The Power of Social Media to Make or Break the Conversation

It’s hard to believe a hashtag about pizza led to a shooting incident. Actually, that’s not quite right. The hashtag was merely the symptom of a larger problem,a baseless and bizarre accusation. The rumor? That Hillary Clinton is the mastermind behind a child sex trafficking ring.

On November 7, 2016, the hashtag #Pizzagate appeared, spawned by an alleged “smoking gun” involving Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta. Podesta had eaten at a D.C. pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong. This was enough to get conspiracy theorists to believe the restaurant was ground zero for a child sex slave ring. They even claimed the restaurant transported young victims using a series of underground tunnels. It’s worth noting the pizzeria in question doesn’t even have a basement.

According to the Washington Post, Twitter users tweeted the #Pizzagate hashtag “hundreds to thousands” of times per day. As the hashtag spread across social media, Comet Ping Pong and nearby businesses received a sharp uptick in complaints, harassing phone calls, and death threats. The internet trolls made threats against business owners and their employees.

Everything came to a head when Welch, armed with an assault rifle, entered the Comet Ping Pong to investigate the rumors in person. Although no one was hurt or killed during the December 2016 incident, it proved once and for all that fake news can have very real consequences.

#Pizzagate and the Reach of Social Media

In summing up the role social media played in #Pizzagate, the Washington Post called it “the most powerful [tool] ever invented to find and disseminate information.”

Millions of Americans would rather count Facebook and Twitter for news before even considering a reputable news source. Traditional, reputable sources of news (newspapers and TV news reporters) are often delayed in what they can report. Before deciphering and sharing information, it must be thoroughly researched and verified as factual. With internet users wanting information fast, they’re often led to consume information from “clickbait” and even fake news sources.

Sites like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit — although moderators eventually closed r/pizzagate — and 4chan allowed #Pizzagate conspiracy theories to circulate among thousands of people around the world. Even “InfoWars” owner Alex Jones uploaded a video to YouTube on the subject. It was reportedly viewed over 400,000 times before the site pulled it down.

How Can Your Business Avoid A #Pizzagate Scenario?

After the nightmarish events of #Pizzagate, business owners are waking up to the reality that no rumor is too ridiculous to be dangerous to one’s brand. Social media conversations have the power to make or break a company — even if what’s said about the business is a lie.

As hopeless as this may make businesses feel, there is a silver lining. Social media may be used to spread poisonous rumors, but it can also be used to fight back.

  • If your business is at the center of a #Pizzagate like scandal, it’s definitely newsworthy. Why not contact local new sources to give them your side of the story? The stranger the twist, the more likely your appeal to the community for support can go viral. Will it make conspiracy theorists leave you alone? Not necessarily, but at least you’ll know that there are plenty of people who have your back. You may even see a bump in business!
  • Band together with other businesses to demand action from social media sites. That’s exactly what a slew of advertisers did when it came to hate speech on YouTube. These advertisers did not like that their ads were running in front of videos advocating extreme, and often prejudiced, viewpoints. Their boycott forced Google to act.
  • Pay careful attention to what is said about your business online. This is often as easy as performing searches on social media sites and setting up Google alerts. If you stay up to date with your company’s online reputation, you won’t be blindsided by nasty rumors!
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    There are various tools one can use to both prepare for and respond to a #Pizzagate-like situation before it drives their business off the rails. Contact us to learn how we can help you develop a social media strategy.

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