Whale Cottage and I have been the subject of a most vicious defamatory and destructive Twitter campaign in the past week, with unsubstantiated untruthful allegations made, aimed at damaging the reputation of our company and of myself.   The Twitter campaign fabricated information for the benefit of causing a sensation.  Initially the account was set up as an impersonation of myself, by appearing to be my personal Twitter account.  Twitter closed the account down temporarily last Friday, until the perpetrator changed the Biography on the Twitter page.  Not only was it malicious in content and libelous, but it was also threatening in its aggressive tone.

I have written this blogpost with the purpose of acknowledging that we are aware of the campaign, that we know who drove it, and that we believe in what we do and what we stand for.   We do not want to signal through silence that the abusive campaign contained any truth, other than the colour of my jacket that I wore at the OYO lunch on Friday, referred to in one of the Tweets, bringing the perpetrator and his companion into the foodie blogging community!

So how did this campaign arise?  About 2 weeks ago I wrote a review about Crush!3, as I have also done about the first two issues of the Crush! digital food and wine magazines, of which Michael Olivier is the editor.  A number of food bloggers and our readers posted comments on the Blog, the majority being in agreement with our point of view.  We have regularly requested input from Olivier in response to our reviews, but have received none.  In fact, his reaction has been to block us on Twitter, to not respond at all to communication, and to not acknowledge my presence at a recent industry function, even though we have been acquainted for many years.   On Saturday 16 October, the Crush! team of editor Olivier, and contributors Sophia Lindop, Andy Fenner (JamieWho?) and David Cope (of The Foodie blog) , who also owns the PR company called Established & Partners, with Chef’s Warehouse and Cookery School as sole client, it would appear, and Caveau/HQ/Gourmet Burger, Rudera Wines, Cape Classics and Hippo Hotel as ex-clients) had dinner at Lindop’s house to celebrate Crush!3.  On Twitter one was informed about the dinner through the attendees’ Tweets.  A Tweet by Fenner “Having a whale of a time with the @Crush_Online team” first caught my eye that evening,  which was reTweeted by Cope (but since removed), and echoed by the Crush! designers on the @Crush_Online Twitter account “also having a whale of a time. Flap Flap”, a few minutes later.  

An hour later a full-scale campaign began, with a total of 99 disparaging Tweets sent over the period of a week, one more demeaning than another.   A number of clues allowed us to link the campaign to Cope, information which we have handed to the police.   An abusive collection of e-mails was received from Cope as well, and there were clear parallels in what he wrote by e-mail and in the Tweets of the abusive Twitter account.  When we alluded on our blog to the Crush! team, and Cope in particular, being responsible for this childish campaign, there was no response from Olivier to deny it, and thereby he has condoned it.  We invited him to comment on our exposure in this blog post, and were surprised to receive a response from him for the first time since Crush! was published (we are delighted that Olivier acknowledges our input, but surprised to read that he values it, given his reaction to it, as detailed above): “I am not aware of any campaign, by any member of the Crush team, to defame you or Whale Cottage.  We would not embark on a defamation campaign when we are trying to build an online community willing to engage with us in an open, honest and constructive manner.   At Crush we value all constructive feedback and the fact that you have taken the time to read Crush and to make suggestions.  Crush magazine is in its third edition and determined to establish itself in a new market.  Needless to say, the Crush team would not like its brand linked to campaigns that aim to defame. I would therefore appreciate it, if you could forward any material that uses the Crush brand without our permission”.

Our Whale Cottage Blog has been controversial (no surprise that we were nominated and voted a Top 10 finalist in the Most Controversial Blog category in the recent 2010 SA Blog Awards).  We have exposed the dishonest claim by Carne restaurant that all its meat is organic (claim since removed from their website); we have awarded Sour Service Awards every Friday, never popular amongst its recipients; we have exposed the conflict of interest in the running of tourism matters in Hermanus; we have been critical of many restaurants that we have reviewed; and we have been critical of Crush!, but have acknowledged that it is improving.  This does not always make us popular amongst those businesses that we have written about.   We are proud of this Blog, and present the truth as we experience and see it.  We are not afraid to tackle any topic. Our reward is the 40000 unique readers reading our Blog every month, and our more than 1300 Twitter followers.

I have asked myself whether one changes tack in the face of such an abusive and emotionally violent and terrorising Twitter campaign.  Some people I spoke to used the PR adage that all publicity is good publicity.  Others said that social media memory is short, and that Cope would run out of things to fabricate, which is what happened.    But the overwhelming response was that I should change nothing about this Blog, and that I should continue with what we do.  This is wonderful support.   Some very special readers and followers were brave enough to react to the campaign publicly, and I am most grateful to all of them.  We are also grateful to our Twitter followers who saw the petty campaign for what it was, and unfollowed or blocked the abusive Twitter account. 

