The ASB is trying to control the unwieldy teenager that is social media
9 August, 2012
Earlier this week the Advertising Standards Board (ASB) set an important precedent for businesses using social networks such as Facebook. The ASB ruled that Smirnoff, and parent company Diageo, were responsible for policing the comments made by the public on their Facebook page. The decision centred on the premise that when businesses use social networks they become a marketing communication tool – an extension of the brand’s advertising – rather than a networking tool.
The implications of this decision are significant. All businesses operating within Australia and using social networking sites must now consider (if they weren’t already) the level of moderation they will implement within the communities they build online. The risk of over-moderation means page maintenance can border on censorship while no moderation leaves the business liable for offensive comments.
When moderating an online community there’s an important distinction to be made between negative and offensive comments. Negative comments help to balance the conversation and generally shouldn’t be removed, while offensive comments should be dealt with according to a set of predetermined (and public) “house rules”. While resourcing a fully-moderated page can be a challenge, most businesses using social networks should be monitoring all conversations taking place within them.
But with all this in mind, where should the responsibility for offensive comments lie? While the ruling fairly determines that businesses should play a role in keeping their piece of the internet squeaky clean, where is individual accountability? If an individual was to walk into the retail store of a business (arguably also a marketing and communications tool, especially if we’re talking about Apple) and started yelling offensively at staff or customers, who is responsible? While staff would do their best to put a stop to this behaviour, the accountability ultimately lies with the person yelling. If police are called, they would generally lay some form of disturbing-the-peace type charge on the individual, not the business.
The Stop Online Piracy Act (or SOPA) attempted to hold search engines responsible for online piracy and while that fight isn’t yet over, serious questions were raised about both the balance of responsibility between businesses or individuals versus the platforms that facilitate their actions. At the moment, the internet and its key players are still maturing and that leaves the door open for online behaviour that can push not-yet-established boundaries. Social networks especially are still acting like unwieldy teenagers – enabling bad behaviour in others and to an extent resisting rules set by any authorities that try to impose them.
While governments and businesses are figuring out how to regulate online behaviour, it is clear we need a common understanding of socially acceptable behaviour online, clearer consequences and individual accountability.
Carly Yanco is head of digital at Burson-Marsteller.