Aug 072012

Yesterday we heard the collective gnashing of teeth as social media experts, lawyers and business owners complained about the Australian Advertising Standards Board’s ruling that companies are responsible for comments on their Facebook pages.

The ASB ruling (PDF file) was a response to complaints that comments on Diageo’s Smirnoff Vodka page breached various industry codes of conducts and encouraged under age drinking.

While the board found the 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.

With Facebook comments, the onus is 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 make 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 business have been inducing friends, relatives or contractors to post false testimonials. In the run up to major elections in 2012 and 13 we’re seeing many of these fake groups setup 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 site are not ‘set and forget’ but need to be regularly checked, valid customer comments replied to and inappropriate content removed.

The ASB ruling reaffirms what sensible social media experts have been advising all along, and that’s good news for them and their clients.

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