Alaz Does Not Approve: When Hashtags Attack

By vitamin

Social media disasters are becoming a regular occurrence these days. Like a car crash on the highway, we can’t help rubbernecking (and in my case, howling at the sirens), before moving on with our lives.

Many brands are quickly learning that while Twitter is a great tool to disseminate breaking news, discuss live events or gain access to your favorite celebrity (or celebrity’s dog) it is also one of the most effective tools through which to receive public feedback. Unfortunately, when an attempt to generate positive buzz goes awry, a custom hashtag can turn into a “bashtag” on a dime.

Here’s my roundup on the most memorable fiascos that have ensued when hashtags attack:

1) #JennyAsks for a Dose of Reality


By now everyone is familiar with Jenny McCarthy, the barking mad C-list celebrity and anti-vaccination mouthpiece. She claimed for years that routine vaccinations caused her son’s autism (they didn’t) and that vaccines are full of toxins, all the while injecting her face with botulinum (a.k.a. botox), one of the most deadly toxins on the planet. Silly human.

Earlier this year, Jenny asked her fans a relatively safe question, “What is the most important personality trait you look for in a mate? Reply using #JennyAsks.” Unfortunately what she got was a dose of reality:


Literally thousands of Twitter users took the opportunity to criticize Jenny for her anti-vaccine views. Ultimately Jenny learned that her attempt to engage could not overshadow her drastic views and the Internet does not let uninformed propagandists go unpunished.

Oh and in case anyone asks, my vaccinations are all up to date.

2) #MyNYPD Twitter Brutality

The real-time nature of Twitter has made it an invaluable resource for public officials: the Boston police made use of it in the aftermath of the Marathon bombings to make official announcements; the Aurora, Co., police released breaking news through Twitter following the mass shooting in a movie theater; and now virtually every police department has an official Twitter feed for important announcements.

The NYPD found out that hashtags can attack when NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton decided that the best way to publicize positive cop stories was to ask followers to tweet #MyNYPD with their photos with New York’s finest.

What they didn’t predict was the flood of negative photos that were posted showing New York police brutality, including NYPD’s mishandling of the Occupy Wall Street protesters. More than 70,000 people posted comments on Twitter, making it the top-trending hashtag by that night.


The lesson learned here? Any photos from your past are fair game when it comes to social media sharing; so don’t ask for something you might not want to dredge up. In my opinion, the NYPD had it all wrong from the start. We all know New York’s finest actually walk on four legs. WOOF.


3) #AskJPM & Thou Shalt Receive Harsh Criticism

JP Morgan, the biggest U.S. bank, has faced criminal probes, including one into possible bribery in Asia and another examining its relationship with Ponzi scheme operator Bernard Madoff. The company was asked to pay back more than $300 million for illegal credit card practices. Unfortunately, it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks and JP Morgan learned the hard way that its public image still needs work.

JP Morgan’s #AskJPM PR disaster was supposed to be a chance for Twitter followers to engage with seasoned investment banker, Jimmy Lee. It didn’t take long for users to begin tweeting criticisms at the bank about the recent court rulings, home foreclosures and the bailout.


As JP Morgan quickly discovered, once users grab a hold of your hashtag they are like a dog with a bone. You can’t get it back. Even after the campaign was canceled, the insulting tweets kept rolling in.


In fact, the #AskJPM bashing continues to this day, with tweets getting more and more ridiculous.

Calling Off the Dogs

As a German Shepherd, my intelligence is higher than the average canine, but seems to me that even a French Bulldog could have been predicted this backlash, since the people / organizations are affiliated with controversial topics. When they chose to invite the public into an open dialogue about a topic that is self-promotional or just irrelevant, they asked for trouble. At best, the celebrities, brands and organizations that have been “bashtagged” can take these incidents as a learning opportunity and address the issues that these campaigns brought to light.

A rule of thumb (or paw) before launching a hashtag campaign that solicits feedback is to consider the topic, your brand’s current reputation and what could potentially come out of the conversation. If you’re in the middle of a crisis, a hashtag campaign probably isn’t the best idea — unless you’re using it to specifically address the crisis. As these examples show, the world of “bashtagging” is dog eat dog, and it can potentially do more harm than good.   

What’s your favorite example of a hashtag gone wrong?

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