Back in February, the New Zealand Army's public affairs manager Matt Boulton wrote a blog post for the Australian Army on his organisation’s experiences with social media. Among the many good points he raised was the unintuitive notion that those who ‘like’ you don’t necessarily 'like you':
We were somewhat unprepared for the harsh and very public criticism we sometimes got…as a public organisation, we should expect to have our detractors. As a well circulated meme says — haters gonna hate — and we can’t control that.
Boulton’s approach to this problem — deleting, where possible, responses and comments with hate speech, discrimination or obscenity, but leaving criticism alone — is, generally speaking, the most workable and admirable solution for politicians, public servants and government bodies working with social media. It’s a clear, simple policy that for the most part avoids accusations of censorship. However, there are certain cases where this approach can backfire spectacularly.
Last week the President of France François Hollande met with workers at an internet company in Paris. His advisers saw fit to broadcast the meeting on a livestreaming app titled Periscope, but, crucially, did not disable comments on the livestream itself. For 24 minutes, commentators insultingly referred to Hollande's weight, dress sense, alleged affairs, alleged disdain for the poor, and various other issues, before the broadcast was switched over to a platform with comments disabled. By then, however, the damage was done. The half-hour roasting had made its way into the Le Monde, Washington Post, Politico, and Russia Today, among others.
Facebook comments appear below posts and are clearly demarcated from the content of the post itself. On Twitter, replies to a tweet are not even shown unless the user clicks the tweet (not the link within) to expand it. However, on Periscope, a relative newcomer to the social media scene, comments appear superimposed on the video itself. Instead of needing to actively seek out comments from the public, Periscope viewers cannot help but read them (unless the broadcaster changes the chat settings).
The Hollande livestream in question. The ‘sans dent’ comment is a reference to the President allegedly referring to the poor as ‘toothless’.
A small minority of detractors can easily take advantage of this boosted platform, even if the figure or government body in question is generally well-liked. And Hollande, currently the least-popular French president since polling began in the 1950s, is not generally well-liked.
Live streaming isn’t the problem (politicians have been appearing live on television for decades), and neither is the commentary of people who ‘like’ you but don’t like you. The issue is the collation of the two as a single product. If these comments were made in reply to a static social media post or even on a link to the live broadcast, both viewers and the media would instead perceive them as just more of the unavoidable background trolling that accompanies anyone or anything significant posting on social media. As Boulton observes, haters are indeed going to hate, but individuals and organisations should interrogate the structure of the platforms they use in order to avoid unnecessarily boosting them.
Photo: Getty Images/Chesnot