When Social Media Attacks


Anyone else get the feeling that there comes a point when social media can be a bad thing? Oh sure, it has incredible power, but that’s both good and bad. On the good side, it enables mass communication on levels never seen before in real-time. Many have tied social media to the success of the so-called Arab Spring, and that makes it truly impressive. But there’s a bad side. Social media has no fact-checking requirements. If a story sounds good, it can blow up in minutes even if it’s silly or even downright wrong. The airlines have really felt a lot of that lately. What’s worse about this? I honestly don’t know the best way for airlines to react.

Twitter Shark

Take Delta, for example. It has had a one-two punch lately of bad stories that got out of hand quickly. The most recent was the completely silly idea that Delta hates Jews. The article was first published in some fringe website with the title “Delta’s incredible ‘no-Jew’ fly policy.” The suggestion was that since Saudi Arabian would be joining the SkyTeam alliance, of which Delta is a member, and since Jews aren’t allowed in Saudi Arabia (not really true), Delta therefore hates Jews. As my mother would say, oy gevalt.

The formula was simple here. Some group with an agenda to push brings together a few tiny bits of fact and turns it into a story. It makes the story sound juicy enough so outlets start picking it up. Within no time, some site with at least a little credibility picks it up and then it snowballs from there. Within hours, the world thought Delta was going to ban Jews from its flights. (Good thing that’s not true since I’ve got a ticket for September.)

The reality is that none of this is airline policy. Saudi Arabia, along with every other country, sets rules for who can and can’t enter the country. Airlines make it a policy to ensure that every passenger that gets carried to that country has the proper documentation for entry. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a full ban on Jewish people, but it does say that people with an Israeli stamp or visa “could be refused entry.” (It also says the same thing about people who don’t comply “with the Saudi Arabian requirements regarding general appearance.”) Is that a bad policy? Yes. Should Delta take heat for the policies of a country to which it doesn’t even fly? Come on. But that didn’t matter – the story exploded and Delta looked terrible in a matter of minutes.

This one, of course, came on the heels of the military bag fiasco. In that one, soldiers were coming back from Afghanistan and had four bags each. Delta offered three bags for free to active duty military members traveling on orders, but they had to pay for that fourth bag. The soldiers posted it on YouTube, and Delta quickly became unpatriotic and evil. Why? Because the airline only allowed three free bags instead of four? People just couldn’t believe that an airline would charge soldiers to take bags after war. But guess what? The Pentagon actually reimburses soldiers for that. Oops. Not such a big story in reality, but soldiers are a hot button issue and this one took off quickly.

In both cases, Delta had to rush a response, and that’s dangerous. In the military incident, Delta increased its free bag allowance and others followed. With the Saudi Arabian deal, Delta simply clarified its relationship by explaining there would be no codesharing or frequent flier redemption. The former isn’t a surprise, but the latter is very strange since mileage earning and redeeming is a cornerstone of any alliance. But Delta felt it had to react before things got worse.

And that’s the scary thing here. If a story gets big, it can have a real impact on any airline. So those “influential” people with a large Twitter following or a gaggle of Facebook friends can basically hold the airline (or any company) hostage. (I’m not suggesting that the soldiers were acting maliciously here – just using that as an example of a story that can blow up quickly.) This encourages people to try to take up arms and go to the web to get their way. It’s great when someone is actually wronged, but that’s not always the case. By caving and changing the airline’s baggage policy, Delta is opening up to people to try to influence them even when those people are wrong. And people who are more “influential” online carry more weight.

I spoke about this with Morgan Johnston, the man who built JetBlue’s social media presence from simply himself to a cross-functional team with 19 members. He said that JetBlue is certainly cognizant of this as a potential problem. If you give preferential treatment to those who just happen to be “influential” in cyberspace, then it’s doing a disservice to everyone. Sure, the angry passenger might be happy but someone with a legitimate concern might be overlooked because the company is busy focusing on more “influential” people.

