Social Media’s Newest Trend: Public Fact-Checking

The concept that a company should use social media in an innovative way to gain publicity certainly isn’t news.

In February, Oreo’s “You Can Still Dunk in the Dark” tweet demonstrated to the world that a well-timed social media post could generate more publicity than a multi-million dollar Superbowl ad. What is more, just last week Ikea released the first-ever Instagram website, effectively turning the social media platform into an online store. And while countless other examples of this exist from the past few years, one particular new trend seems to be emerging: fact-checking over social media.


On June 19, The New York Times correspondent, Timothy Egan, published an op-ed criticizing Walmart for unfair labor practices and questionable business techniques. Egan is not the first to criticize Walmart regarding this concern, however Walmart decided to fight back against such accusations for the first time. Instead of submitting edits to The New York Times, writing a letter to the editor, or engaging in other types of damage control, Walmart chose to wage an all-out battle with The Times over social media. Walmart’s Vice President of Corporate Communications, David Tovar, literally took a red pen to Egan’s article, covering it in scathing comments, and posted the marked-up copy on all of Walmart’s social media channels.


With this one move, Walmart turned fact-checking into a social phenomenon, and the response has been met with huge amounts of public attention, both positive and negative. And Walmart isn’t the only company taking its media battles public – just last week Blackberry unveiled a new fact-checking blog devoted to “fighting back” against unfair criticism.


While incorrect and unfair information on the Internet is inevitable, damage control is something that every company must take very seriously. It is important to know when this should be done over social media, or when taking your media battles public is, quite simply, bad PR.


Either way, there is no doubt that public fact-checking can do wonders for a company’s publicity, so here are a few pros to Walmart’s public approach:

1. Exposure 

Walmart’s controversial response undeniably drew a huge amount of attention to the brand, and raised awareness of the issues the company aimed to highlight. According to many sources, simply getting social media mentions and media exposure is the most important PR move there is.

2. Shock Value

There is no way that Walmart could have generated this enormous amount of exposure using traditional fact-checking techniques. By taking a more risky and creative path, the company ensured that the story AND the technique received maximum exposure, creating a broader conversation over social media that will last long after the content itself has become irrelevant.

3. Power to the People

Many proponents of social media fact-checking are arguing that public media battles have long been needed. While media sources like The New York Times have historically acted as the ultimate source for information, perhaps giving social media access to both sides of the debate is the wave of the future.

But although we’ve all heard the old cliché, “all publicity is good publicity,” I tend to side with the many critics who think that public outbursts may do more harm than good. Indeed, there are a number of clear cons to waging a social media battle:

1. Negative Attention

While Walmart’s article may be generating mass amounts of exposure for the company, most of this exposure will likely be negative. Because it is impossible to read Tovar’s article without first reading and understanding Egan’s, Walmart’s bold retort risks drawing even more attention to the original criticism than to its counter-arguments.

2. Unprofessional Image

When it comes to professionalism, Egan’s article beats Tovar’s by a landslide. The Walmart retort is snarky and emotional, and was sent out over social media, while Egan’s article is more traditionally professional and published by a credible media source. And although this more casual social media approach is becoming increasingly common, it could ultimately cost Walmart credibility and public support.

3. Alienation

Despite this shift towards informality and social media, there is no doubt that in many instances, media sources like TheTimes are still hugely powerful sources of information, both in terms of credibility and sheer number of resources. It was risky for Walmart to choose to attack the media that is responsible for most of its credible publicity, and could lead to more far-reaching negative consequences for the company in the future.

But for those of you who like to live dangerously, engaging the public in a media debate may be exactly how you choose to fact-check your critics. So, before you make the decision to take your battle public, here are a few tips for fighting back on social media:

1. Act Fast

One bonus of rapid-response fact-checking methods, such as posting on social media, is that you can get your story out before the buzz surrounding the issue has died down. If you choose to pick a fight over social media, make sure to respond quickly enough to make your argument relevant and notable.

2. Pick your Battles

Before you make the choice to fact-check over social media, carefully consider your decision: will this particular response be an effective counter-argument, or will it just sound petty? If you’re responding to bad publicity to complain rather than explain, hold off on posting until you have substantial facts and reasoning to back up your argument.

3. Watch your Attitude (calculated or scathing?)

When responding over social media, make sure you keep your retorts measured and professional – no matter what. Using scathing, overly critical or emotional language can make you enemies with individual members of the press, alienate you from the media, or worse, lose credibility in the social media community.

Social media may be casual, but that doesn’t mean that you should make decisions that aren’t calculated or considerate of the long-term consequences. So before you decide to bypass the traditional routes of fact-checking and take the issue to all of your social media channels, consider your options carefully to ensure that your actions are helpful rather than harmful.


**Written by Consumer PR intern Carly Meyerson, International Comparative Studies at Duke University (Class of 2016).

451 Marketing

From the team at 451 Marketing @451Marketing!

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