefree university student.

ABOUT THE WRITER:

Justin Ong is a journalist at TODAY, where he covers manpower, housing, finance and sports.

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