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Home » Engagement, News, Social Media News

Is it ever OK to muzzle commenters?

Submitted by on June 3, 2010 – 6:05 am6 Comments

Social media may have been designed to give us consumers a voice, but are there legitimate limits to this new-found free expression? It’s a dilemma companies now face with alarming frequency, and it’s become a minefield that’s trickier than ever to navigate. It comes down to one basic question:  is it ever okay to delete comments that appear on a company’s Facebook fan page, or on the corporate blog or in any open branded discussion forum?

There are two schools of thought: One, never delete comments written by the public no matter how unsettling they may be for a brand. To do so, smacks of censorship and can create a nasty backlash. What to do then? For starters, simply respond to the barb in a straightforward manner, always being polite, professional and respectful. Or, wait to see if the community comes to the rescue to set the agitators straight. This is preferable, but you cannot always count on the community to do so.

The other approach is to keep the comment boards as clean as possible by deleting anything distasteful or disparaging. To be sure, this is the more controversial approach and best be done with extreme caution and sparingly, like only when commenters use foul language, insult others or express racist, sexist of xenophobic remarks.

There are very fewer examples of the latter approach being done correctly, usually because they come and go so quickly. But earlier this week Starbucks faced such an incident head-on, an approach that may yet serve as a model for when you have to muzzle a few bad apples.

Here’s what happened:

Hours after Israeli forces raided a Gaza-bound aid flotilla on Monday, cyber activists hacked the Starbucks’ Facebook page and spammed the wall with anti-Israeli messages, Drew Benvie, managing director at 33 Digital recently reported. While the Starbucks Facebook wall is currently full of cheery customers chatting about frappuccinos, it took the company hours to clean up the hundreds of posts saying “f**k Israel” that were visible to Starbucks’ 7.4 million person Facebook fan base.

But was this cleaning justified?

Deleting customer posts on company Facebook pages has become something of a taboo. Just consider Nestlé’s predicament back in March when it was accused of silencing critics for deleting angry Greenpeace posts from its fan wall. Nestlé posted a series of apologizes afterwards, leaving big brands in a state of limbo wondering if keeping clean their own Facebook walls will forever be a “no-no.”

Meanwhile, Starbucks’ actions are still being debated. Vikki Chowney of Reputation Online points out:

This is an interesting situation. On one hand, Starbucks did well to limit the damage by responding quickly, on the other, ’social media guidelines’ say to avoid deleting posts or comments at all costs.

There is a clear difference between the Nestlé and Starbucks approach. In the Nestlé case, Greenpeace went to the Kit-Kat Facebook page directing its criticism at how the company sources palm oil, a crucial ingredient in the candy bar. The Starbucks hackers were a different breed. They were not only clearly out of line with their persistent and vulgar spamming, but they were completely off-topic. We understand that strong political discourse often happens over a strong cuppa joe, but harassing everyone who enters the coffee shop with your political views is just out of line. Starbucks was right to delete the offending posts to restore order for the rest of the community.

Plus, we should note that Starbucks stands by its transparency when critics attack. Just last week Seattle basketball fans drilled Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz for launching a “We love you Seattle” promotion after he had encouraged the sale of the Seattle Super Sonics to Oklahoma City in 2008. Starbucks remained silent, and you can still find “f*** starbucks and howard shultz” comments all over their wall.

Companies have a huge opportunity by launching branded social media channels, but this comes with serious responsibility. For platforms like Craigslist, individual users have the authority to control the material being posted by reporting irrelevant or obnoxious activity to remove non-virtuous scammers and spammers. But for a brand’s Facebook fan page, the responsibility of laying down the law and preserving the essence of the fan movement rests largely in the hands of the company itself. If this means deleting hateful and unrelated posts, then so be it.

Let’s call it the Starbucks v. Nestlé approach. Sometimes, it’s okay to vaporize foul-mouthed dissenters when it risks offending the rest of the community (a big difference from offending the brand). But if their argument is valid, leave it alone.

Editor’s Note: Want to learn more about social media best practice? Join our LinkedIn Group and enjoy a great discount on attending the Social Media Conference, June 22.

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