by Geoff Gillette
Early in the morning on August 24 thousands of people in northern California were wakened by a 6.0 earthquake which struck American Canyon, very near Napa, CA. The quake, the largest NorCal quake in 25 years, sent people scrambling to their computers, tablets and phones to get up-to-the-minute updates via social media.
For the most part it was a textbook example of how well social media can function in an emergency situation.
California's Office of Emergency Services (CAL OES), Napa officials and others quickly began pumping out information on power outages, water main breaks and early damage estimates. All under easy-to-search hashtags #napaquake and #napaearthquake.
Unfortunately, it also fell prey to a growing phenomenon: hashtag hijacking.
Many agencies that commonly allow Twitter feeds to run unfettered, allowing the near instantaneous dissemination of information, were handcuffed when a Pro-ISIS group began posting pictures of coffins with American Flags and other threats against America, all under the Napa Earthquake hashtag.
Social media coordinators were forced to monitor posts and tweets coming out on Facebook and Twitter in order to filter out the hate-filled screeds.
The above post referred to missing journalist Steven Sotloff. The terrorist social media campaign features the hashtag #StevensHeadinObamasHands, however as a means of spreading their message across as many media platforms as possible they have co-opted the various Napa earthquake handles, as well as teen YouTuber Ricky Dillon's #askricky hashtag.
The overall game plan by the group handling this social media terror campaign is to monitor Twitter, Facebook and others, and then hijack the messaging by grabbing the hashtag and attaching it to their posts.
Reportedly, Twitter and Facebook have said they intend to pursue the groups responsible, but at the end of the day, what can really be done? In all probability, these groups are operating internationally and there is no law to prevent them from stealing hashtags.
So what does it mean for hashtags? Hashtags have become a means of quick indexing of posts, which for social media gurus and marketers is a gold mine they will be loath to let go of. Having a hashtag receive the kind of viral propagation that lands it on people's "trending" lists is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it guarantees a level of exposure that is certain to provide a significant ROI in the form of click-throughs, site visits, purchases and other engagement.
On the other hand, having a trending brand label also brings with it the knowledge that your brand could become linked to other, more unsavory, groups and posts which can have a similarly negative impact.
For many marketers, the status quo will likely not change. The old saying, "Any press is good press," can be translated to the digital age. Page traffic is page traffic, regardless of how it gets there.
However, the reality is that if these attacks continue in frequency and fervor, eventually the entire concept of hashtags could become so polluted that their functionality will be affected to the point where they are of no further use from a business perspective.
Additionally, if the social media companies begin policing themselves, offending posts with specific hashtags could be taken down, with a number of innocent users, companies and causes removed as collateral damage.
Has your brand experienced hashtag hijacking? How did you deal with it?