Social Media Lawlessness

(or when it’s better to sing “Let It Go”)

by: Jonathan Crossfield

Corporations and larger businesses, particularly those with legal teams dedicated to protecting the brand for any and all threats, do have a bit of a history when it comes to trying to force the digital world to obey certain rules. But while the iron fist approach and litigious tactics might have worked in pre-digital days, online is a very different kettle of writs.

Trying to control what happens in social media in particular can be like holding a bar of soap; too strong a grip and it might slip out of your grasp completely.

Unfortunately, the larger the business – or the bigger the legal team – the more likely it is that social media and digital marketing in general are seen as high-risk, lawless and undisciplined environments. As a result, some brands can get pretty litigious and authoritarian pretty quickly.

Reputation management

When I still worked as a marketing manager for (ironically) an internet company, the CEO once came up to my desk visibly angry. He demanded I threaten Google with legal action if it didn’t remove a particular website from its search results. The website had been set up by a disgruntled customer and collated a number of inflammatory criticisms and complaints – and it ranked immediately below the official website whenever anyone searched the brand name.

It took a long and uncomfortable conversation for me to convince him that:

  1. Google wouldn’t update their algorithm purely for his convenience;
  2. The website in question wasn’t breaching any rules that would justify Google taking action; (Technically, we might have been able to argue trademark infringement for its use of the logo, but that wasn’t Google’s problem, nor would it have addressed the real issues.)
  3. The person behind the website was unlikely to just go away as he clearly felt he had genuine grievances; and,
  4. Google had more and better lawyers than he did.

Instead, we adopted a reputation management strategy.

First, we looked at ways to improve the search rankings of other positive brand-related links to hopefully rank higher than the negative website and gradually push it down and off the first page of search results.

Second, we focused on creating a social media presence – primarily on Twitter where a lot of our customers were – that responded positively to customers. Instead of the brand complaining that people were complaining, we demonstrated that we were listening and taking customer issues seriously.

Of course, there will always be some people who refuse to be placated – and the occasional troll deliberately stirring trouble. But when the wider online community can see the brand interacting positively and constructively, the result is a public reputation that can make it much harder for negative attacks to stick.


I’d like to think business execs and legal teams are a little more familiar these days with how search engines work, along with social media, email marketing, and all the other digital business concepts that have dramatically changed how brands communicate, market and interact with consumers. But I do occasionally still come up against an exec or legal team who aren’t digital experts and try to impose unworkable policies founded on some pretty basic digital misunderstandings.

Just for the record – and I genuinely hope everyone reading this won’t be surprised by the following – but:

  • Sharing a link to a website or article is not a breach of copyright;
  • Employees cannot be held responsible for negative remarks against the brand made by someone else in their social network;
  • The best response to negative comments on your social media pages or website is not to delete them but to acknowledge and respond to them.

Pouring oil on the fire

It’s not just corporate execs who can risk exacerbating a situation by taking a more combative, black and white, take-no-prisoners approach. Sometimes, the best approach is to do nothing. Literally. Nothing.

After all, if only twenty people will see that negative tweet, why worry? Taking action may actually backfire spectacularly – and often does.

Barbra Streisand may be more famous for her singing and acting career, but she has also given her name (rather unwillingly, I might add) to an internet phenomenon that businesses, politicians and celebs still fall afoul of with startling regularity – The Streisand Effect.

In 2002, two photographers published 12,000 aerial photographs of the California coastline to a public website as part of the California Coastal Records Project, set up to document coastal erosion and provoke action.

One of these photos depicted the 500 feet of California coast that also included Streisand’s beachside mansion – which is why, in 2003, Streisand sued the photographers for violation of privacy.

At the time of the lawsuit, the photograph had only been downloaded a grand total of six times, including twice by Streisand’s attorneys. But news of the lawsuit increased interest in the photograph, with 420,000 people visiting the site in the following month. While some visitors were no doubt simply curious to access something that might otherwise be kept from them – good ol’ fear of missing out, or FOMO – others actively shared and reposted the image, either to make a point or for purely mischievous reasons.

In court, Streisand’s lawsuit was dismissed, and she was ordered to pay legal fees amounting to $155,567. But, with the photo popping up everywhere online and reaching hundreds of thousands of people, even if she had won the legal battle, she had already lost the digital war.

Far from a unique event, the Streisand Effect is as predictable as it is common.

Whenever a politician deletes an ill-advised tweet, you can be certain someone already has a screenshot which will spread even further.

Lesson: Think before you tweet – or be quick to apologize afterwards. Don’t double down as if everyone else is wrong!

Whenever a company tries to censor a negative comment, chances are that ten more negative comments will pop up in its place, angered by any attempt to silence dissent.

Lesson: Handling complaints is part of doing business. Your customer service team wouldn’t hang up on an unhappy customer, so don’t do it in public online either.

And whenever you’re tempted to use legal tactics to control, prevent or otherwise restrict the inconvenient behaviour or activities of others online, you’d better weigh up the risk of your response becoming a much bigger story than whatever it was that motivated it.

Lesson: The legal approach should always be the last option.

I know, I know ­­– telling a lawyer to resolve problems without resorting to legal mechanisms is a bit like telling a bookseller to buy a Kindle. But at least it might prevent you attracting online attention for all the wrong reasons.