JetBlue understands this, but not everyone does. And the more that others give in when the spotlight shines, the more it will empower other people to do the same.

So while social media can do a lot of good, it can do a lot of bad as well. That’s why I was sad to see Delta give in on the military bag policy. Was there really a problem? No. But it’s hard to put all the blame on Delta. How can you not react when the entire country starts suggesting you hate our troops? I don’t know that anyone knows the best way to react in these situations yet, because it’s a relatively new phenomenon. I certainly don’t know the right thing to do here, and that makes it frustrating.

What do you all think?

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34 comments on “When Social Media Attacks

  1. Great write-up–I couldn’t agree with you more. The soldier story is evidence that far too many people have a tendency to react to stories on an emotional level rather than a rational level, whereas the “Delta hates Jews” story is just pure idiocy, and is frightening that people actually bought into it.

    In both cases though, I think you have to put some of the blame on the traditional media. Both of these stories quickly spilled over from the social media world (the “blogosphere” in the case of the huffington post article, and youtube in the case of the bag story) into “traditional” television news media outlets. If these news outlets were doing their jobs, they would quickly investigate the story and present the facts that the Pentagon actually pays for these bags, instead of seeing the story as something to easily sensationalize in order to generate ratings.

    I also have to question Delta’s response here–why cave in to the emotional response? Respond with facts! Again, in the case of the soldier’s bags, if the government is ultimately paying for the bags, why not immediately drive this point home to everyone in the media? If they would’ve presented that as their defense, anyone reporting on this would have no choice but to present this information, and ultimately, most people would see that Delta was not in the wrong. Instead, Delta chose to responsed to the emotional arguments people were making, instead of the facts, and this ultimately forced their hand in the decision they ended up making.

    1. Good point Andrew. There is definitely a mix of lazy journalism in here from established outlets. But generally those outlets only pick this up after it starts getting buzz on the web. I mean, when things started trending on Twitter, that’s enough for some news outlets to consider it a story regardless of facts. And in a 24 hour news cycle, it’s all about speed. Put it on the air and make corrections later. Too bad.

      David Z – Thanks for including the link. This piece is what the truth should be:

      There’s a third option, which would be the most dangerous for Delta: that the stories are correct, that other airlines are also flying to places that restrict certain visitors, and that doing so is an industry norm. That’s the worst case scenario for Delta, because it means they’d be unlikely to change their policies but would receive a disproportionate share of the blame for a widespread industry practice.

      I mean, JetBlue just signed a deal with Qatar Airways. American has had a codeshare with Gulf Air (owned by the state of Bahrain) for some time. The fact is that airlines work with companies in these countries regardless of the country policy, but Delta just got the avalanche of hate.

  2. It’s always been the case that someone can say anything and have it taken for a fact. But with todays Twitter/Facebook/etc people will believe anything they see and it can blow up fast. But no one checks the facts and will not believe the truth once it comes out.

    Years ago when I worked for TWA and we flew to the middle east, we had to be careful how tickets were issued so as not to show Tel Aviv on the same ticket with other middle eastern cities other the cities in Egypt which was ok and then later Jordan. Airport agents had to make sure those going to Israel has separate pages in their passport for entry stamps/visa so they could be removed by the traveler if they were also going to other middle eastern countries. We would even advise passengers if they were going to Israel before other mid east countrys (ex Egypt/Jordan) not to travel with anything that had anything to do with Israel printed on it (i.e. print materal, Made in Israel,etc) as it would be taken from them when they entered other mid east countrys.

    All this is not new and continues today, so I felt bad for DL when it all hit the fan as they were getting bad press for nothing.

    United codeshare with Qatar but no one brings that up and UA must follow the same entry rules for Qatar just like every other airline that connects/codeshares/flys to Qatar or with Qatar Airlines. So why did DL get hit with bad press, because stupid people that don’t know anything start typing away on Twitter/Facebook and other stupid people believe it.

