The senseless and horrific murder of Cecil the Lion has outraged the world. It was a reprehensible act. Walter Palmer, the hunter who killed the beloved lion is the subject of hatred and contempt. There was no justification for what he and his guides did and hopefully there will be some way he can be held accountable and punished legally. Yet Walter Palmer brings up a subject that crisis communications experts are dealing with frequently in this digital age – internet vigilantism.
Internet vigilantism is where people use social media and the internet to publicly shame and humiliate brands or individuals that have done something that is perceived unacceptable. In the case of Palmer this has meant giving out his work address that led to protests outside his office, reviews on Yelp, and even actress Mia Farrow tweeting his home address. As a result of the worldwide outrage, Palmer closed his office and brought down his website and social media pages.
Internet vigilantism creates havoc and is often wrong. Just ask the residents of Steubenville, Ohio. The residents of Steubenville, Ohio, a town that became the target of Internet “hacktivists” following rape charges against two teenage boys, described their community as “destroyed” by online vigilantes pushing for what they considered justice. (The case, later accounts suggested, was far more complicated than bloggers online seemed to realize.) Masked strangers spooked Steubenville children by hiding in their lawn; hackers broke into the Steubenville police chief’s email, then posted a photo of him in a G-string; and an anonymous threat temporarily shut down Steubenville schools.
Another case of internet vigilantism gone wrong was when Adria Richards who was employed by SendGrid, an email delivery company, overheard two men joking during a crowded presentation. Richards was offended by the joke and took a picture of the two men who were making jokes. She tweeted, “Not cool. Jokes about forking repo’s in a sexual way and “big” dongles. Right behind me #pycon.” She also attached a photo of the two men making the jokes. One of the men was fired after her tweet. But then it got interesting, it turned out the men were not joking about sexual matters. Then the internet vigilantes turned not just on Richards but on her employer as well. SendGrid became caught not just in a media firestorm but an online one as well.
Companies like SenGrid find themselves in the crosshairs often not just because of something the company or one of its executives has done but because of actions of employees that the company is often unaware of. A post on Facebook or tweet by an employee of a company can create a pitchfork mentality.
And then there are customers and clients. One dissatisfied consumer can create an internet vigilante crowd for a company. A client who feels that they did not get everything they were entitled too or who could never be sasitified can take to social media creating an internet vigilante mob. More and more we are seeing this crowd take to Yelp and post negative reviews about companies. Yelp does have filters in place to spot fake reviews, but as we are seeing in Palmer’s case it is easy to get pass them. While Palmer did something atrocious, the problem is the next business that is the target of internet vigilantism may not yet reviews on Yelp will affect their business. The problem is that it’s hard to verify the legitimacy of reviews even when the business is a target of internet vigilantism. I know of one company that was the target of this vigilante justice that it had to set up a page on its website just to address the negative Yelp reviews. Often the attacks are so severe that businesses are forced to shut down or relocate.
Internet vigilantism is a phenomenon that is here to stay. With more review sites like Yelp popping up the damage internet vigilantism can cause a business during a crisis is immense and even longer lasting and more damaging then negative media stories. Crisis communications experts are going to have to develop a strategy for it in all future crisis communications plans for clients.