This week, Yorkshire Tea caused quite a stir on Twitter. It all started when newly-appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak posted a photo of himself making a cup of tea, his brand of choice being an enormous bag of Yorkshire Tea. Some Twitter users responded in anger, claiming they were “never going to buy Yorkshire Tea again” and exclaiming disbelief that Yorkshire Tea “would endorse a political advert”. Yorkshire Tea’s response began with “So it’s been a rough weekend”, pointing out that they aren’t involved when politicians tweet about their products. Their final tweet of the thread read “But for anyone about to vent their rage online, even to a company — please remember there’s a human on the other end of it, and try to be kind.”
For many people, this honest and heartfelt tweet was the end of the discussion. Others opted to continue the conversation. A user named @sulaAlice responded with a series of critical political tweets, discussing everything from austerity to the brand’s lack of Twitter knowledge. Yorkshire Tea’s response, starting with the now-infamous “Sue, you’re shouting at tea”, went viral.
Since Yorkshire Tea’s tweet, other brands have (whether inspired by this or not) called out online abuse. The Bristol Post ran an article exposing people who sent threats of violence to activist Greta Thunberg, who visited Bristol for a climate change speech. Meanwhile, when broadcaster Julia Hartley-Brewer (amongst others) criticised a drawing by the son of one of their staff members, the University of Reading told people to “get a grip on reality”.
The article ran by The Bristol Post, using screenshots of people’s social media accounts. For some, doing this raises issues of its own; it continues the cycle of hatred by putting a target on people’s backs. Now that a few brands have received attention for doing this, it’s likely that more will follow suit. Whether this is appropriate or not, it’s once again highlighted the problem of abuse on social media.
Think about working in a shop. You (most likely) have no control over what items are stocked, how much items cost or how the shop operates. You have no say over the brand’s values, and there’s aspects you likely disagree with. Despite this, you’re an easy target for abuse because you’re visible and accessible. People will yell at you because of their dissatisfaction with the company, and even though you can’t change anything, you must essentially accept it. It’s the same with social media — you’re the punching bag for your whole company. The highest-ranking people in your organisation will barely be affected, and you bear the brunt of people’s anger.
Social media can have a negative effect on people. Research has indicated links between social media and both anxiety and depression, as well as loneliness and a potential increase in suicidal thoughts. We’ve seen a push for people to #BeKind in response to the tragic death of Caroline Flack, and this is a turning point towards tackling social media abuse. It helps us see other people as human beings and understand the impact our words can have. Sometimes, we forget that human beings are behind brands too.
The death of presenter Caroline Flack renewed the #BeKind movement, calling for a more supportive world. Photo Credit: Jonathan Ford/ITVIt’s time to tackle social media abuse, and it’s time to recognise how deep our words can cut. We need to recognise that whether we’re dealing with another person or a seemingly “faceless” brand, harassment is not okay. Remember that when you send a mean tweet to a company, there’s someone on the other end to absorb your words. Social media workers develop a thick skin, but whether it’s a huge influx of comments or one particularly scathing post, sometimes words can really hurt. You’ll get a better response if you’re respectful than if you tweet a company swearing and hurling abuse.
If you’re behind a brand social media account, there’s only so much you can do. Calling people out like Yorkshire Tea did is not possible for everyone; for instance, accounts representing government departments could not do this due to their heavy influence on public life. Sometimes, you’ll feel like crying because the abuse is overwhelming. You’ll feel as if you must handle everyone’s problems, as if you must deal with more hatred and cruelty than others in your organisation. Take the time to look after yourself in both small and large ways. Step away from your device and make yourself a cup of tea, limit your social media use outside of work, take up offline hobbies; these are a few examples of self-care that, no matter how seemingly insignificant, can boost your mental health.
There’s a fine line between holding an organisation accountable and abusing a brand. We need to recognise when we’ve crossed that line, and how we can be better in the future. We tell each other we want a nicer world, but we need to practice what we preach. When the internet gives us both a level of anonymity and a public forum to air our views, we can go a little overboard. Whether we’re speaking to an organisation, an individual or a group of people, let’s remember to #BeKind.
This article was originally published on Medium.