  3. An angry mob can be a terrifying thing. I think the fact that mobs form based on rumors and then get out of control (or, in fact, *are* controlled by someone) is not new, but it’s scary how fast and efficient this process has become in our world of electronic media.

    1. So you must have been in one of the riots where Muslims went on a rampage because of someone saying something about their prophet ?

  4. This is because we live in a “soundbite” world. Someone can make a 5 second outlandish claim and everyone jumps in to believe it. Explaining the truth will take several minutes. No one wants to sit around that long to listen to the explanation, so they just believe the soundbite.

  5. This is very informative and right on the nose. Social media is truly a great phenomenon, but it has proven to be flawed many times. The great thing about social media is people can freely express opinions and truly be heard by a myriad of people. Just the same, their expression can create conflict and chaos especially when the information they are releasing is fictions and attention seeking. Social media is new and there is no rule of thumb for it yet, but I think it’s up to the “traditional” media outlets to lead it. In the situation with the military soldier’s bags, simple fact checking could have alleviated the situation. I expected “traditional” media to correct the rumors with facts, but instead some bought into it. Now there are citizens who may never know the truth and have developed predispositions based on fiction and not fact.

  6. Soldier’s can have as many bags as they want, good for them. However, I’m curious to know what in the world they had coming back from war that required four giant duffel bags?!?! You would think they would pack light for war.

    1. Yes, that was my thought exactly. A) when the story broke it occurred to me that likely the Pentagon reimbursed the soldiers so what is the big deal but also B) why are they carrying four bags with them? Why can’t the military find some other means of transport? All of that stuff can’t possibly be critical to be carried with the soldier…

      1. The Government, and the Armed forces must be huge costumers of the Airlines. That alone should be good enough for the airlines to allow soldiers to take excess baggage for free. If an airline charges the solder for the fourth bag, and the soldier is reimbursed, who pays for that? We Do….it is our tax money! I can’t imagine the airlines don’t make money from government contracts, Let the airlines absorb the cost of the extra bags. My taxes are high enough!

    2. I believe the soldiers were bringing back military gear beyond just their simple belongings. I had heard some sources say that they brought things they actually shouldn’t have brought, but I don’t recall seeing that confirmed.

      John B – The government fares are incredibly low and they are completely flexible in most cases, so these aren’t always the greatest deals for airlines. If the government wants to require that airlines offer free baggage in the bidding process, then the airlines can take that into account when they prepare their bids.

      1. Exactly – fee structure is an issue for negotiation when the airlines bid for the government contracts. I’m guessing some routes rely on the military traffic more than others.

        Cranky, do you know where military contract fares are listed?

        For civilians at least, the fully refundable fares are listed here.

        1. I’m not sure where to find them or how they’re even handled these days to be honest. That wasn’t an area I really dealt with much when I was doing pricing.

  7. This is similar to the shady website last year that thought United was in bankruptcy even though it was a press release from 2002.

    If Delta really hated Jews, I don’t think we’d see them try to “win New York” :)

  8. I live and work in Saudi Arabia. While I have only been here for less than 2 years, it is generally understood among expats that if you enter “Jewish” in the “Religion” box on the visa application form, a visa will not be granted. And if you have an Israel stamp in your passport, you will be denied entry.

    So Delta should never have to face the problem. If Jews cannot get visas, they will not then buy tickets. If someone buys a ticket anyway, they will be denied boarding due to the lack of a visa. I have travelled to Riyadh on British Airways, Saudi Arabian, bmi, Turkish and almost Lufthansa (while I had a valid visa, I was denied boarding because the Arabic checker thought the lack of a Saudi stamp on one part of my visa would be a problem -it was not). All of these airlines are familiar with the Saudi visa format and check it at least twice, at check in and upon boarding. As far as I know, there are currently no US airlines serving Saudi Arabia directly.

    Here is a web article I found that has some interesting background information:

  9. I don’t particularly like Delta, but I can’t believe the treatment they got handed out by the media in this instance. CBS5 here in SF did their usual trick of sensational headlines prior to the adbreak by saying something along the lines of ‘we reveal which major US airline is banning jews from some of its flights’…nuts.

