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Whether the reputation-maker is TripAdvisor, Google or a newspaper masthead, manipulating it is not just a guerrilla activity, it is big business. Social media might seem to be a game-changer in the reputation stakes, but big companies spend serious money trying to infiltrate and distort them. Social media terrify corporations, because they transform over-the-back-fence scuttlebutt into a permanent digital record. James Griffin, partner at social research firm, SR7, explains: “Historically, word of mouth or newspaper articles would dissipate over time. The digital world has given what used to be barbecue talk a more permanent stamp, plus speed and spread. Something that might once have been spoken between a few people can now go worldwide instantly and be very difficult to remove.”
To influence this new form of reputation-making, companies quickly established presences in social media. But initially this work was left in the hands, says Griffin, of “the youngest person in the office”. An outcome of inexperienced social-media staff led to some notable corporate disasters. ChapStick deleted adverse comments from people offended by its advertisement on Facebook, and received worse publicity for the censorship than for the advertisement itself. Qantas and Target, trying to seek consumer input into future products, instead received torrents of abuse relating to their performance.
Companies learnt that social media was too serious to be left in junior hands. After Toyota had to recall 2.3 million vehicles with faulty accelerator pedals in 2010, its then-president of US motor sales, Jim Lentz, went on the social media network Digg, where he received 3200 questions. The Dell Corporation, in response to blogger Jeff Jarvis’s “Dell lies. Dell sucks” public revolt, set up a “social outreach” division in 11 languages, staffed by 70 employees, featuring personal appearances by founder Michael Dell.
But as corporations have seized control of the social-media conversation, regulators have informed them they can’t have it both ways. Last August, the Australian Advertising Standards Board (ASB) deemed companies’ Facebook pages to be “a marketing communication tool over which the advertiser has a reasonable degree of control”. Whatever appears on a company’s Facebook site, positive or negative, is now the company’s responsibility.
This was overkill, says Iain McDonald. “Digital natives generally know how to separate remarks from promotions,” he says. But one knock-on effect of the ASB’s ruling is to accelerate a cultural change in how companies manage social media internally.
“The last five years have seen a remarkable shift where social media is now overseen by risk management and audit committees, part of senior managers’ responsibilities, not just a young people’s thing,” says Griffin.
McDonald goes further, saying, “We are moving towards industry accreditation, training and qualification for social-media moderators.”
There is also a push in the USA and the UK for governments to work with Facebook and Twitter to create single sign-ons for individuals, verified by birth certificate, passport or driver’s licence, to make it harder to create false identities.
“I think in five years’ time, when we have legislation, more solid self-governance, privacy laws and automated tools [fixing identity], we’ll be looking back on the present period as a time when the whole social media environment was very loose,” says McDonald.
The moment in which social media was seen as a truthful, democratic, level playing field for the making of reputations was brief. The University of Illinois concluded from research last year that one-third of all UGC web reviews are now fake, either with the purpose of boosting or denigrating a product. Sites such as Fiverr and Freelance advertise for writers to produce fake reviews. Technology research firm Gartner Inc has predicted that 10 to 15 per cent of web ratings and reviews will be paid for by companies by next year. The practice known as “astroturfing” – companies creating fake grassroots campaigns either supporting their products or denigrating their competitors’ – is rife in the travel industry. Last year, wide currency was given to a list of the “world’s best airlines” published online by ATRA, the Air Transport Rating Agency. ATRA turned out to be a Swiss start-up associated with one of the listed airlines. Open and democratic social media had a quick moment in the sun before corporations and fakers moved in.
Whether seen as an explosion of consumer freedom and democracy or open slather for reputation saboteurs, social media’s “Wild West” era might have passed its peak. But in the new world of reputation-making, old slander can stay visible forever.
Lucy Reynolds never received the satisfaction she was seeking – for TripAdvisor to admit the corruption of its “Destination Experts” system and to delete the defamatory comments. “It is easy to see why many consumers champion the use of sites like TA and the access to consumer commentary they give,” she says. “It would seem sites like TA have tipped the balance of freedom of consumer information in many ways to aid consumers in having access to what should be transparent information. But in many cases, the information is not transparent … The whole point of TA is that it captures, and can control, reputations. That is why it can be so damaging and why it is such a powerful marketing tool. No company listed in it can afford to ignore it.”
In the end, unable to ignore it, Reynolds was forced to escape from it, moving her business.
TripAdvisor has now undertaken reforms, including opening a hotline for aggrieved hoteliers, and has changed its slogan. Once the world’s “most trusted travel site”, it is now the “largest”.