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A Viral Nightmare

Tim Burr

November 22, 2016
Tim Burr

What Happens When Social Media Gets it Wrong


Recently, shoe manufacturer, New Balance, stepped in something in a major way.


Wall Street Journal reporter, Sara Germano, quoted New Balance vice president of public affairs, Matt LeBretton, in a tweet that read, “Obama admin turned a deaf ear to us & frankly w/ Pres-Elect Trump we feel things are going to move in the right direction.”


New Balance Viral Tweet


Within hours, shoes started burning.


Liberal New Balance customers saw LeBretton’s statement as an explicit endorsement of the Trump presidency and campaign. Social media lit up with people destroying their New Balance shoes in creative ways. Torching, flushing, trashing.


New Balance quickly issued a statement saying that LeBretton’s comments were taken out of context and that he was specifically referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which President Obama supports but Trump, Clinton and Sanders do not.


However, the situation then worsened when popular white supremacist website, the Daily Stormer, declared New Balance as the official shoes of white people.


The irony is that New Balance is committed to manufacturing in the US. They oppose the TPP because they think it will hurt their ability to make products here. Liberals are, in general, against the TPP for that same reason.


But I just used the word “reason.” And reason is not where we are anymore.


As marketing site Digiday points out, “Brands have been advised for years to ‘join the conversation’ on social media, but increasingly the conversation is wild-eyed people shouting each other down with accusations of intolerance and worse.”


In a polarized environment, brands can become proxies for external ideas. They can become shibboleths – identifiers that prove one is part of a specific group.


When people feel that they have little power at the voting booth, as many do today, this situation can intensify. People realize that, while they vote every few years, they buy things every day. If enough of them feel empowered to turn against a brand, and are able coordinate over social media, that brand is in serious trouble.


I suspect that once people understand New Balance’s actual position, the burning will stop. Social media will probably help correct the misconception. But who knows? This situation will probably make people think twice about buying New Balance shoes.


As the saying goes, a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on. How far does it get in the age of social media?