  10. Cranky has a valid point, especially with regards to the DL/Saudi Arabia issue. It’s totally wrong to give the airline a ration of $#!* because a country has a visa policy out of the middle ages.

    I’m less sympathetic to DL on the military bag fee issue but I admit that’s due to my disgust with checked bag fees in general. If the Pentagon reimburses bag fees incurred by DOD travel, the issue should have died then.

    Which brings us to my point, the reason that people believe the worst when these nasty social network rumors appear. With all of the ways airlines have alienated their customers over the last three or four years, including all of the nickel-and-diming fees, people naturally expect the worst from airlines and are therefore receptive to these nasty rumors.

    The airlines, by their own actions, fertilized the soil where these rumors grow.

  11. It is possible for Jews to get Visa’s to the Kingdom Saudi Arabia, but it isn’t easy. It is unlikely that Jews could get a Visa that would allow them to work in the Kingdom, however it is possible for a Jew to get a Visa for a business visit to a customer in the Kingdom.

    Generally the invitation has to be ‘blessed’ by a high ranking government official, or a member of the royal family. So unless you sponsor is ‘well connected’, a Jew is not going to get a Saudi Visa.

    Whether you can gain entry with an Israel Stamp in your passport seems to be in dispute. I never tried. The Israelis are usually willing to put you entry stamp on a piece of paper in your passport if you asked, alternatively, you could simply use another passport. I kept two US passports for almost 20 years (they had consecutive serial numbers, the Passport office has no problem in issuing multiple passports if you can show a legitimate need for them).

    The other people who cannot get Saudi visa’s are atheists. In fact saying you are atheist on the Saudi Visa Application will cause much more grief than saying you are Jewish.

    Saudi Visa’s are fairly complicated to begin with (there is no such thing as a tourist visa to the Kingdom.

    What definitely is a bar to entry is your passport saying you were born in Israel. I know several people who were able to get the place of birth in their passport changed to address this issue.

    Direct Service to Saudi Arabia for a US flag carrier presents some legal challenges. There is declaration the captain must sign that the aircraft has never been to Israel among other things. This run afoul of US Anti-Boycott regulations. It is illegal for a US national to sign such a declaration.

    Pan Am and TWA both served Saudi Arabia, and both had to have the aircraft Pilot be a non-US Citizen.

    I did business extensively in the Middle East, in both the Kingdom, and Israel. I used to maintain two sets of tickets, two sets of reservations, and two US Passports I’d generally transit from one side to the other via Cyprus. Upon arriving in Cyprus I used to mail my passport and any other documents showing I had been in Israel to a point further in my internary, so I could catch up with them before returning to the USA.

  12. I’m still a bit upset over the 4th bag cave-in. Of course the DOD will reimburse, but only within reason.

    From the airline side, you wouldn’t believe how many people hurt themselves while handling military duffles. that’s WHY there’s a charge for them.. it helps cover worker’s comp. (not kidding here). If you are on your hands & knees in a bin of an airplane, that bag has to get out somehow. Or if you are the guy at the bottom of the belt loader, you typically stand stationary and “grab and toss”… you would be shocked to see how many rampers get hurt.

    Now i’m not saying that military travel is bad, but the fact for the airlines is, they already give the US Government a really good deal on the airfare, and now they are giving away a product that the average Pa Kettle would pay over $300 for…. So for them to cave in and now allow 4, you will see a lot more people traveling with 4 bags, and I bet you’ll also see a lot more workers comp claims from airlines.

    When I was writing the contract of carriage for Mokulele Airlines in Hawai’i, I specifically spent time at Fort Shafter (home of the Pacific Command) and Pearl Harbor (SATO/CWT military travel offices) to ensure the military policies were in line and acceptable to them – and it was set at 2 duffle bags (had to be military issue) and 1 suitcase, no more than 70 pounds. And this came down from the Admiral’s office…. “there’s no reason they need more than that”

  13. One would think that by now people would understand that there’s always going to be someone crying foul. Social media just lets those folks immediately share their gripe with others. It’s unfortunate that most times we don’t even get to hear the offer side of the story – or it’s too late when we do.

