How legislation will stop you complaining on Twitter: #Bashtags and the end of public complaints

Bashtagging is taking a #hashtag - usually a corporate one - on Twitter and using weight of public opinion to against the originators. Harmless fun, right? Not any more. Lawrence Serewicz takes a look at the growing number of cases where companies have fought back against people who try to subvert their message.

McDonalds Bashtag

#McDStories: When A Hashtag Becomes A Bashtag: The hashtag attracted snarky tweets and McDonald's detractors turned it into a #bashtag to share their #McDHorrorStories

A man who really fights for justice must lead a private, not a public, life if he is to survive for even a short time.” —Socrates in Plato’s Apology, 31d–32a

Recently, the BBC had an article that looked at whether people complain differently now that Twitter and other social media allow complaints to be broadcast.  On the surface, it appeared a plausible story. The public can publicize bad customer service or poor quality products easily and, most importantly, effectively. Corporations and companies wish to protect their reputation and retain customers so they respond quickly to these complaints.

Reputational Warfare is here

The days when a lone blogger or tweeter found justice for bad customer service or poor quality products are ending.  Companies are relying on social media to protect themselves and to wage what one consultant calls reputation warfare.  In the past, this type of media management would have been the preserve of the rich and powerful. Today online reputation management companies and software mean that smaller companies and individuals can access these tools.  For smaller companies who cannot afford expensive PR or media management firms like Bell Pottinger they can begin to manage their reputation.


Saying the wrong thing on Twitter can get you into serious trouble

The danger of bashtagging

The approach sounds sensible and reasonable.  After all, firms, in this media age, need to protect themselves and “manage their brand”.  However, what is changing is the ability of these firms, large and small, to use social media to track “problem customers” and to deal with #bashtaggers: users who subvert company branding for the purposes of protest or, more usually, comedy.  In effect, the social media technology allows companies and corporations, large and small, to track those who may offer critical comments (justified or not).

The courts support such an approach

On the surface, this may sound ridiculous.  It may even sound like a strange dystopian dream about the dangers of the internet and technology.  Instead, it is a reality. The courts are supporting it more and more frequently. The courts are becoming sensitive and supportive of organisations wanting to take into account critical comments from prospective customers, clients, or observers.

In the UK the first tier tribunal (information rights) ruled that the Independent Complaints Commission (IPPC) could consider critical comments from a frequent requester when declaring their requests vexatious.  They could take into account negative comments when dealing with the applicant.  What this means is that if someone makes a critical comment or one that could be potentially seen as “hostile”, then it can be taken into account and used as a basis for declaring the person’s request “vexatious”.  In effect, what you say in any forum can be used against you.  One wonders whether anyone will complain again in public given that it can be potentially used against you.

In South Tyneside, the Council has pursued the identity of an anonymous blogger “Mr. Monkey” through Twitter accounts. The Council sought to identify an anonymous blogger who was posting potentially libelous statements about Councillors and senior officers.  As part of the case, they issued a court order for Twitter to disclose user details for specific accounts. The case is still ongoing, after three years, without the blogger’s identity being revealed.

Facebook logo

Talking about your company on Facebook could cost you your job

Your friends can and will be held against you

Reputation management and reputation warfare is more than just being fired for using Facebook. Companies are tracking current and future employee social networking profiles. Firms are using acceptable use policies (AUPs) to protect themselves from their employees.  They can then use the AUP as a defence against potential litigation based on the behaviour of their employees.

What this should not be confused with is brand hijacking.  If someone hijacks their brand, with a spoof account or an impersonation, they are entitled to respond to protect their investment.  The brand management becomes reputation management and that in turn becomes reputation warfare.  The corporation will defend itself and its property.

The tools and techniques to track and nurture followers can be used to track and monitor critics.  The technology can be used for either purpose. How it is used will depend on the intent. What most social media users do not realize is  how easily and quickly a government, let alone a firm, can legally (or illegally)  drill into their identity, online or offline and find out whether you are acceptable, a threat, a nuisance, or someone that needs watching.

In the past, one could easily assume that only governments had the technology to monitor the web. Today, companies have the resources and the incentives to do exactly that.  The United States Government is already monitoring web traffic for political dissent. Companies seeking to protect the reputations and brands, both of which can be valuable commodities, can use the same tools and techniques.

New York skyline

New York have recently introduced legislation to control NY websites. Pic by Ben Fredericson

Future legislation or court cases are coming to stop you complaining

Legislation has been proposed in New York state government to stop unidentified users from posting content to NY based websites.  Even without the legislation regarding anonymous comments, companies may fight a complaint in the courts.  One would consider Apple to be a customer friendly organisation given the ethos that Steven Jobs sought to instil in the company. Yet, this example shows that they were willing to spend more money fighting the complaint than fixing the problem. If you are successful in your complaint or embarrass the company, their goal will be to move you to a different channel.  Recent media advice is to stop engaging publicly and move the damaging conversation “offline”.

Social media has the power to do good things.  Yet, that same power can be used to control, coerce, and contain critics.  Thus, we may be seeing the beginning of the end of public complaints or #bashtags to fight for justice, social or economic, as corporations use social media and the legal system to stifle critics.  By the same measure, governments can use the same tools and techniques to stifle dissent.

The next time you use a bashtag be aware that it may be used against you at work, in court, or the next time you try to book a hotel.