Making social media accountable

This week the world seemed to end for social media experts when the Australian Advertising Standards Board ruled that companies are responsible for comments on their Facebook pages.

The ASB rulings were a response to complaints that Diageo’s Smirnoff Vodka and Foster’s VB Facebook pages breached various industry codes of conduct and encouraged underage drinking.

While the board found the Smirnoff complaints weren’t justified – something that most of the hysterical commentators overlooked – the ruling contained one paragraph that upset the social media experts and delighted the lawyers:

The Board considered that the Facebook site of an advertiser is a marketing communication tool over which the advertiser has a reasonable degree of control and could be considered to draw the attention of a segment of the public to a product in a manner calculated to promote or oppose directly or indirectly that product. The Board determined that the provisions of the Code apply to an advertiser’s Facebook page. As a Facebook page can be used to engage with customers, the Board further considered that the Code applies to the content generated by the advertisers as well as material or comments posted by users or friends.

The key phrase in that paragraph is “over which the advertiser has a reasonable degree of control”. Obviously someone posting on Twitter, their blog or someone else’s website is beyond the control of the advertiser.

For Foster’s, the news was not so good, as the regulator found comments on the VB page did breach various aspects of the alcohol industry codes by encouraging excessive drinking and insulting various people.

In its ruling, the board did make the observation that comments should be removed or answered in a “reasonable timeframe” and Fosters had left offensive posts on their page for over a year:

The Board noted that social media is an advertising platform that requires monitoring to ensure that offensive material is removed within a reasonable timeframe and that content within a Facebook page should, like all other advertisement and marketing communication, be assessed with the Code in mind. The Board noted that some comments referenced in the complaint were posted on the Facebook page in early 2011. The Board recognized the challenges in effectively monitoring social media to ensure that offensive material removed within a reasonable time.

With Facebook comments, the onus has always been on businesses to make sure there is nothing illegal appearing on their streams and any misconceptions or false statements are answered.

In many ways, this is common sense. Do you, as a manager or business owner, want your brands tarnished by idiots posting offensive or illegal content? Sensible businesses have already been dealing with this by deleting the really obnoxious stuff and politely replying to the more outrageous claims by Facebook friends.

What’s more important with both the ASB ruling and the Allergy Pathways case the ruling relies upon is that it makes it clear that ‘astroturfing’ on social media sites won’t be tolerated.

Astroturfing is the PR practice of creating fake groups that appear to support a cause or product. A group paid for by an interested party appears to grow naturally out of community interest or concern – a fake grassroots group, so to speak, and hence the word ‘astroturf’, which is a brand of artificial grass.

Organisations like property developers and mining companies have been setting up Facebook pages and websites that appear to be community groups supporting their projects and many smaller businesses have been inducing friends, relatives or contractors to post false testimonials. In the run up to major elections in 2012-13, we’re seeing many of these fake groups set up to push various political agendas.

For a few consulting groups, astroturfing has become a nice line of business and those of us on the fringe of the social media community have been watching the development of ‘online advocacy services’ with interest.

While no one has claimed Allergy Pathways or Diageo were posting fake testimonials on their own Facebook pages, the rulings in both cases are a warning that the courts and regulators are prepared to deal with those getting clever with social media.

For honest businesses, this ruling is a non-issue. It’s timely reminder though that web and social media sites are not ‘set and forget’ but need to be regularly checked, valid customer comments replied to and inappropriate content removed.

The ASB rulings reaffirm what sensible social media experts have been advising all along, that social media is a conversation and you have to pay attention to what’s being said about your business online.

Paul Wallbank is one of Australia’s leading experts on how industries and societies are changing in this connected, globalised era. When he isn’t explaining technology issues, he helps businesses and community organisations find opportunities in the new economy.




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