The First Amendment allows American citizens to say almost anything without fear of being thrown in jail by the government. The free speech it guarantees does not, however, mean your comments are protected from being thrown off a website.
Still, those who “censor” consumers online quickly draw the full ire of the Web. Two years ago, when Apple launched its iPhone 4 and was caught deleting threads on its own website about a critical Consumer Reports review, the Internet's revenge was swift and brutal.
Social media complicates the issue, as nearly all major brands have thriving interactions with consumers on Facebook and Twitter, inviting potential swarms of negative comments. Deleting such comments on third-party social media sites is a big Internet faux pas, so most companies use the language of free speech when they discuss social media, claiming they permit open discussions. But experts say some firms do try to stuff the genie back in the bottle, quietly erasing negative comments, trying to buck Internet culture and hoping they don't get caught.
Two recent high-profile incidents of alleged "censorship" -- which both companies deny --- demonstrate the quandary companies are in, and how suspicious consumers are.
When United Airlines "lost" a 10-year-old traveling to summer camp, its Facebook page was deluged with negative commentary. The airline was accused of deleting some comments, but it told NBC News that it doesn’t censor its page, and only removes comments that violate its terms. Around the same time, Wal-Mart deleted comments from a man who said his wife was mugged outside a store in Oakland, but Wal-Mart officials tell NBC the comments were deleted in error, and that the firm doesn't remove negative comments.
A glance at both firms' Facebook pages proves they certainly permit negative commentary there, and that consumers have quite a knack for writing it.
There is general agreement from all sides that, when it comes to social media, firms shouldn't delete negative comments about themselves and should generally act as if the First Amendment applies. Developing that stiff an upper lip is easier said than done, however, says David Armano, social media expert at public relations giant Edelman Worldwide. And consumers who suspect some negative comments are getting vaporized by companies aren’t necessarily off base.
"(Deletion) is definitely more common than you think," he said. "I'm not going to throw names out there, but many of our clients grapple with it. Some of them have deleted comments against what we advise."
Many organizations still haven't made the psychological leap from websites to social media, he said. Despite Apple's bulletin board woes, there is a gray area when companies choose to control what appears on their own dot.com. But erasing comments from Facebook is universally seen as a no-no by users, he said.
"A lot of organizations just really don’t understand the difference between these new social channels and what they knew as digital a few years ago until they learn the hard way," he said. "The most common knee-jerk reaction is, 'This is our property, so we can delete.' There is a temptation to do so unless you really have been in social for a while."
Deleting comments and getting caught can be a nightmare -- and that nightmare is only one screen shot away.
Thomas Hawk thought he caught Wal-Mart deleting his comments after his wife allegedly was mugged in the parking lot of the chain's Oakland store Aug. 19.
"Apparently, it took over 15 minutes for anyone from the Wal-Mart store to get involved and the manager did not want to call the police," he wrote. A screen grab showed his initial post on Wal-Mart’s page, and a subsequent grab documented its removal. A second post complaining about the removal was also deleted, but that hardly ended the incident. Hawk's personal blog entry about the deletions went viral, and eventually landed on Reddit.
"I'm pretty unsatisfied actually at their response to the whole situation," Hawk told NBC News.
After workers noticed the error, the company reposted Hawk's initial comment two days later and apologized.
“We conducted an internal review and found that it was a system error that flagged your post as containing profanity,” the apology read. “It should not have been deleted. It is not our policy to delete a post like yours. We are reposting your original post below. Of course, we always want to improve safety and have shared this situation with those responsible within the Wal-Mart team.”
The incident shows how prickly Internet users are about comment deletion -- there was far more discussion of the alleged censorship than of the alleged mugging.
The great risk from deletion, as shown in the Wal-Mart case, is that it often backfires. Attempting to erase criticism often magnifies it, drawing extra attention to a consumer's comment that might otherwise have been ignored, or throwing gasoline on a fire that's just begun to burn.
"I think a lot of brands have learned the hard way that people will grab screen shots. Once it's on the ‘Net, it's there forever," said Carri Bugbee, founder of Portland-based social media consultant firm Big Deal PR. Deleting comments can get messy too, she said. Those who respond to the initial comment might also be removed, and inevitably, an awkward “why did you delete that?” thread gets started.
United Airlines was accused of deleting comments in the wake of the "lost" 10-year-old incident, but it flatly denied the accusation to NBC News.
Around the same time, United passenger Sarah Liddle told NBC News that her comments were deleted from United's Facebook page after she complained about poor service.
“United pulled my entire post from their page. No response from them, nothing inappropriate in my post and nothing offensive, (and they) didn't inform me why they removed it from their page," she said. "They just pulled the post. I was furious and still am."
Liddle did not have a screen shot of her post because, she said, she didn't expect to need one.
United spokesman Joe Micucci said he couldn't comment on Liddle's post, because he hadn’t seen it, but repeated the firm's non-censorship policy.
"We do not delete comments unless they contain profanity, are hostile in nature or mention an employee’s name in full," he said.
Liddle said her post did include the name of an airline employee, potentially explaining its removal. But both Liddle and Hawk said they were annoyed that they weren't notified when their posts were removed. Doing so would be tricky and time-consuming for companies, but a simple "your post violated our terms" notice might head off accusations of censorship, and any subsequent social media firestorms that might ensue.
Armano, the Edelman social media expert, said companies need to clearly and conspicuously post their comment terms so consumers know where they stand before they post.
"We recommend (they) have clear moderation policy that sets your terms, so it’s accepted that if there’s hate speech it will be removed, and it’s clear what else is unacceptable,” he said.
But even with that in place, critical decisions that could lead to PR disasters too often are made by junior employees, Bugbee said.
"A lot of this stuff gets delegated to people who don't have crisis management experience, who don’t understand the implications," she said. "Hopefully people know better than to delegate this stuff to interns ... but it’s soft skills that are more important. Any 14-year-old can learn how to use Facebook, but the soft skills of having judgment, knowing how to respond, that's what matters. So companies have to train their people well."
A clear chain of crisis command is also critical, she said.
“I don't think most people have that. If something happens, who is the final arbiter? I tell clients, ‘Mr. VP, I need your cell phone, and I may call you any night, any weekend,’” she said.
Armano uses a unique metaphor to help companies wrap their heads around the kinds of issues they'll face on Facebook and Twitter. He compares social media hangouts to embassies and says companies should act like respectful foreign diplomats on embassy soil.
"These are like social embassies. They are like a piece of land in another country; maybe you control the grounds, but what happens just outside the embassy you have no control over," he said, adding that trying to control the discussion or the protests there is "just not worth it."