Show Hide image Social Media 12 April 2017 #BoycottUnited: does social media activism actually work? What happens after #DeleteUber, #BoycottUnited, and #DumpKelloggs stop trending? Sign up for our weekly email * Print HTML Over the last day, hundreds of thousands of people have decided they will never fly with United Airlines again. At least, that’s what you’d think if you believed that every user of the trending hashtag #boycottunited is true to their word. After a video emerged of United staff violently removing a passenger from a flight yesterday, the airline has faced a huge social media backlash, with hashtags such as #boycottunited and #dontflyunited soaring across the web. I fly about 120,000 miles a year and you've pretty much lost my business @united — roxane gay (@rgay) April 10, 2017 It would be safe to assume, therefore, that the airline is now a-less-polite-word-for doomed. The company’s stock has fallen 3.7 per cent, which in real terms means a loss of $830m. Bad news, right? In all honesty, it remains to be seen. Social media boycotts are incredibly popular – but they have varied success. If you can cast your mind back to an entire five days ago, you will remember that Twitter users were invited to #boycottPepsi after its tone-deaf advert featuring Kendall Jenner. Though the company’s stock soared initially, it plummeted after Pepsi pulled its advert, a decision that was directly fuelled by social media outrage. Didn't drink it before, will go out of my way not to drink it now or support your products @PepsiCo @pepsi #PepsiLivesMatter #boycottpepsi pic.twitter.com/LelfxrlCyn — Lah-na (@LanaMinas) April 5, 2017 Yet it would be naïve to assume that Pepsi’s sales will suffer long term. Remember in 2014 when everyone boycotted Amazon because of an online petition? Of course you don’t. By their very nature, social media boycotts are immediate and ephemeral. To work, boycotts need to last. The Trump Era has inspried numerous boycotts. But to what effect? The delay on quarterly sales reports makes it difficult to see whether last year’s backlash against New Balance, when a company boss seemed to endorse the controversial US President-elect, damaged the company. Twitter users set fire to their shoes and sales in New York decreased 25 per cent after the company seemingly backed Trump, yet in just a few days, mentions of the brand on Twitter became favourable again. In the past, brands have even deliberately orchestrated outrage in order to drum up publicity. What about #DeleteUber, though? That must have been a success? Though 200,000 people deleted the app after it continued to serve airports during Trump’s “Muslim ban”, polls later revealed this was only a 5 per cent dip in popularity with the American public. But is a dip in sales the ultimate aim of a boycott? Uber’s CEO stepped down from President Trump’s advisory board after the outrage, arguably making the hashtag a success. Even if sales aren’t actually affected, a trending hashtag can make a company feel very fire-emoji under the collar. Arguably, this means future decisions will be more carefully scrutinised, and hey presto, we have a better world for everyone. i do think YouTube/twitter/Facebook viral rage porn is the "two-minute hate" made manifest though. similar with that #deleteuber twete. — ಠ_ಠ (@MikeIsaac) April 11, 2017 Except nothing is that simple in our divided world. If Trump supporters decide to boycott Starbucks because it is hiring refugees, then Trump haters will #DrinkStarbucksToFightBigotry. While you and I boycott Uber and #DontFlyUnited, American conservatives boycott Budweiser and #DumpKelloggs. In a social media world where absolutely everyone has a voice, how do brands figure out who to listen to? If they listen to the loudest voices, it’s the right-wing boycotts that actually come out top, with negative social media mentions of Kelloggs (who pulled their adverts from right-wing site Brietbart) lasting longer than those for New Balance. Strong coffee makes me feel unwell but #DrinkStarbuckstofightbigotry #StarbucksForLife — Iffaf Grammarian (@IffafTeacher) February 4, 2017 And is capitalistic wokeness really what we want? We want brands and companies to align with our own beliefs, until they do it in an incredibly lame way, à la Jenner and Pepsi. It is now apparent that many companies are trying to use social responsibility to boost sales, but this is widely seen as inauthentic and sort of gross. What, then, would a successful boycott look like? Surely not the number of little green Retweets pinging into your notifications tab? Yet even though social media outrage isn’t always entirely altruistic, that doesn’t mean it’s worthless. Many criticise “slactivism” or “hashtag activism” for being lazy, but it is clearly an incredibly important and immediate way to register your anger. Change can never be as immediate as a Retweet, but that doesn’t render the Retweet worthless. United’s decision to violently pull a passenger off its flight will hopefully have long-term repercussions for the brand. The act was so viscerally disgusting that many passionately want the airline to suffer and its policies to change. Because of its stranglehold over some US airports, passengers may not desert it en masse. But what has happened – 762,000 negative mentions of the brand on social media – is hopefully permanently burned on the back of a CEO’s eyeballs. › A picture of the EDL might have gone viral, but the white nationalist group is fading away Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman. 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