Business is learning that social media is key to their brand, but how much can they control it? - Rahsmi Dube

Social media, reviews, comment boxes and videos. All used by consumers to get their message heard. They call it freedom of speech.

Then we have influencers who also wade in, making statements about their interpretation of content or actions taken by business.

“Freedom of speech” and social media – the concern is for businesses today is not what employees might be saying, but rather every person who sees your actions and decisions, and then reports about it on social media with their interpretation.

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The ideology has changed around freedom of speech and its impact. Of course, there is still the discussion around the big four – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube – and their roles in controlling speech, either by algorithms or simply by deciding to ban users from their platforms.

Social media in the spotlight

So, the question is who should be determining speech rules when it can have such a huge impact on a brand? If not the private companies, should it be legislation (the government)?

This brings in the issue of jurisdiction in a globalised world when using the worldwide web and its many platforms. There are laws already in place which are extended to social media platforms such as speech that incites terrorism; the concern here is more about disinformation.

To me, the blind spot is not communication (after all, advertising agencies and public relations firms make millions on this a year) but it is the content of that communication and interpretation against a new backdrop of a) changing global values, some of which have stemmed from Black Lives Matters and the Me Too movement hitting back at gender and race stereotypes; b) the way social media and other digital channels are used to discover products, interact with brands and inform purchasing decisions.

The starting point is the question of authenticity. A recent survey by SocialMedia Today found that “51 per cent of the consumers believe that less than half of the brands create content that resonates as authentic” compared with “92 per cent of the marketers believe most or all of the content their brand creates resonates as authentic with consumers”.

The importance of brand matters more than ever.

Research shows brands are also “judged” on how morally competent they are perceived to be. But who is protecting the business in those small incidents when a review or statement is made, either by a consumer or influencer, that may be either misleading, false, or libellous?

Surely the business should be allowed to take some action? That is what happened in two situations. The first was a court case which involved a London–based company which sued a man for leaving a false review on Trustpilot. The man had posted about a London law firm being “a total waste of money” and “scam solicitor.”

The High Court’s judgment was in favour of the law firm but also ordered an injunction against the individual preventing him from repeating his allegations. Trustpilot was not a party to the action but were quoted as saying “we strongly oppose the use of legal action to silence consumers”. They believe there are a “number of errors in the judgment” believe that it raised “significant concerns around freedom of speech”.

A current case in the Italian courts is one of Dolce and Gabbana, which has sued Diet Prada, an Instagram influencer, for defamation.

But does the legal outcome really matter? The brand or business that sues may win but what of their public persona and interpretation of their ethics in light of the research?

According to the SocialMediaToday survey, consumers are moving away from the professional images and celebrity influencers – “79 per cent” said that they were impacted in purchasing decisions “by consumer-created content”.

Brands are already aware that social media and other digital platforms play a role, but they now have to understand is that authenticity and user/consumer-generated visuals and content is what is now creating trust.