It was a Facebook post that almost shut down the business, Wild Oats Farm, in just a matter of days. Users delivered a torrent of abuse after a photograph of an apparently underweight horse was published on a local community page.

Online Abuse Destroys A Business

Wild Oats’ owner retaliated, defending herself, and allegedly things got heated between her and the moderator of Nelson Snippets, the community Facebook page. A vet was called by Wild Oats’ owner to assess the horse. The vet said that Hine was old, hence her low weight, and that local drought conditions hadn’t helped, but in “remarkably good health,” and happy. The vet even reassured the local SPCA. 

For the moment, though, this reassurance was lost in the furore.

Few people would have even seen news of the vet’s assessment. The real action was on the original Snippets post (since removed) and the comments and abuse continued, spilling over to Wild Oats’ own Facebook page. The backlash against Wild Oats nearly forced the business to close, and even had the owner’s daughter afraid to go to school.

Where, at the time it was needed, was the balance, the reason, the discussion? Where was the conversation that would’ve quickly put things right?

Algorithms Bury the Real Discussion

The dialogue was there, including from Wild Oats’ owner herself, but anybody who uses Facebook knows how its algorithms reward the popular comments, the liked or reacted comments, and, by default, push them to the fore. Time-poor scrollers saw the hate: the reasoned discussion was seen by only those who bothered to dig deeper.

Image Courtesy Stuff.co.nz

This isn’t by chance, of course. It is a deliberate function of the social channel’s code. Engagement, time spent online, comments and reactions – the more impassioned the better – are its mandate to deliver attentive audiences to advertisers.

If that wasn’t enough, Facebook often adds up- and down-voting to comments, and in some posts, stickers chosen by AI to offer “appropriate” responses to the content. One such reaction sticker recently suggested by Facebook for a colleague’s post about being unfriended, was simply “bye!”

Without doubt ,these features encourage the mob mentality, whipping users into a torches- and- pitchforks frenzy. Add to that ‘virtue-signalling’ – the tendency of humans to go over the top in their righteousness when their friends or family are watching, in order to gain approval. And add ‘moral licensing,’ the belief that somebody breaking an ethical code has forfeited their rights to compassion, or even a voice. It is a combination that leads to behaviour that can be truly brutal, with the cries of reason drowned out.

We’re All Nazis In Social Media

I have personal experience in this area, and it came, ironically, from a discussion about Nazis – the actual, original Third Reich ones, not just the label that gets slapped on anybody with a contrary opinion. 

The original post had said something about Nazis being inhuman monsters. This kind of vilification is highly popular, but is also incorrect, because it is, literally, dehumanising of a group of people based on their beliefs, however offensive those beliefs may be, and opens the door to us-and-them segregation. Ironically, exactly what the Nazi dogma did.

I tried to point out that ‘Nazis’ were actually just ordinary people, capable of kindness, love and compassion within their own circles, but who had mentally compartmentalised certain minorities as subhuman and needing to be exterminated. Horrific, but also very human.

Did my insight gain understanding and open some minds? Of course not. I was told that Nazis were not human and should all be exterminated, and that clearly I was a Nazi sympathiser. Moments later I was banned from the discussion group. 

Muting the Conversation

That, perhaps, is one of the most challenging aspects of social media. Of course we should all have the right to avoid exposure to views and opinions we find offensive, dangerous, or perhaps more commonly, uninteresting.

But at what point does it become self destructive? When a combination of algorithms, peer affirmation, and the ability to shut down those who disagree with us, or whose views we dislike, make it all too easy to reinforce our own beliefs without ever being challenged?

There is a big difference between removing ourselves from a discussion we find offensive, and using that outrage to shut down the whole discussion. Free speech is an essential aspect of any democratic society, where even fringe views should be discussed, if even just to be dismissed. Silencing them entirely is a much darker act.

Getting Back into Business

But we have digressed. What of the business that fell victim to social media outrage and persecution? What of Wild Oats Farm?

In his book The 4 Billion Dollar Tweet, Ryan Holmes, CEO of Hootsuite (we’re their NZ Digital Services partner so had to mention it) recommends having a recovery strategy for any social media gaffes or backlash. 

For a small business in provincial New Zealand, where reputations are so easily damaged and where social media management is generally just another task in an already-overwhelming daily schedule, having and executing such a strategy is more challenging. 

Damage Control Strategy: Keep Calm and Carry On

However, according to our Chief Conversologist Jam Mayer, a small business should be no exception. For a start, having a strategy in place to deal with a social media crisis can help avoid the business owner sending knee-jerk clap-backs and heated responses, which can simply make a bad situation worse.

A strategy helps you focus on dealing with the issue calmly. Do you respond? Start damage control? Report the matter and hope that social media moderators or the platform itself deals with it quickly enough? Ignore it and hope it goes away? 

In the case of Wild Oats Farm, thankfully, this story has a happy ending – and it starts with the fact that mainstream media picked it up. 

When the website Stuff carried the story and reported on the bullying and outrage, followed by a piece on TV’s One News, there was a strong push-back from users in support of Wild Oats. Not everybody was convinced, but it was enough that the farm received almost overwhelmingly positive reviews, and ironically Nelson Snippets, the community page that had initially refused to take down the original accusatory post, was finally removed by Facebook itself. 

Would the story have ended differently if mainstream media didn’t step in? Would common sense and better human nature still have triumphed? Could Wild Oats have bounced back under its own strategy?

Is social media, and Facebook in particular, capable of maintaining reason and balance? Can it nurture true conversation in an environment that it has deliberately created to favour the popular view over the reasoned one?

As social media continues to change and conversations move into private spaces, these questions are likely to become more pressing. 

Watch this space … 

You can take advantage of Conversologie’s social media knowledge and strategies for your own business. Make contact with Conversologie and Jam Mayer directly by Messenger and let’s start the conversation. 

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