Using paid promotion online to spread negativity – customers vs. brands and people vs. people

UPDATE February 17, 2016: I suppose this happening in India too now! Here are 2 documented cases of people ranting about brands (owing to poor/false customer service promises) like Airtel and Jet Airways. Examples source: Shrinivas SG and Abhishek Madan.

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I noticed an interesting topic of debate in Sanjay Mehta’s Facebook timeline.

The specific question he was asking centered around social networking platforms allowing people (disgruntled customers, in particular) to advertise their rants and give them wider reach. He also adds, ‘Don’t think you can go and buy anti-brand ads on Facebook or Google that easily? Can cause havoc otherwise…’

The topic of discussion is of course about the customer of British Airways who used paid promotion on Twitter to get more visibility to his anti-BA grievance.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with a customer taking a paid spot to air his grievances.

Customers are already airing their grievance on Twitter, Facebook and any other channel where they can get some visibility without paying for it. Paying for reach just adds more visibility – I don’t see anything dramatically changing here.

As for platforms like Twitter or Facebook not allowing customers to air negative views (not necessarily grievances alone, can even be a negative opinion), I don’t see why they would bar these ads.

They are platforms, after all. The platform’s paid tools are available to anyone who pays. If a toothpaste brand can use the platform to claim 130% better germ protection citing some obscure research done with 250 people and promote it aggressively by paying for it on Facebook, why can’t a customer use paid tools to share his not-so-charitable opinion of a brand of airline?

If the airline is aggreived by that act, the onus would be on it to sue the person and ask him to back it up with proof. Or, show potential income that they missed due to that customer’s paid effort in maligning (from the brand’s point of view) the brand and sue on different grounds, like slander, perhaps.

It is not as if it doesn’t happen already. There are blog posts offering not-so-charitable opinions on many brands, from both customers and mere onlookers. Not just blog posts, but also tweets and Facebook posts. If Twitter and Facebook don’t stop these posts, why would they stop paid efforts?

Because the brands may stop advertising with the platforms if they notice them playing on both sides?

The question then is, are they platforms, or are they media vehicles?

This question has plagued media companies for many years – can they write a negative editorial piece of a brand that advertises with them and risk losing that money? To some extent, the division between editorial and marketing was used to answer this question and it has always been a thin, grey line. And it has become worse with the advent of publications like The Times of India, no doubt.

But platforms like Twitter and Facebook cannot use a editorial vs. marketing argument at all since they are not media companies and they simply don’t have an editorial point of view at all.

Ok, forget editorial content – let’s take user level content. Can I take out a print advertisement in a newspaper offering my bad experience with a brand? If I have the money to do so, I guess I can. From the newspaper’s point of view, I’m just another advertiser. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook have reduced the amount of money one needs to spend, unlike print media, but the commensurate visibility is also directly proportional, if you remove the viral element of how easy it can spread if shared by the right people.

Let me add another twist to this – forget brand-specific content (grievance or opinions) by customers… how about an individual using paid tools to spread his negative opinion about another individual?

Here is Lalit Modi using Twitter’s Promoted Tweets to spread his point of view (not charitable at all, understandably) about BCCI head N.Srinivasan!

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(Thanks to @nikhilnarayanan and @raghuveer_v for pointing me out to this update from Modi!)

This is perhaps the first documented case of one individual’s opinion on another individual being promoted. Modi already has 600,000+ followers, but still chose to promote his opinion using Twitter’s paid option. I’m not including possible use of promoted tweets during the US election given the party agenda (as against individual agenda) or even ongoing efforts in India by the major parties using promoted tweets (if at all), for the same party agenda reason.

I wonder what Srini will do now. I see this as no different from an interview in a mainstream media, given sufficient push by the promoted tweet option, so one possible option is a libel case in case Srini feels he’s being targeted without the right facts.

Modi also seems to be using another Twitter tool to make this into a campaign of sorts – a hashtag called #ComeCleanSrini! If the hashtag trends, a large part of the credit may go to the fact that Modi used the paid promotion option.

Now, what can platforms like Google, Facebook or Twitter do about this new trend? The best is to use the age-old argument of safe harbor, mostly used in copyright claims.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) offers a safe harbor to service providers under Section 512(c). Under this act, service providers are not liable so long as,

1. they do not have actual knowledge that the material or an activity using the material on the system
or network is infringing;
2. in the absence of such actual knowledge, is not aware of facts or circumstances from which
infringing activity is apparent;
3. upon obtaining such knowledge or awareness, acts expeditiously to remove, or disable access to,
the material;
4. they do not receive a financial benefit directly attributable to the infringing activity, in a case in
which the service provider has the right and ability to control such activity;
5. upon notification of claimed infringement as described in paragraph (3), responds expeditiously
to remove, or disable access to, the material that is claimed to be infringing or to be the subject of
infringing activity; and
6. they have designated an agent to receive notifications of claimed infringement.

Can this framework be applied to social networks in case opinions are being promoted using paid tools?

If brands can pay and promote select positive testimonials, why can’t customers do the reverse? The second part of that question is, would the networks allow that, in the face of losing advertising income from brands?

If you notice the 4th point under DMCA safe harbor, it adds receiving financial benefit into the equation. In case of paid promotion of opinions, the network gets a financial benefit, but unlike copyright, it is under no obligation to verify the contents of an advertisement unless the platform has explicitly listed rules pertaining to it.

