Chick-Fil-A and Facebook: How Do You Prove a Negative?

There’s been a lot of buzz in the past few days around an exchange on the official Chick-Fil-A Facebook page. TechCrunch has a screenshot of the conversation. Basically, in light of Chick-Fil-A’s official anti-gay-marriage political stance, Jim Henson’s company pulled its branded Muppet toys from Chick-Fil-A’s children’s meals.

There was some controversy as to whether the Muppets were kiboshed as a response to Chick-Fil-A’s political views. Jumping into the fray was gramatically-challenged “teenage girl” Abby Farle, who claimed that “no my friend went to chickfila 3 weeks ago and there was no toys. derr” [sic]. Her profile photo, as an astute commenter pointed out, was actually a stock photo. She clearly wasn’t who she said she was.

Photo via TechCrunch.

Photo via TechCrunch.

So who was she, then? Was she Chick-Fil-A, posing as a fan? Or was she someone else?

The Problem with Anonymity

This particular problem is multi-layered. It’s a problem with anonymity online in general (the issues with which are many and much-chronicled) and also a problem with the specific way that anonymity works on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. It’s up to them to decide whether you’ve been impersonated online and what will be done about it. It’s also up to them to collect and control identifying information about members, and how to release it – or not – publicly.

It’s an even broader issue than that, though. It’s a problem with anonymity, full stop. It comes from the basic human desire to communicate socially unacceptable sentiments from behind the veil of anonymity, so as not to jeopardize one’s social standing. We can see this in everything from the crude graffiti found on walls in the lost Roman city of Pompeii to the iconic threatening note made from letters cut out of a magazine to the hell that breaks loose in comment sections on, basically, everything on the entire Internet.

The difference with Facebook, of course, is that anonymity theoretically doesn’t function there. According to Facebook’s terms of service, this should never have happened in the first place:

Facebook users provide their real names and information, and we need your help to keep it that way. Here are some commitments you make to us relating to registering and maintaining the security of your account:

  1. You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission.
  2. You will not create more than one personal account…

The creation of “Abby Farle” pretty clearly violates the Facebook ToS. But anyone who’s been on Facebook for more than 5 minutes will see that this part of the ToS isn’t particularly strictly enforced (and by “particularly” I mean “at all, for the most part”).

Proving the Negative: Why Any Company With A Facebook Page Should Be Paying Attention

Facebook isn’t about to start analyzing IP addresses to figure out exactly who posted the “Abby Farle” posts; they don’t have to, and frankly, it’s not their job. This is a PR crisis, not a criminal one. We may never find out for sure who created the Abby Farle Facebook account and posted on Chick-Fil-A’s wall – even if someone claims it, they may or may not be telling the truth.

And therefore, more importantly in this case, you can’t prove who didn’t do it.

You certainly can’t prove that Chick-Fil-A didn’t. Even if they had nothing to do with the debacle, they can’t prove non-involvement; and in the absence of proof, suspicion remains.

The dangerous thing for organizations on Facebook, in particular, is that this could happen to any of them. A disgruntled employee, a competitor, or just someone who disagrees with their political stance could engineer something similar, in a way that places suspicion on the company itself. Part of me wonders why this doesn’t happen more often, to be honest: all the tools are there. I do wonder whether it will happen more often now.

What Can We Do Now?

The greatest lesson for organizations following the Chick-Fil-A controversy is twofold.

First, be vigilantUnderstand that anonymity online just doesn’t function in reality like it does in the platform ToS. Make sure that your social media channels are consistently monitored by an experienced social media manager and that you have a plan in place to mitigate any potentially damaging communications.

Second, understand the weaknesses of your social media platform(s). More specifically, understand how they might be used against you, and have a contingency plan – and ideally, a crisis communications plan – in place. This is one of many reasons that you need an experienced social media manager handling your presence on social media channels: these are powerful platforms with a lot of public influence, and they need to be understood as such. An experienced and astute person will be able to shape your response to a crisis like Chick-Fil-A’s.

What do you think? How would you have responded to a controversy like this?