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Companies Should Ignore Angry Online Mobs More

Photo-Illustration: Select All; Photos: Getty Images

Companies aren’t always good at dealing with the torrents of anger frequently unleashed by social media. What risk-averse executives and social-media managers often fail to realize is that the subset of people who use social media do not represent the broader world, and further, that the subset of people who get extremely mad on social media don’t even represent the subset of people who use social media. A small group of extremely angry people — people who may or may not even be actual customers of a given company — can easily flood that company’s social-media outposts with white-hot anger that feels like it represents something bigger and broader and more threatening to the company’s interests than it actually is.

The classic example of this delta between social-media and IRL anger is Gamergate, during which a group of particularly resentful gamers realized that it was possible, through social-media savvy, to manipulate companies into thinking they represented a seething mass of furious consumers, rather than a relatively small group concerned with very niche issues. Thanks to an aggressive social-media campaign (plus direct contact with the company), Gamergaters got Intel to pull its ads from a game-developer website called Gamasutra over an infamous-to-angry-Gamergaters article by Leigh Alexander claiming that “gamers are over”; a few weeks later, the group repeated the same stunt with a variety of advertisers on the now-defunct gossip website Gawker after a Gawker staffer made a jokey tweet about how society should “bring back bullying” to deal with Gamergaters. Intel and other major advertisers either didn’t realize the truth about Gamergate’s actual size and scope, or chose to ignore it — it was easier to give into the very angry online mob.

This dilemma — when can online anger be safely ignored or shunted aside, and when does it need to be engaged with? — is a tricky one for companies, and an interesting article in the New York Times emphasizes the extent to which online and offline sentiments about a given company, or a given company’s latest move, are often wildly divergent.

The article runs down a “new study conducted by Engagement Labs, a Canadian company that analyzes conversations around brands,” which, in examining 170 of them, “found that companies often wrongly saw social media as an accurate and sufficient guide for tracking consumer sentiment. Often, though, that social conversation might be much different from what people are saying in private conversations with friends and family, the study said.”

It basically all boils down to some basic facts about the psychology of social-media participation:

“The danger is you can make some pretty big mistakes if you assume the conversations happening online are also happening offline,” said Brad Fay, chief research officer at Engagement Labs and a co-author of the study. “Very often, they’re heading in different directions.”

The most negative and most outrageous comments often get the most traction on social media. And sometimes, people post comments about a topic just to get a reaction or to reflect an “image” or appear “cool” to their social media followers, when their actual views may be the opposite.

The article cites multiple examples of instances when companies, bludgeoned by online anger, felt like they were facing a genuine consumer revolt, only to zoom out a bit and find out that they, well, weren’t. When Donald Trump blasted Nordstrom after it dropped Ivanka’s clothing line (a totally normal thing for a sitting president to do, of course), for example, it unleashed a fierce online firestorm, but didn’t translate, as far as Nordstrom can tell, to any lasting damage to the brand. And when the mattress company Nectar underestimated initial demand for its product, leading to long wait times, it led to a great deal of highly visible online anger — but when the CEO “reached out to customers through online and phone surveys, he discovered they had no interest in canceling their orders. The more candid he was about the inventory debacle and shipping delays, the more customers seemed to respond.” Online attempts to hit back at Chick-fil-A over its chief executive’s anti-gay-marriage stance were similarly ineffectual.

We’re all in something of an adolescence when it comes to social media. In a lot of areas, people don’t know what to make of certain online conversations simply because so many standard conversational norms and rules and guardrails have been upended (20 years ago, it was much harder to bombard someone with death threats knowing that there was almost zero chance of being held accountable for it). So sometimes they respond similarly to how they would were the conversation in question taking place offline — traditionally, if a company got what felt like a flood of complaints, it probably meant something meaningful, because the cost of communicating with a company was higher. Today, I could send 100 angry tweets to a 100 companies in the next hour if I wanted.

What’s the answer? Online anger should be seen as “a wake-up call, a warning that something is afoot and there is a negative force there,” according to Elissa Moses, the chief executive of neuroscience and behavioral science for Ipsos, as she’s quoted in the Times article. After that, it requires some actual digging to figure out if offline people — normal people — feel the same way. If they do, then the company in question might have a legitimate problem on their hands. Oftentimes, though, it’s likely that even as a conflagration is engulfing a company’s social-media presence, offline there will be nothing but the usual chatter.

Companies Should Ignore Angry Online Mobs More