When Social Media Becomes A Weapon

July 28, 2009
By Lisa Barone in Social Media

Let me just get this out of the way now: I totally told you so.

Earlier this month we all met Dave Carroll. Dave was a wannabe musician who felt he was wronged by United Airlines and created a series of videos to tell the world about it. And the videos were a hit. You all broke into simultaneous gigglefits at his genius. It was hailed as the best online reputation attack ever, the perfect example of what can happen when big companies decide not to listen to customers.Way to go, Dave!

I wasn’t so convinced. I didn’t like how premeditated the whole thing felt. At the time, I wondered if we were headed down a slippery slope:


Where people were using the new tools of social media to purposefully hurt others:


I was basically mocked, told that I was “lame”, that I should “do some research” and that these kinds of attacks were a sign of consumers taking back power from large brands. All hail consumer advocacy!

Yeah, let’s talk about these “poor consumers” for a moment. Last week, a mommyblogger showed up at BlogHer and demanded that a representative from Crocs either give her a free pair of shoes or she’d use her blog to destroy his reputation. Essentially, she blackmailed him for a pair of $30 shoes. Classy.

And before you all look so stunned that someone, a helpless MOMMYBLOGGER no less, would have the audacity to make that claim, remember that we’ve created this behavior and the environment where this is okay. We, the Internet, actually enjoy these attacks. We created a world where consumers are praised for using social media as a weapon and for making big corporations “pay”. Oh, and don’t go feeling too badly for the Crocs representative either. Because how did he respond to the blackmail attempt? He threatened her right back, quipping he could make her too fearful to ever touch her blog again. And he was so proud of his response to her that he blogged about it.


Everyone stop!

What are we doing? What have we allowed ourselves to become in the world of social media?

As a whole, we have gone apeshit crazy with social media. We’ve shown consumers how to turn great tools like blogs, online video and Twitter streams into weapons of mass brand destruction, regardless of whether or not they have a valid complaint. That David Carroll character that was immortalized on the Web? He was so heartbroken over his guitar that he didn’t even evaluate its condition while still at the airport like he was supposed to. Hell, he was reckless enough to not even check the thing at all. He wasn’t a victim. He was stupid. And yet we reward him in social media.

We give trophies to the stupid.

I don’t know what the answer is. I’m not going to start talking about social media ethics because conversations about ethics are for people who have none (excellent piece by Aaron there). But I will start talking about responsibility.

When you get your drivers license, you have a responsibility not to purposely impale someone with your vehicle. I mean, I’m pretty sure that’s in the fine print somewhere, right? And when you create that WordPress or YouTube account, you should have to (at least mentally) sign off on the fact that you’re not going to use it to hurt someone else for no other purpose than your own amusement. There should be a check box or something that says, “I, angry blogger, promise not to blackmail an innocent man for ugly, plastic shoes”.

But there’s not. And until that clause is added (I won’t hold my breath), it really is up to us to demand better. To recognize a manipulative social media attack when we see one and to NOT support it. Because celebritizing bad behavior only breeds more. And just because a tool exists, doesn’t give you free range to do something horrible with it.

The Dave Carroll situation caused me to raise an eyebrow. It was too staged, too manufactured, and wasn’t he wasn’t near “guiltless” enough. But the masses didn’t care. The more we praise people who use social media as a weapon, the more we’re going to see situations like the one that occurred at BlogHer with two, probably otherwise intelligent people, both threatened to blackmail one another.

Use social media to connect with your customers or the brands you love (or hate).  Use it to spark conversations, to reach people in a new way, to do cool stuff.  Don’t use it for blackmail, extortion or to “get back” at someone.  We have reality TV and divorces for that.

How long until one of your customers starts demands free products with threats of retaliation? How are you going to handle it?

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