  14. “So while social media can do a lot of good, it can do a lot of bad as well.”

    True, but really! When they invented the telephone, came up with the internet, allowed for something called wikipedia, and filled the airwaves with all the truthfulness of talk radio, why single out social media?

    We’re much too lazy to check the facts even if our ability to do so is so much better today than ever before. Checking out one fact might only confuse us because, heaven help us, two facts may apply. Besides, who cares, that happened an eternity ago, meaning 2 minutes ago, so let’s move on to the next outrageous, misrepresented story.

    Other than that, thanks Cranky!

    1. I would argue that Wikipedia is social media – lots of people come together to create something using their collective knowledge and then put it out for public view. But I get your point. The difference is that people generally know with other mediums when something is opinion vs fact. On the internet, something can look very official, seem to have all the credentials, and just be completely wrong.

      1. People will believe things even if they don’t look official. If the information being received fits with a person’s biases, the person will put forth less scepticism in assessing whether the information is accurate.

        People who appear to be fairly functional in their daily lives still manage to believe mind-numbingly stupid conspiracy theories. Intellectual sin.

        If you’re Delta and you’re trying to counteract bad information – good luck. Much of the audience has already absorbed the initial misinformation, and won’t even notice if the original story is retracted, or has been comprehensively shown to be inaccurate.

  15. What was really stupid with the DL Jewish media issue was that so many people believed it, but not one of them wondered if DL didn’t like Jewish people, then why do they fly nonstop to Israel from JFK and ATL.

  16. Good post..Thanks Brett. Just shows how addicted to lazy negative sensationalism we can be. The news organizations love to pick up on these “oh the injustice!” stories that snowball into Delta having to spend an unworthy amount of time and resources on damage control. I just wish it would have had the same effect when I tweeted on the NUMEROUS upgrades I saw Delta employees hand out to military personnel when I was flying over the holidays (a far greater value than what was paid for checked bags in this case). I don’t love or hate Delta any more than any other US airline, but this lazy “reporting” is unfair to so many good people that work for the airline.

  17. In both cases the story wasn’t Delta; it was the manner in which people receive information in 2011. Simultaneously strapped for cash and time, the established news media haven’t got enough staff nor the expertise to properly research articles, and they’re under intense competitive pressure to get something out the door and published quickly, no matter if it’s wrong. Woe to them if they’re 7 minutes late in getting their copy up on the website. The result is that fringe wackjobs can create news, as their output gets amplified by both established outlets and myriad bloggers with no expertise in either journalism or the subject at hand. Also, press releases from companies and pre-written “articles” from political interest groups get simply copied and pasted and presented as news.

  18. Social media can be a really hard thing to go your way even when its produced by yourself – a lot of people cant stand the AirNZ Rico advertisements, but they are getting the attention of a demographic that is notoriously difficult to get the attention of.

    They then had to deal with a viral video of bags being taken from the terminal at a NZ airport directly into a waiting rubbish truck via AirNZ trailers – not a good look! – turns out the airport were using donated bags to test a new baggage handling system (and then dumped them when finished http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxtGPb37WD4)

  19. I couldn’t agree with you more about the lack of fact-checking requirements with social media. I personally don’t use any of the “main sites”. It is too easy to manipulate a story out of context and people seem to want to jump on it if it sounds gossipy.

  20. Social media can be a fantastic tool when used correctly especially when bringing to the attention of the public any wrongdoing. Basically it can keep the bad guys honest. However as can be seen by the examples in this post it is easy for people to use it the wrong way. Any topic which emotionally effects readers has the potential to go viral and out of control. As long as people act irresponsibly though this type of thing will continue to happen

  21. Writing you from the future to let you know that it’s May 2012 and the story about military members being charged for bags is still making the rounds on FB…

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