Let’s check Google’s advertising policies. Google has its advertising policies covered under 69 topics. The first one happens to be ‘Discrimination and violence” and that is the only policy that has a mild bearing on the topic I’m writing here. It says,

Google AdWords doesn’t allow the promotion of “discrimination” or violent concepts, such as the following:

Ad text advocating against an organisation, person or group of people

Does it cover negative opinion against brands? I doubt it – going by the examples listed in that page.

What about Facebook?

I see just this as a loophole that advertisers may use,

Ads may not insult, attack, harass, bully, threaten, demean or impersonate others.

Twitter? Nope, I don’t see any rule that could be used by the platform to stop a customer or even a blogger from promoting negative views or experiences.

After this British Airways experience, will these networks make a change to their advertising policy? We will have to wait and watch!

PS: Here is Sanjay Mehta, adding a lot more context to this topic, from his perspective.

[Note: I have updated this post with
a. Sanjay’s perspective since his Facebook update inspired this post and
b. Beyond a customer using paid social media tools to promote either his/her grievance or negative opinion, an example of an individual using social media paid tools to spread his opinion about another individual – in this case, Lalit Modi using Promoted Tweets against N.Srinivasan]

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  • Sanjay Mehta

    Ahh.. you put together a post around this 🙂
    I had been busy today, but have a point of view. To an extent, you misunderstood the point I was making.. but I will share my views tomorrow. Too late at night now 🙂

    • Look forward to your perspective. I merely went by your initial post and the comments thereafter.

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  • kuppurao

    I didn’t read the full post – because you lost me when you said “it must be up to BA to sue the customer, if it was rubbish and not based on facts”. Naive question – why should BA be able to do it? After all, I can say whatever I want (true or false) and pay twitter to make sure lot of people see it.

    If I have enough money, I can now buy a full-page of a newspaper and say nonsense things – as far as the newspaper is concerned, it is revenue and as for me, it is freedom of speech.

    • Errr, you really meant that? You don’t remember Vodafone suing a customer for spreading the word about their poor customer service… for defamation? If BA finds that what the customer has tweeted and promoted is categorically false, why can’t they sue for defamation? There is precedence. You paying the media is very different from what the brand could do to you, if they want to rightfully protect their reputation.

      • kuppurao

        I must be living in a different world. Last I checked, nothing – nothing can interfere with freedom of speech. Of course, I can be wrong – in which case, BA is fully entitled me troll me back, or respond to it more formally (press note, website message etc..) – but can they sue me? Really?

        Curious: What happened to the case where Vodafone sued a customer?

        • Same Vodafone case.

          What I’m point to is 2 things – one, freedom of speech comes with its own set of responsibilities. And if you use it to fib… against someone or some brand, the other party *could* go to whatever extent they want, to protect their reputation.

          Customers had this option – to take out an ad in a newspaper if they are disgruntled – always. But with social media offering cheaper ways to advertise to a more targeted group, this guy has set the ball rolling. Brands haven’t sued a lot of disgruntled customers yet, so one brand can set the ball rolling too, like this guy did, from customer’s side. The suing is less of a win and more of a statement to others to think a lot of times before abusing it, using paid media or not.

          Bottomline, if you have your story right, you have the freedom to do whatever you want. You can do what you want even if there’s no story, but you just need to be ready to face the consequences.

          I’m referring to first instances (happened/possiblity) in both cases – customers going all out to rant about a brand that screwed up and brands retaliating.

          • kuppurao

            I am talking about constitutional rights (which is what courts will go by, and which grants freedom of speech unconditionally) and you are qualifying FOS with responsibilities etc…(which I personally fully support, but the courts won’t). At the end, you cannot blame someone for being stupid, can you?

          • I think we’re saying the same thing 🙂

            I’m saying:
            1. Customers now have a easier, faster way to pay and promote their grievances. It is like finding that putting up posters around their own house, ranting against brands, can get them a lot of visibility for the rant.

            2. Can they do it? Of course, they can – their pov, their house, their posters.

            3. What can brands do? Till now, they haven’t found customers going all-out this way, because it was expensive and cumbersome to do so. Now, things may change, thanks to social media and paid promotion online. So, they would also need to spruce up their legal stand and have a plan in place if customers really go haywire.

  • Satyajit Chakraborty

    You mention that Twitter and Facebook cannot use Editorial Vs Marketing argument since they are not Media companies … While it is true that these platforms do not have an Editorial point of view, however the scale and size that they have reached and the influence they have today, would it not be appropriate to treat them at par with media companies. Moreover if they are providing an option of paid advertisements, should they also not be subjected to certain guidelines and regulations as applied to other media ? In conventional advertising, Brand Advertisers/ Media Companies etc have to adhere to certain regulations and code of conduct as stipulated by the Advertising Standards Council of India et al However the landscape is very diferent for the digital lanscape. In the digital paradigm, every individual can essentially act as an advertiser. While this empowers each and every individual/consumer, the chances of misuse of such freedom and independence also gets magnified in these platforms. As we have seen time and again, these platforms do not just act as the conduit for a Message/Paid Advert, they also help spread the angry commentry on the back of these paid messages. If paid media is not regulated on these platforms, it can have catastrophic consequences

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