Weaponising Social Media

Earlier in the year, we witnessed anti-fracking activists descending on the premises of any business believed to be supplying Cuadrilla's site in Lancashire and intimidating them until they agreed to sever any ties to the shale gas industry. They did it at Armstrong Aggregates in Horwich, Moore Readymix in St Annes, A-Plant in Penwortham and many more besides. 

The public reaction to seeing this bullying behaviour resulted in it turning its back on the anti-fracking movement in droves. People started to write in to local newspapers to criticise what they were seeing, and it received mainstream news coverage locally, regionally and even nationally.

It appears to have now stopped, but that doesn't mean the intimidatory tactics have - they've simply moved from the real world to the virtual world instead.

There has been a huge upswing in instances of orchestrated and coordinated attacks on the Facebook pages and Twitter feeds of businesses directly and indirectly linked to fracking. Activists leave fake reviews that are very negative and abusive, they purposefully give 1-star ratings (pretending to be dissatisfied customers) and encourage fans and followers to boycott these businesses. This could be very damaging, especially for smaller businesses that rely on recommendations.

Unfortunately, it is happening under the radar and the majority of the public, decision-makers and policy formers will be totally unaware of the abuse that's going on.

Taking action 

It's important that this behaviour is exposed, and we would encourage people to write to their local MPs and County Councillors to explain what's going on and to ask them to publicly condemn it. If you choose to do so, you may wish to consider drawing attention to these pertinent points:

1. It's reminiscent of the tactics adopted by animal rights extremists

Having failed to pressure company bosses, activists campaigning against the Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) animal testing laboratory in Cambridgeshire switched their attention to companies using the facility, financing it and providing it with goods and services. During its campaign, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) targeted more than 40 companies to try to force them to sever their links with HLS. Speaking to the Independent in 2014, a spokesperson for the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), Robin Webb, said that "other environmental campaigners have taken a lot from SHAC's example over the years".

Environmental campaigners have borrowed the tactics of animal rights extremists.

2. Online reviews affect buying behaviour 

We live in a digital age in which the public have a significant opportunity to voice their opinions about products, businesses and brands through online reviews. While companies may or may not invite their customers to do this by offering the chance to leave reviews on their own websites, there are also a host of websites such as Yelp, Google, TripAdvisor, Twitter and Facebook that give the public a chance to make their views heard, whether businesses like it or not. According to research by Populus, 59% of shoppers are influenced by online reviews. This is supported by research which found that perceived informativeness and persuasiveness of online reviews has a significant effect on consumers' purchase intention, and that perceived quantity of reviews has a direct impact on purchase intention too. The 2011 Online Influence Trend Tracker found that a four out of five consumers will change their mind about making a purchase due to negative information online.

A large number of emotive and negative reviews left by activists could deter customers and lead to a loss of sales.

3. The reputational impacts could be incalculable

A Harvard University Study found that the sales revenue difference between a 3-star and 5-star rating on Yelp.com can be as much as 18%, so for a small business with a turnover of £500,000 a year, that's the same as missing out on sales of £90,000. Google says that businesses with a 3-star rating or above get 87% of the clicks - how many clicks do you think businesses get with a 1-star rating? If four out of five consumers will change their mind about making a purchase due to negative online information, it means that a small business that sells a product for £5 per unit and normally ships 50 units a day could see sales drop by 80% to from £250 to just £50 per day. Bigger businesses with more valuable products or selling bigger quantities would be hit even harder. It's not sustainable and could leave some firms in a perilous condition.

Fake reviews and 1-star ratings could end up costing companies not just their reputation but their survival.

Who to write to

It's important that local MPs and County Councillors are made aware of what's going on. As concerned constituents, they have to listen to you. 

To find out who your MP is, use this simple online tool where all you need to do is enter your postcode. It will bring up their Parliamentary profile where you'll find their email address.

Likewise, to discover who your local County Councillor is, enter your postcode here. Again, it will serve you up their profile where you'll be able to obtain their email address. 

We recommend using email because it's more easily traceable (you can often check to see if it's been opened), they are likely to be read by the recipient or an assistant, and it doesn't even cost you the price of a stamp.

Be polite and courteous, but be firm too. Ask them to publicly denounce the sort of behaviour we're witnessing in order to discourage activists from blighting more businesses with damaging fake reviews.