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#SueYoureShoutingAtTea — why are nice people mean online?

Posted by Jake Rowlands on 28th February 2020

It’s the 21st February and Conservative minister Rishi Sunak has just uploaded a picture of himself preparing a round of brews for his colleagues. Harmless, right? Wrong.

Within seconds the Yorkshire Tea social team found themselves bombarded with a tirade of anger and abuse as their product was used in the photo. To give you an idea of just how infuriated people became at a photo that Yorkshire Tea had no knowledge or affiliation with, I have included some examples below along with their now viral response to a certain Sue, sparking a number one trending hashtag in the UK, #SueYoureShoutingAtTea.

I found this whole scenario to be very interesting for a variety of reasons. Of course I am a big fan of how quintessentially British the humour of the response is, but I was interested also from a marketing/PR angle. The saying “any publicity is good publicity” is tossed around a lot but from a PR perspective I can assure that is not always going to be the case. However, in this scenario despite the empty threats of boycotts and cancel culture there was actually a significant benefit for Yorkshire Tea in the form of positive articles surrounding their management of the situation, and a huge boost in keyword traffic as people flocked to find out why Sue was indeed shouting at teabags. To put this into perspective, below is the search traffic against a competitor who had recently launched a campaign of their own. The stats speak for themselves.

Despite the humorous responses and virality that comes with such online circulation, the social media team at Yorkshire Tea emphasised to their audience that behind the brand is a human being, urging them to “be kind to others”. This got me thinking as a heavy consumer of digital entertainment platforms how I have seen plenty of cases of ‘cancel culture’ in action. Meredith Clark, professor at the University of Virginia summarised it as “cancelling… an act of withdrawing from someone whose expression — whether political, artistic or otherwise — was once welcome or at least tolerated, but no longer is.”

What is it that drives users to suddenly become aggressive or confrontational on social media in a manner that is completely unlike their face-to-face persona? Is it an online pack mentality or perhaps just the safety of anonymity?

This prompted me to do some more digging into what is causing this psychological shift — why are ordinarily nice people turning mean behind a screen? A survey carried out in the US found that 40% of American adults had personally experienced online abuse, with almost half of them receiving severe forms of harassment, including physical threats and stalking. 70% of women described online harassment as a “major problem”.

Some theories revolve around the lack of visual interaction online; as humans. We pick up on body language and tone of voice as indicators for how what we say is being received and we will be more affected by the outcome if we can see it ourselves. However, online we do not have these physical cues to pick up on, we do not see the detrimental impact of our words, and it is in this sad dwelling we find the bane of social media influencers and brands — the troll.

Assistant professor, Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, at Cornell University’s Department of Information Science summarised this perfectly when speaking with CNN stating: “What we actually find in our work is that ordinary people, just like you and me, can engage in such antisocial behaviour. For a specific period of time, you can actually become a troll. And that’s surprising”. Explaining that the two main triggers for trolling: the context of the exchange — how other users are behaving — and your mood. “If you’re having a bad day, or if it happens to be Monday, for example, you’re much more likely to troll in the same situation,” he says. “You’re nicer on a Saturday morning.”

So, what can we take away from this? The presence of these trolls will last as long as social media, but we can take notice of our own actions. Before you hit post ask yourself “would I actually say this in person” and remember that behind the brand itself is a human. A great time to wrap up — in the words of the Yorkshire Tea team — “be kind”. It’s not really that difficult now is it.

Jake Rowlands