Alistair Fairweather

Egg all over your Facebook

2010-03-26 08:20

Everyone loves a David vs Goliath story, and they don't get much nastier than Nestlé vs the orangutans, or much sillier than Nestlé vs Facebook users.

Greenpeace sparked the furore with a provocative campaign that blames Nestlé for the plight of Indonesia's critically endangered orangutans. Their habitat - the ecologically fragile rainforests - is being systematically cleared to make room for palm oil production - an ingredient in many of Nestlé's products. Beware - the video is not for the weak of stomach.

The campaign prompted hundreds of enraged users to swarm onto Nestlé's official page on Facebook and fill its comments area with their bile. Some of the users swapped their profile pictures for modified Nestlé logos - such as "Killer" written in the KitKat font - and that's when it got really silly.

Nestlé representatives began deleting comments which featured modified logos, and then posted an ill-conceived warning about the practice. To complete the PR disaster they began trading insults with their own Facebook fans. As we say on the interwebs, FAIL.

The link between Nestlé and deforestation is far from clear. As much as we all love to hate the big, bad corporation, it would probably make more sense to attack Sinar Mas, the giant Indonesian palm oil conglomerate that is actually raping the environment. Nestlé is a much easier target though.

What is far more clear is that Nestlé have no idea how to approach social media, or the internet for that matter. Their initial responses on Facebook smack of an inexperienced junior in the marketing department lumped with internet duties while the grown-ups got on with the real work.

Case in point: in the midst of the turmoil Nestlé published a press release on their site that followed all three rules of old school PR - deny, deny, deny. But by then the damage was already done.

But the most interesting part of the dynamic is that the silly spat on Facebook is what catapulted Greenpeace's campaign into mainstream attention. Once the chatterboxes on Twitter sniffed out the blunder it went global. Everyone loves watching a corporation slip on a proverbial banana peel - particularly one tossed by a cuddly orangutan. And so the serious message piggy-backed on the silly one.

Nestlé have since capitulated and promised to remove all traces of palm oil from their supply chain by mid May. This proves just how powerful the influence of social media, and the internet in general, has become: it can change the policies of one of the world's largest corporations.

On a smaller scale South Africa's blogger community (including yours truly) spoke out this week against the ANC Youth League's bully boy tactics against the press. In a movement dubbed #SpeakZA, scores of bloggers and Twitterers exercised their right to tell the ANCYL-biters exactly where to get off.

In response ANCYL spokesperson Floyd Shivambu was his usual, tactful self: "We have 800 000 members behind us and millions of other ANC activists ... we will not be intimidated by desktop activists."

And he was not the only critic - several local bloggers criticised the campaign, pointing out that the ANCYL was unlikely to change its ways because of a few hundred bloggers. But both Floyd and the other critics are missing the point - our "desktop activism" is the start of a movement - not a movement in itself.

Does desktop activism replace real world protests and boycotts? Absolutely not. Can desktop activism drive and fuel these actions? Just ask Greenpeace.

- Alistair is Social media manager for Media24 magazines.

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