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Ranting on Social Media: Innocent Comment Platform or Bully Pulpit?

  • AuthorTerri Williams
  • Published Tuesday, February 21st, 2017
  • Comments0

When people have unpleasant experiences, they tend to tell others about them. “Others” used to include a handful of coworkers, family members and friends. But, now that social media has become the preferred communication platform, it’s only logical that people use it when they want to voice their disapproval and dissatisfaction.

A vast number of topics are broached on social media, but some of the most interesting rants include:

  • A mother who complained that her son with special needs was not invited to a fellow classmate’s birthday party. She confronted the birthday boy’s parents – who apologized and extended an invitation – but the mother still thought it was important to share the story on Facebook to help educate other people.
  • A man in a dispute with a company over responsibility for repairs to his air conditioner posted his complaint against the company, and then posted photos of himself and his family looking hot, sweaty and miserable on a near-daily basis. The company decided to pay for the repairs.
  • After an in-flight medical emergency, a female OB-GYN resident – who could not produce her credentials – complained that a stewardess didn’t believe her to be a doctor. In response, the airline stated three people claimed to be medical professionals and offered to help, but the airline only used the services of the one doctor who was able to produce credentials.
  • A woman complained that, when she went through the airport’s TSA security line, she triggered the sensors near her private area and objected to subsequently being searched in that region of her body. The TSA explained that searching is standard procedure when a passenger triggers a sensor.

In addition to these notable scenarios, there are daily complaints about customer service, sporadic complaints by waitresses about famous customers leaving meager tips and students complaining about being called out for supposedly violating their schools’ dress codes. The list goes on and on.

People rant on social media for various reasons, and they clearly realize the advantages of using this medium.

The UK-based Institute of Customer Service determined that the number of consumer complaints made on social media has increased eight-fold since January 2014. A VentureBeat report reveals that consumers post 2.1 million negative comments about U.S. companies on social media every day.

According to The Social Habit, 79 percent of the people who turn to Twitter to complain about a company want their friends to see what they’ve written. Only 52 percent hope the company will see the post, and roughly 36 percent expect the company to actually see and take action based on their comments.

Some people might view ranting as an emotional outlet, especially because there’s a school of thought that warns about the dangers of letting anger build up without any release. However, one study, called “Anger on the Internet: The Perceived Value of Rant-Sites,” revealed that online ranting seems to increase anger. Whether participants in the study read someone else’s rant for a period of five minutes or spent five minutes writing their own rants, it negatively affected their emotions and made them even angrier.

Ironically, an organization’s own social media tools could also negatively impact a consumer’s view of the company. This concept was brought to light in another survey conducted by The Social Habit, in which participants divulged the response times they expected when using social media to contact a company for customer support. Of the participants, 32 percent said they expected to receive a response in 30 minutes, and 42 percent expected a response within one hour. Even at night or on weekends, 57 percent expected the same response times to apply. Most companies are not equipped to reply that quickly, especially on a 24-hour basis, and this unpreparedness can actually lead to a higher level of customer dissatisfaction.

While companies might not believe that the customer is always right, they don’t find value in being embroiled in a public relations nightmare caused by a single customer who might have hundreds, thousands or even millions of followers.

To what extent are complainers using social media as a bully pulpit? In most instances, companies wisely choose to avoid online arguments. With high-profile complaints, they might issue statements, but, even then, companies have to be careful not to release information that could have legal ramifications.

For example, if parents rant on social media that their child was suspended for what appears to be a minor offense, in the process of defending itself, the school can’t say, “This is just the latest in a long list of infractions,” and then list the child’s offenses; doing so would entail releasing the private information of a minor.

Companies should be aware that such a defense would be an obvious breach of social etiquette and likely illegal, but individuals should also exercise caution when posting on social media.

California-based counselor Aida Vazin pointed out that social platforms can pose problems for both parties.

“One of the reasons one-sided platforms are a bit troublesome in social media is the fact that they are one-sided, and everything is written down, not just said,” she noted. So, whether the information is accurate or not, once it’s on the internet, that side of the story can live on long after the conflict has been resolved.

