It is not all fair for a public figure on social media

Dr Mohd Faizal Kasmani

It is not easy to be a public figure on social media. One opinion that doesn’t go well within the current public discourse and you’ll be trending, albeit infamously, vilified by the netizens. That could describe what happened to the fashion entrepreneurs and social media influencer Vivy Yusof recently, when she was said to comment upon the 250 billion COVID-19 economic stimulus plan from the Malaysian government, among other things, for not helping Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) much. This was further compounded by an exchange with a self-made entrepreneur when she allegedly sort of agreed with her comment that “the poor will become richer during Covid-19 and jobless after…businesses like us are trying to survive”.

And the netizens went ballistic, retweeting and commenting upon her opinion. One described how she “lacked empathy” and was “selfish”, while others went further asking her to resign from UiTM Board Of Directors. Of course, she apologised quickly after that and deleted her posts.

She is surely entitled to her opinion, and her argument could be valid. As the owner of an SME, she could represent the discourse among her peers. Practically, she should not be vilified that much for giving her opinion like any other netizens. Alas, she is a public figure. As a public figure, she has an additional onus to be concerned and sensitive to the common sense opinion, not just within her “privileged” circles, as described by one netizen.

I believe that Vivy Yusof, whom many Malaysians admired, would not have opined such things in a face-to-face conversation with her fans, who are understood to support and to be benefitting from the stimulus plan. But that is the trap of social media, which is supposed to be democratic and open. As a social media user, you have to be mindful of these phenomena known as the online disinhibition effect, which can be described as the loosening of social restrictions, and inhibitions that are normally present in face-to-face interactions that takes place in interactions on the Internet.

Another related concept in the academic world, that could describe the situation, is context collapsed. In simple terms, when we communicate digitally, we often forget the context; with whom we are communicating, what our audiences are doing when we are relaying our opinion, and other situational cues. The digital environment, problematises access to the immediate context, and we tend to forget that our opinion would not go down well with a large segment of society.

As a public figure, Vivy Yusof cannot run from such situations, and the same goes to many politicians and public figures in Malaysia, who have had foot-in-mouth moments. As an academic, I often cringe at my current and past Twitter posts and often delete them when I realise that I am giving too much of an opinion. I am not a public figure, but I still have to be cognizant of the fact that I am representing my institution that I work with, and I am responsible towards my students, not just within my circles.

But Vivy Yusof does not need to worry. It is easy to forgive and forget in the Internet sphere. The trending fad is fleeting. Today you may be vilified, but with the right move, at the right time, you’ll be in vogue again – pun intended.

Until then, everyone, not only public figures, need to be mindful of social media. Social media posts are not only mightier than the sword, but they are double-edged swords, that may give you trouble later.


Dr Mohd Faizal Kasmani is an Associate Professor at the New Media Programme, Faculty of Leadership and Management, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia.