Navigating the social media maelstrom

05 Oct 2011

I have to admit that the world of social media – Twitter, Facebook and the like – certainly until recent times has been something of the great unknown for yours truly.  Clearly, the influence of such sites and their ability for communication and global interaction between people is something to behold, and the take-up has been nothing short of phenomenal.  I am not a particularly avid user of such sites however I can appreciate the business benefits that could be accrued including advertising/sharing information, etc.

Clearly, there are far more people much more savvy about social media than myself and as I write there is a growing and considerable community of financial services stakeholders using Twitter in particular to communicate.  However, from recent news it seems that what can be a channel for good, can also lead to trouble if it is not used in the correct manner.  Like all communication tools there is etiquette to using a site such as Twitter, and for those who stray into grey areas or take things too far, the consequences can be far-reaching.

Before looking at our own industry’s use of such media and the problems that can arise, we need only look at a recent example of what I call ‘Twitter ego’ getting the better of a user.  It is to me unfortunate that there tends to be a type of user that posts comments based on the fact that, a) anything goes, and b) there is unlikely to be any consequences for those postings. 

Recently I’ve been made aware of the ‘art of trolling’ where individuals post comments with the explicit intent of either upsetting another user or simply hoping for any kind of reaction.  Therefore, trolls will tend to post the most reprehensible comments in order to stoke the fires and upset others.  An internet troller, Sean Duffy, was recently jailed for using Facebook to mock the deaths of two teenagers, taunting the families and friends of the victims.

Clearly, this is an extreme practice but appears to be much-used and therefore it is right and proper that the perpetrators are caught and punished.  In other areas, tweeting has also got individuals into trouble.  In the news recently was the Samoan rugby player, Eliota Fuimaono Sapulo, who took to Twitter during the Rugby World Cup to bemoan everything from the International Rugby Board’s treatment of his team, to the performance of the referee, Nigel Owens, in his country’s key game with South Africa; even going so far as to call him racist, biased and to criticise his sexuality – Owens is gay.  This has landed Sapulo in deep trouble to the extent that as I write this, he is suspended from playing rugby anywhere in the world.

The broker and intermediary world has not been immune from the grey areas that Twitter and Facebook can sometimes throw up.  Recently, the FSA has been contacting broker and packager users of Twitter to ask them to remove tweets which it determines to be straying in to the areas of offering advice, rather than simply ‘providing information’ as the tweeters would suggest they are doing.  The regulator seems adamant that any tweeting of product information is potentially advice rather than information and therefore should come with all the necessary risk warnings and disclosure.  Rather difficult to do however when a tweet only allows you 140 characters.

Many have suggested that this is an over-reaction on the part of the regulator and one would be hard pressed to disagree, however, it does highlight the ongoing confusion about what is acceptable social media use and what might be construed as stepping over the mark.  One might hope that if a common sense approach was adopted by users, those reading and the regulators then we would be able to find a way to determine acceptable practice.  And yet common sense is often the first mindset that goes out of the window in these determinations.

For brokers and advisers it would seem that information sharing can only go so far.  For the FSA the financial promotions are quite clear; using Twitter to promote a company brand is acceptable but promoting individual products is not.  In other areas if we are using these sites for business we should adopt a professional business approach and ensure our employees are doing the same.  There could be considerable problems for employers if employees are using what are ostensibly business accounts to post personal, private and individual views.  Employers should ensure there is a strong demarcation between the two otherwise there could be #hugeproblems for all concerned.

Bob Hunt

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