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From tweets about Tom Daley’s dad to pictures of burning poppies on Remembrance Day, the year 2012 saw some pretty controversial activity in social media. As we enter 2013, the debate about social media regulations and the criminal law surrounding them continues to blaze. The past four years have seen crime figures involving Facebook and Twitter increase by 700%, with many cases in 2012 having to be taken to court and dealt with on a legal level.
There have now been interim social media regulations put in place to determine which cases require legal intervention. Whilst three out of four of these interim guidelines are based on definitive acts, it is the fourth guideline which is causing the most uproar:
“Communications which do not fall into any of the above categories and fall to be considered separately i.e. those which may be considered grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false.”
This guideline is often referred to in short as ‘no communication beyond offensive’, but how do you determine what’s too offensive when offensiveness is a subjective emotion experienced on an individual basis?
The majority of media coverage on these new social media regulations has focused on how they will affect the users of these social platforms; but what about the businesses which utilise them as part of their online marketing strategy? What impact will these new rules have on them?
I think businesses which rely on shock advertising for their online campaigns will be among those hardest hit. These tend to be charities and social causes, such as anti-smoking campaigns, which use controversial images to appeal to the viewer’s conscience; however, mainstream products also often, rely on shock advertising through ads banned from TV being viewed on the internet.
Shock advertising has proven to be a very effective method of promoting a message and is increasingly being used online, often in the form of images or videos. This is often the medium of choice purely because the content is too controversial to be aired where viewers of a young age are likely to have access to it, i.e TV and billboards. This online media is used as link bait and is spread via email and social media posts.
Whilst the effectiveness may be proven, shock advertising often causes controversy amongst audiences. Due to its sensitive and often graphical nature, some viewers can be easily offended by this material. One example of this is PETA dog skinning video (**Warning – Video of a very graphic nature**). The original was a half hour long video of live dogs being skinned in China. The video was passed between users online with the intention of getting viewers to sign a petition to have the activity banned.
The campaign proved to be very effective, however, many viewers were offended by the content and made formal complaints.
Due to the potentially offensive nature of campaigns such as this one, I fear there will be no place for this type of advertising in the future, despite how effective it has proven to be.
The new social media regulations are asking for users to think before they share and post things online to consider whether the content is offensive or inappropriate. This is good practice for the most part, however, if users begin fearing they will be faced with legal actions if they post content which others may deem offensive, such as the dog skinning video, they may be reluctant to do so. As a result, these campaigns, which rely on their social shares, will not succeed.
Think about it – would you think twice about sharing the video if you thought you may face criminal action for offending someone else?
Court Order with that Creativity, Sir?
There has been little mention of what will happen if controversial content is created for advertising purposes. Will a company also face legal action if it causes widespread offence? Or will it be the user who shares the content on behalf of the company?
But that wasn’t my Intention!
Placing banned adverts for mainstream products aside for a moment, charities and social causes create potentially offensive content to work toward achieving positive outcomes; whether this is to protect animals, protect loved or even often avoid harm to the viewer themselves. I think the intent behind the offensive material is the overarching element which needs to be considered when these social Media regulations are enforced.
This is something which has not been addressed in the interim guidelines, but is something that is essential for those policing them to take in to account. Individual users, such as Linford House who posted a picture of a poppy burning on Remembrance Day, did so with the intent to offend people. Regardless of whether his actions were regretted or not, the underlying intention was there at the time the post was shared. If users share videos and images on behalf of charities and social causes with the intent of spreading a positive message, I do not think this should be something which is later penalised, because too many people didn’t agree with the same cause or the material itself.
Are we Heading for the Death of Social Sharing?
Although looking at an extremist worst case scenario, the death of social sharing is something worth considering with regards to the introduction of social media regulations. So far I have covered shock advertising, which admittedly is an extremity in itself, but as I mentioned before offensiveness is a subjective attribute.
As we begin to rule out the most severe cases of offensiveness on social media, people will begin to become less and less lenient and become offended by less extreme behaviour; for example swearing, or girl’s posing in their underwear. We all know people love to complain, so where do you draw the line?
If this trend continues of suppressing what people say and do on social media, I fear it won’t be long before people are too scared to post anything ‘just in case’ they offend someone. This will then affect companies which don’t use shock advertising, but do maintain a social media presence.
What if you share an insurance company’s blog about insurance for over 50’s? Are you being ageist? Or will you offend youngsters?
What if you share an oil company’s blog which then has an oil spill and doesn’t deal with it well? Will you offend people for originally backing that company?
Users will eventually stop sharing on behalf of companies through fear of ‘just in case’, making it more difficult to generate social signals and grow a social community online.
As I said, this is an extremist view of what could happen in the future. As the country moves towards political correctness for everyone, we see court cases for increasingly trivial cases. By trying to keep everyone happy, you keep no one happy – Online businesses included.
So Where Does this Leave us?
Realistically, I cannot see that these new regulations will be effective due to the problems of policing the matters at hand. However, the talk of them alone has caused many social media users to voice concerns about deciding what to post. This fear of legal action due to posting something which may be considered offensive is eventually likely to prevent users posting your viral marketing material ‘just in case’.
Hopefully it won’t come to this – but are we reaching the apocalypses of online campaigns and social sharing as we know it? What does the future hold? I would be interested to hear your thoughts?
The Law from BigStock Photos
Shock from BigStock Photos
Samantha Noble is well known within in the search industry, she even won the UK Search Personality 2016 at the UK Search Awards in November. This year, she continues to make an impact on the industry by judging not only one, but three, prestigious industry awards.