The dark, ugly side of social media marketing

Roger Pe

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The dark, ugly side of social media marketing
'Black propaganda should have no place among marketers.... Our marketing tools may now be digital, but what has not and should not change is our ethics.'

According to Maximilian Nierhoff in his Social Media Analytics Blog, the number of Facebook users worldwide went over the one billion mark last year – 1,056,000,000 to be exact. Of these, 76,032,000 were “bad” user accounts. Some 52,800,000 were duplicate accounts, 13,728,000 were user-misclassified, and 9,504,000 were listed as spam accounts.

The United States, Brazil, and India are the world’s top 3 Facebook users. The Philippines ranks 3rd in Asia behind India and Indonesia, and is the second fastest growing Facebook country in the world next to Brazil.

Practically everyone now is on social media. Social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, are very much part of our daily lives. In fact, Filipinos are among the most active social media users in the world, with Makati and Pasig cities combined as the selfie capital of the world, according to TIME Magazine’s global rankings.

No wonder it is now practically mandatory for a brand to maintain an official social networking account to belong to a family of legitimate brands, where it can easily connect and engage with consumers and would-be customers. 

With consumers using social media for a wide range of activities – such as asking advice from friends before making a purchase, recommending restaurants, shops, and other establishments they love; and posting rants about poor customer service – social media has become a very powerful tool for marketers. 

They use it for influencing people, for example. Social media’s persuasiveness has proven to be potent and can easily snowball. The chain reaction is so fast that building a critical mass can be achieved in a shorter time span.

But along with this use comes responsibility. 

No one can question just how powerful the reach of social media can be. One negative tweet or post on Facebook can potentially destroy the reputation and credibility of people, companies, and institutions, undoing almost instantly what was painstakingly built for years.

In a world where consumers trust the social media posts of their family, friends, idols and peers more than the advertising and marketing campaigns of brands, we need marketers to practice responsible social media marketing. All of us deserve professionalism and ethical use of social media. 

The reason why people trust social media posts is because they are supposed to reflect actual experiences of real people. You believe in your friend’s Facebook post when he or she recommends a restaurant because you trust your friend’s judgment. You read customer reviews about a product before buying a gadget or appliance because you believe these are unbiased opinions from ordinary customers like you. 

We approach social media in good faith, believing that it empowers ordinary people like us, giving us a stronger voice as consumers and providing companies with more incentive to improve their products and services, and treat their customers better.

For the most part, social media has been beneficial to the consumer by giving them more choices and information. Just as any other channel, however, social media marketing also has a dark side, and can be used as tool for disinformation and black propaganda by unscrupulous practitioners. 

Black propaganda

It is alarming to find out from Rappler that, apparently, certain social media marketers practice what is called “black ops.” In all honesty, this kind of malicious practice was previously thought to limited to the confines of politics, where mudslinging and smear campaigns are unfortunately very much of a tradition.  


It is therefore alarming to me that the unscrupulous practice have also reared its ugly head in social media marketing. Instead of allowing consumers to make informed choices, social media is being used to tarnish a brand’s reputation and prevent people from learning about the benefits of its products and services.

These “black ops” campaigns are carried out using fake Twitter accounts, which are either automated – what they call “bots” – or maintained by people hiding behind fictitious names for the sole purpose of sending out negative posts against a brand and spamming the customers who follow or tweet about these brands. Instead of genuine conversations among real people about the pros and cons of the product or service, what we have here is a concerted and cynical effort to drown out the discussions under a deluge of negative posts.  

It is one thing for a consumer to use social media to post real complaints about a brand. It is quite another for some unscrupulous group to manufacture negative posts about a brand in an effort to derail its social media marketing efforts and damage its reputation.   

Black propaganda should have no place among marketers – not if we want to lay claim to legitimacy and respectability. It comes across as an act of desperation, and betrays the trust of consumers. 

Our marketing tools may now be digital, but what has not and should not change is our ethics.  

Being digital is no excuse for becoming unethical.  

In fact, the speed, reach, and influence of social media make it even more vital for us to make all our campaigns grounded on ethical practices. We are talking here about the right of consumers to accurate information and freedom of choice. 

As respectable marketers, let us condemn this unscrupulous practice of conducting “black ops” campaigns. As consumers, let us remain vigilant and guard against fake social media accounts and black propaganda.  

Let the people choose, and let the market decide, and let the chips fall where they may. –

Roger Pe has over 25 years of advertising experience as copywriter and executive creative director for many local and multinational ad agencies in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam. Presently, he’s a professional screener at ASC (Ad Standards Council) Philippines, the country’s advertising watchdog.

Social media image via Shutterstock.


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