Viral prank leads to suicide: Did a lack of social media accountability contribute?

Social media is, indeed, a powerful tool that amplifies your reach and connects you with others.

The thing is, our world is so connected now and I think, sometimes, media organisations forget that.

One of the biggest reasons why small and medium businesses (SMEs) self-publish is to leverage social media’s amplification effect. A viral post can do wonders for your reach on social media but should that be what SMEs aim for?

Without a doubt, viral posts are great for SEO and for expanding your reach and, if you’re leveraging them well, your subscriber-base, but today I want to talk about accountability.

Social media: A force for social good or devastation?

Social media is, indeed, a powerful tool that amplifies your reach and connects you with others. But while your words and actions may be a force for social good, they may also have negative and even devastating consequences, as two Australian radio hosts recently found out.

The two DJs from Sydney radio station 2DayFM were unwittingly given confidential information about the Duchess of Cambridge, who had been admitted to hospital with severe morning sickness (You can read about the tragic fall out of this prank on this news website).

Rather than fessing up as soon as it was clear the nurse thought they were, in fact, the Queen and Prince Charles, the DJs kept the ruse going and then took it to air (apparently, after station lawyers had given them the green light).

The prank call went viral on social media amid a huge outcry. Then, a couple of days later, news broke about the tragic suicide of the nurse who put the call through and all hell broke loose in the media and on social media!

So, let’s take a moment to pause and reflect on this. I have to wonder that, if we didn’t live in a world with Facebook and Twitter, would such a tragic thing have happened? Yes, the prank would have been in the news but, within a day, that news would likely have been trumped by something else.

The thing is, our world is so connected now and I think, sometimes, media organisations forget that. The public humiliation associated with such a prank gets thrown into a new light when you consider that friends and friends of friends share news stories and videos too. Imagine being at the centre of a news story and seeing your friends and family unwittingly sharing it on Facebook. Imagine the horror when someone asks on your Facebook wall, “You were working that night, right?”

With great reach comes great responsibility

Regardless of how you are using social media, it’s fair to say that with great reach comes great responsibility. The ripple effect of our words and actions can be a force for good but they can also be devastating.

As business owners who self-publish on blogs and social media, it’s good to keep this in mind, but how do you ensure your content doesn’t lead to negative (or even tragic) consequences for someone down the line?

The simple answer is: put the wellbeing of your readers, and the people they share with, first.

As with any form of communication, there needs to be checks and balances on social media. For instance, I run a membership community for micro business owners and have very clear conduct policies in place for everyone’s safety. I also have a social media admin policy in place for anyone who serves as an admin on my Facebook pages. If one of my admins was subject to cyber-bullying, I would immediately offer my support and refer them for counseling. You just never know what might tip someone over the edge.

Ignoring the need to create policies around social media use could lead to problems down the line, but, conversely, creating policies that are impossible to implement can be just as bad.

It’s clear that regulatory authorities and even political parties are growing more and more nervous about the ripple effect social media has on people’s lives, but instead of creating workable policies, they try, in vain, to control it.

Just yesterday, I heard that the Australian Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, ordered his party members to abandon their Twitter accounts lest they stuff up and say something stupid.

Aside from the fact that members of the public will inevitably share all the stupid things politicians say (regardless of whether politicians have social media accounts or not), I think Tony Abbott has missed the point.

Did he learn nothing from the recent American election? Many analysts believe Obama won that race on Twitter (see this awesome post on Mashable about Obama declaring victory on Twitter). The thing is, Obama capitalized on social media’s amplification affect. Sure there were negative posts about the election campaign, but being responsive on social media definitely won Obama kudos from younger voters and enabled him to build relationships.

Do you have social media policies in place for your small business, health practice, organisation, or cause?

Do you think that businesses and media companies need to show more accountability on the social web?

I would love to hear what you think, so leave a comment below.

  • Sharon Tregoning

    Great post – I have just blogged about the same issue with a similar but slightly different perspective. I think you are right with Tony Abbott – that is akin to imitating an ostrich. It’s about learning to use the mediums available to us responsibly.
    Thanks hun xxx

    • Cas McCullough

      Great minds think alike eh! :-)

  • John Cosstick

    Hi Cas, Another top article. I like your comment about Barack Obama and the U.S. elections. I think history will rate his skills and achievements very highly and social media is just one area. You are right about social media policies being essential. Cyber bullying is bad news (as is all bullying) as it can be invasive and devastating to victims and their families. Excellent comment by Melissa Park on calling for similar laws to stalking. It will be interesting to see how Australia develops.


    John Cosstick