Think big. Be different.

This Is Social Media Blackmail

By Julie Neidlinger on August 6, 2013 in News.

Angryman Cartoon


It’s no longer just the stuff of crime TV shows and movies. It happens in the online reviews of a restaurant, or the Facebook and Twitter feeds of a business.

It could happen to you.

The good news? Social media has given customers some power. The bad news? Some of those customers want to abuse it.

I wasn’t really aware of the extent of social media blackmail until I went down an internet rabbit hole of links that started with a post about Blogher and some “gentle” threats made against the organizers and sponsors. I continued doing searches on the topic and was mortified about what was happening to brands, the more I read similar stories.

What are you supposed to do if people make vicious or unfounded complaints public? I wondered. You can take some basic steps, remain polite, try to bring the conversation into a private setting, and in all things handle it with a calm, level head, but in a review-driven world, the damage would seem to be done. If someone wants to be ugly towards you, they will. Their one-star score gets tallied with the rest.

angryman cartoon | Julie R Neidlinger

Cartoons by Julie R Neidlinger

How does social media blackmail work? Let’s use a restaurant as an example.

Ideally, a restaurant review would talk about the restaurant in a way that other possible patrons would get a real picture of what was happening there. There would be an honest discussion on food, service, and ambience. Such reviews are necessary in a world where more people are using smartphone apps to choose restaurants and businesses to patronize. Those apps rely on user-generated reviews and ratings. This is where the blackmail comes in. The importance of those reviews and people basing choices on them gives a customer the opportunity to blackmail a restaurant for things like comped meals or free food under threat of a poor rating.

Ratings matter. It’s how people are choosing to patronize businesses, particularly when traveling.

“Give me what I want, or I’ll give you a bad review or write a negative blog post about you.”

That’s the sad reality in some extreme case, such as the customer in Sacramento who claimed, without proof, that he had gotten food poisoning at a restaurant . The owner offered to give him a gift card for a free meal at any area restaurant, but that wasn’t enough. The customer demanded a $100 gift card or else he’d write a terrible review on Yelp and report the restaurant to the health department.

What’s even worse is when social media blackmail snowballs, and no matter what a business says or does, the only response from customers is purposeful negativity. A great example happened here in Bismarck, North Dakota when a local TV station fired a new reporter for a momentary slip of profanity. No matter what topic the TV station posted about on their Facebook page in the days following the firing, the response was non-stop fury and insults towards the station for the firing. The social network users wanted to pressure and shame the TV station into changing their mind even though the station had probably made a decision based on factors some of these users weren’t privy to.

Blogger Daniel Edward Craig lays it out best in a blog post about hotel guests, describing the practice of social media blackmailers eloquently:

Intoxicated by their social media clout, bristling with indignation and entitlement, and all too aware of how far some businesses will go to avoid negative commentary, they hint at, request or outright demand concessions and special treatment. And if they don’t get it, the underlying threat, whether real or imagined, is they’ll lash out via social networks.

Craig goes on to say that if a customer has been truly mistreated, and reasonable effort has been made by them to make the situation correct, they might feel as if they have no other recourse but to go public with the incident. I’ll admit that I’ve done that myself. I’ve been frustrated by a lack of response from a company and, after trying repeatedly to get help with the issue in private, found myself without any other recourse to get things to happen other than taking it to social media. That seems an acceptable use case, but it’s probably a fine line that comes down to intent.

As a customer, we might have something negative to say. Is it to hurt a business, or to help? Are we critiquing legitimately or out of revenge and anger? Have you really been wronged by a business, or do you just want free stuff?

It is unfortunate that a concerted effort by a few people can destroy a business’s reputation that they’ve worked deservedly hard to acquire. As writer Malcom Knox said in a disturbing article about social media blackmail and extortion,  “In a blink, social media inverted old ideas of reputation… [It has] made the question of reputation more susceptible to corruption rather than less.”

Angryman Cartoon

Online, your reputation is up for sale.

Amazon reviews aren’t always what they seem. Honest negative reviews bring about wrath. And social media allows customers to attempt a little blackmail for upgrades and all things free.

Hey, Customers

I’m speaking to myself as much as anyone else, here.

When we’re customers and we have a legitimate complaint, we need to take it to the business first, before going public on social media as a last ditch effort. Why? Dirty laundry should go in the washing machine before you hang it on the line for the world to see.

If you wouldn’t say it to the business owner’s face, or the waitstaff in person, then don’t say it online and hide behind anonymity. It might be easier to fire off a nasty Tweet instead of talking to the restaurant manager, but don’t. Be personal first, before being faceless. Be honest without unnecessary cruelty.

Be a decent human. Give the benefit of the doubt.

[Question "Have you ever participated in social media blackmail? Have you been on the receiving end of it?"]

  • Lisa Stewart

    Thank you for this, Julie. Everyone has a bad day -from waiters to customers- and it’s imperative to keep this in context when forming an opinion. Give the establishment 3 attempts before making a sweeping statement about service, et al. By 3 attempts, I mean, 3 visits on 3 different occasions to craft your own personal trend report.

    I hope never to be on the receiving end of a troll review, but I’m sure that’s just a matter of time. Gah!

    • Julie R. Neidlinger

      It’s funny you should mention that “3″ system; it’s one I use, too, and wrote about on my own blog. I always felt that three visits would show consistency, and I never write a negative review until I’ve been there three times and “know for sure.”

      It’s excellent advice.

      • Lisa Stewart

        It all begin long, long ago in Girl Scouts. :) It was that whole, “give the new dish 3 healthy GS bites before dismissing it.”


  • jesimpson

    Yeah, Amazon reviews. The ones that drive me particularly nuts are the ones that say, like, “I have no problem with the book/DVD/etc., in fact I rather love it, but I’m giving one star because Amazon’s shipping policies suck.” Even when they sound like quasi-reasonable, non-inflammatory individuals, I still want to bang my head against the keyboard.

    It’s a little tricky to implement, but one thing which can make these review systems less prone to abuse is a rate-the-rater gizmo — simple thumbs up or thumbs down — so a stranger can evaluate whether it’s worth even paying attention to a rant. “Was this review helpful?”-type systems are a variant form of this. In either case, I think the dominant, always-on sort order for reviews should be to force the most-helpful reviewers/reviews to the top of the heap, with a secondary sort of the shopper’s/reader’s choice (highest rating, price, whatever).

    • Julie R. Neidlinger

      Good point about those systems that encourage voting of reviews. In some ways, it is odd: you review others reviews. In the end, between the original review and the review of the review, you gotta trust that it all evens out. It’s unfortunate when the review system doesn’t allow for that “thumbs up-thumbs down” crowd vote.

  • Kymee Martinak

    I agree 100% with you…thanks for the great article….

    • Julie R. Neidlinger

      Thanks, Kymee. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

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  • West Coast Conservative

    These are commonsense suggestions to the reasonable consumer. What would you suggest to the mentally dysfunctional or psychologically challenged consumer? I would venture to guess there is no answer. Unfortunately, social media provides ‘freedoms’ for all types to roam around, unchecked. So what is recommended, when this consumer ‘blackmails’ a company into giving them what they want?

    • leetrott

      Recruit everyone possible to match the negative posts with positive comments, to dilute the negativity. I have several high school girls who work for me and they catch everything that goes down the pipe about anyone they know, and they have alerted me a couple of times that this has happened. After a little while the goofballs give up, when this tactic is used.