How social media can bring out the smart alecs in online activism

Sarcasm and humor can be effective tools in getting a message across.

Think about the popularity of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and The Onion. All use humor and can make some pretty interesting points in political debate while doing so. (One of my all-time Onion favorites: “GOP Completely Fixes Economy by Cancelling Funding for NPR“)

We’ve also seen how effective social media can be in activism. Think about the importance of Twitter and Facebook during Arab Spring or even what’s going on right now with the #Kony2012 project as just a couple immediate examples.

But now, we’re also seeing these two venues combine. And it’s interesting to watch play out.

Anybody who has ever had the pleasure of moderating an online comment forum (like I’ve done in various ways for the past 8 to 9 years) knows that the Internet has an interesting way of bringing out people’s inner comic and inner (or not-so-inner) sarcasm. When you combine the ability to comment in new ways that the Web 2.0/social media movement has created with this sarcasm, then mix that with the news of the day, the results can be fascinating.

Here’s two recent examples:

*In November, a controversy erupted at UC Davis when a member of the campus police force used pepper spray on students participating in an Occupy protest on campus. As an interesting side effect, that incident (combined with a statement by Fox News’ Meghan Kelly that pepper spray is “a food product, essentially”) caused people to hunt out the particular type of pepper spray used in the incident. Turns out, a similar type of spray is available for sale on Amazon. Amazon lets people post reviews about products. As a result, the spray received hundreds of reviews in days. “It really is the Cadillac of citizen repression technology,” says one rave review. “I thought I was getting the full peppery flavour with my previous brand of pepper spray but now I know what I was missing out on,” said another.

*I’ll let the Jezebel post titled “Smartasses Deluge Pro-Ultrasound Lawmaker’s Facebook Page With Detailed Vaginal Updates” speak for itself. And link to it.

Those are just recent examples, but this sort of thing has been around for a while. If a business owner  in a major city receives negative coverage in the press, odds are pretty good they could receive some negative review on sites like Yelp. And for years the conservative website Free Republic has made it a practice to bombard online polls in order to get heavily skewed results favorable to their opinion. (“freeping”)

I’d say, at this point, that social media managers, and all marketers, have to create plans for dealing with this potential social media backlash that goes beyond standard Facebook/Twitter post complaints. It’s a whole different ballgame, and not one that can really be solved by just shutting comments off and waiting for the problem to go away.

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