Vazin went on to explain that social media lends itself to unchallenged ranting. “There’s a saying that there are three sides to every story – my side, your side, and what really happened – and this scenario is incomplete when there’s a one-sided platform and it only captures a snapshot of a whole event or situation,” she said.

Sometimes, ranting might be a way to garner sympathy and online attention. April Masini, a relationship and etiquette expert and author of the “Ask April” online advice column, said she believes that social media has changed the dynamics of relationships. “We have fast friends and fast enemies because of what we say and like or give a thumbs down to on social media,” Masini said.

The allure of social approval – even from strangers – can spur some people to post sensational content. Everyone loves to hear an exciting story, and, unfortunately, bad news travels faster than good news. As any media outlet can confirm, bad news also generates more clicks and page views.

But, what separates online rants from the material produced by legitimate media outlets is that personal posts aren’t fact-checked, balanced stories that attempt to present both sides – or even admit that all of the facts have not been collected.

Masini agreed with the findings of The Social Habit that ranting is done primarily for social media friends to see, not as a way to solve a problem. “Ranting is a symptom of not working to fix conflicts,” she said. “When someone is working on a problem — be it a relationship problem, a financial problem or a real estate problem – they’re not ranting; they’re working on the problem.”

Rather than an active attempt at solving issues, Masini said, online ranting is a way for people to express their displeasure. “Whether it’s displaced road rage, graffiti on the side of a building, or ranting on social media, they just want an outlet,” she said.

On the other hand, some social media rants can be productive. Last holiday season, I saw a post about how long one individual spent waiting to see a customer service representative at a local Apple Store before finally leaving in frustration. Several other people commented on the post with negative remarks, but one user explained that making an appointment usually leads to much faster service. A few days later, the original poster claimed she made an appointment and was serviced within minutes of entering the store. Assuming the other negative posters didn’t know the importance of making an appointment before arriving at an Apple Store, this negative experience was turned into a teachable moment.

Also, the post by the mother of the special needs student who was not invited to his classmate’s birthday party was picked up by a major news outlet, and the story led to a lively debate over the right of parents and students to choose the classmates they want to invite to private functions versus the insensitivity of excluding certain classmates.

Admittedly, social media rants can be quite effective in changing company behavior. If it improves customer service or changes a ridiculous policy, perhaps complaining online can be a force for good.

But, when companies have logical, well thought-out policies and procedures, and they are forced to make exceptions to those rules because an irate customer threatens to damage the brand’s reputation, ranting becomes a type of coercion.

It can also reinforce bad behavior. Just as some parents relent when their toddler screams and hollers, ranting adults learn that throwing a temper tantrum on social media will lead some companies to surrender.

“I believe two-sided platforms such as the mutual rating system of Uber is a great balance and good rule to implement when rating or complaining about others in social media,” Vazin said.

Christopher Bauer, Ph.D., a fraud specialist and the author of “Better Ethics NOW: How to Avoid the Ethics Disaster You Never Saw Coming,” offered tips for ranters and the objects of those rants.
For ranters, Bauer said, “Remember that your rant will be seen both by the object of your rant and potentially countless others, so unless it’s an emergency, cool down before you post.”

Bauer explained that there are several reasons to take a step back and calm down. “Not only do you not want to risk libel liability, but you don’t want to risk your personal reputation,” he said. Once a ranter develops a reputation as a rash person or someone who can’t separate objective information from perceptions and feelings, Bauer said this individual will lose credibility.

“One of the pleasures of social media is that it can feel like any other conversation with rapid-fire back-and-forth – but it’s exactly that immediacy, especially when we’re excited or riled up, that can lead to posting thoughts and perceptions we’ll later regret having said in public.”

For the objects of the rant, Bauer suggests taking a different approach. “If you’re a business, respond immediately, but take it off social media as quickly as possible with a call (because it’s both more direct and personal), or, if absolutely needed, via a text or email,” he said.

However, Bauer didn’t recommend that companies try to ignore the negative posts. “Besides the fact that responding is simply better customer service, anyone ranting today is a whole lot more likely to keep ranting tomorrow if you don’t respond,” he said.

Terri Williams writes for a variety of clients including USA Today, Yahoo, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, Investopedia, and Robert Half. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Follow her on Twitter @Territoryone.

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