One of the characteristics of social media is that the boundaries of what one can say are blurred, with no clear guidelines of what is acceptable, and what is not.   There is no consistency in the different social media platforms and their codes of conduct.  Freedom of speech seems to be the overwhelming principle of this new method of communication, often at the expense of the truth.

Freedom of speech brings with it responsibilities, and cannot ignore the law, which dictates that one cannot disparage and defame others.  Good journalistic practice – yes, Bloggers, Facebookers and Twitterers are “New Age” journalists – is that information presented must be checked for accuracy, and that one cannot make statements about others unless they are proven.  The word “alleged” should precede any label one would give the action of any other person one is writing about, unless they have been convicted of the action they have been accused of.

This raises the question as to what the limits are for social media users, and what responsibility sits with Social Media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Blogging.

Blogging seems to have few restrictions, as there are numerous blogging platforms.  Many bloggers use WordPress, but the company does not specify a Code of Conduct.  The servers hosting the blogs may have a code of conduct, but these are not normally visible to the blogger, especially if one works via a webmaster.

Facebook’s Code of Conduct is lengthy, and appears to be the most protective against disparagement and defamation.  It is also very reactive to complaints in taking action immediately, not a surprise when one sees ‘The Social Network’ movie about the establishment of Facebook.  It states the following in respect of protecting one’s rights, the closest it gets to addressing what one may or not say:

“1.     Protecting Other People’s Rights

We respect other people’s rights, and expect you to do the same.     

1.     You will not post content or take any action on Facebook that infringes or violates someone else’s rights or otherwise violates the law.

2.     We can remove any content or information you post on Facebook if we believe that it violates this Statement.

3.     We will provide you with tools to help you protect your intellectual property rights. To learn more, visit our How to Report Claims of Intellectual Property Infringement page.

4.     If we remove your content for infringing someone else’s copyright, and you believe we removed it by mistake, we will provide you with an opportunity to appeal.

5.     If you repeatedly infringe other people’s intellectual property rights, we will disable your account when appropriate.

6.     You will not use our copyrights or trademarks (including Facebook, the Facebook and F Logos, FB, Face, Poke, Wall and 32665), or any confusingly similar marks, without our written permission.

7.     If you collect information from users, you will: obtain their consent, make it clear you (and not Facebook) are the one collecting their information, and post a privacy policy explaining what information you collect and how you will use it.

8.     You will not post anyone’s identification documents or sensitive financial information on Facebook.

9.     You will not tag users or send email invitations to non-users without their consent.”

Twitter has a Code of Conduct too, but seems very loath to take action against Twitter abuse, believing in freedom of speech, and Twitterers’ rights to expression.  It does not disallow disparagement, a major weakness of its Code.  It also does not demand honesty in Twittering, which means that anyone can say anything about anyone else on Twitter, without it necessarily being truthful.  It abdicates its legal liability in any dispute between Twitterers, yet does call for local country laws to be respected: 

·         Impersonation: You may not impersonate others through the Twitter service in a manner that does or is intended to mislead, confuse, or deceive others

·         Trademark: We reserve the right to reclaim user names on behalf of businesses or individuals that hold legal claim or trademark on those user names. Accounts using business names and/or logos to mislead others will be permanently suspended.

·         Privacy: You may not publish or post other people’s private and confidential information, such as credit card numbers, street address or Social Security/National Identity numbers, without their express authorization and permission.

·         Violence and Threats: You may not publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others.

·         Copyright: We will respond to clear and complete notices of alleged copyright infringement. Our copyright procedures are set forth in the Terms of Service.

·         Unlawful Use: You may not use our service for any unlawful purposes or for promotion of illegal activities. International users agree to comply with all local laws regarding online conduct and acceptable content.

·         Verified accounts: You may not use the Verified Account badge unless it is provided by Twitter. Accounts using the badge as part of profile pictures, background images, or in a way that falsely implies verification will be suspended” 

      The abusive campaign has created food for thought for many Bloggers and Twitterers, many wondering how they would react if they were targeted by such a 140-character onslaught on a daily basis.   There are no clear rules.  There also is no precedent in South African law as to any Blog post, Tweet or Facebook entry having been the cause of a defamation claim to date. In the USA, a young Twitter user last year sent a disparaging comment about an apartment rental agency to her 20 followers, and she was sued for $50 000 by the agency.

We welcome your point of view on Freedom of Speech in Social Media Marketing.

POSTSCRIPT 27/10:   The abusive campaign recommenced this morning, the first Tweet denying David Cope’s involvement, a little too obvious!   Another Tweet refers to a lunch I have booked at Tokara this weekend, a violation of my privacy relative to the restaurant, meaning that this information has been leaked by a staff member of the restaurant.

POSTSCRIPT 12/11:   We have established that food blogger Clare Mc Keon/McLoughlin from Spill Blog is passing on information to David Cope for the abusive Twitter campaign.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com  Twitter @WhaleCottage