Twitter Boycotts: Social action or lazy bullying?
Because nothing else important is happening in the world, media attention is focusing sharply on the future of Fox News host Laura Ingraham. The popular television and radio personality fled the TV screen recently for a “pre-planned vacation”.
The scandal began when Ingraham tweeted about David Hogg, the Parkland Florida student who has been cultivated by the corporate media into their gun control mascot. Ingraham linked to a report about how Hogg had been rejected from four colleges, writing that Hogg “whines about” it. In retaliation, Hogg posted a list of program advertisers and urged activists to pressure them into dropping Ingraham’s show.
The sponsors dropped like flies: Expedia, Hulu, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Nestle, Nutrish, and TripAdvisor pulled their ads within three days. Media sellers found it difficult to find new sponsors, who were suddenly nervous about being associated with one of the highest rated television shows.
The corporate media have three reasons to focus on this min-drama. First, it is a test of the power they wield over their own viewership base. For the past five years, viewers of the Big Three news channels and cable news has declined precipitously as younger audiences turn toward internet and mobile phone sources. The largest audiences for corporate media outlets tend to be senior citizens.
David Hogg’s appeal to the corporate media is his youth and use of social media apps, which are two things their viewers do not have in common. If he is able to successfully mobilize a broad group of followers into action, then the corporate media can be sure that they still have power and influence despite viewership losses. And, it would seem, they do: Ingraham has vanished for the present time.
The second reason for the corporate media to pay attention to this scandal is the potential threat it poses to themselves. Ingraham, after all, is a media personality, if not a journalist. The very scheme used to cripple her career could be used against anyone else in the media. For their part, Fox News stated that they “stand by Laura” and will not cancel her show. This, too, is an experiment in a time of uncertainty.
The third reason is to determine whether a social media onslaught actually has a long-term impact on a sponsor’s revenue. To be sure, the first few days of a Twitter-based boycott must be breathtaking. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of angry tweets cannot be taken lightly. But what happens the week after?
Does traffic to Expedia really grind to a halt? Does Nestle find its products untouched on the shelves? Or, is the modern Twitter boycott nothing more than a temporary tantrum that never reaches the store shelves? Boycotts were always the traditional means for consumers to make demands upon otherwise untouchable corporate powerhouses. Be it to support unions or to fight for product quality, ethical business practices, or social justice, the boycott was a tool of the trade. But does this hold true in a world where Tweeting hate mail stands in for organized long-term mass strike actions? That is what they are wondering even now.
As for Fox News and every other corporate media outlet, the mission for their advertising sellers is very clear: Convince potential sponsors to display patience in the loud, obnoxious face of modern social media. Learn the true impact of the Twitter-jerk reaction. And plan accordingly.
Sydney Petron is a historian and political analyst currently situated in New Haven, Connecticut.