5 Fast Ways to Spark Controversy On Social Media

Understanding a topic fully requires seeing it from all sides. In crisis management, this means getting inside the head of the corporation and the protester, the victim, the bystanders, and the aggressor to understand their often divergent perspectives. In a social media-related crisis, you often deal with two distinct sides: attackers, who light the sparks of public discontent into full blown reputational crises; and defenders, firefighters battling to defend their reputation or that of their organization. This article will examine the role of social media in creating reputational crises — and specifically how to use it to create viral, controversy-fueled wildfires.

1. Make Common Cause with and/or Harass the Right #Influencers.

Particularly if you’re not already influential online, you will want to find the influencers in your area of interest (both sharing your views and opposing them), and get them to start interacting with you and sharing your content — make them your allies.

Alternatively, you can harass and antagonize them hoping for a response — and make them your enemies.

The most important thing is, positively or negatively, that you’re heard. So, respond to the influencers’ tweets, mention them in yours, and make sure you get them involved in the conversation so that your cause gets exposure.

Influencers are valuable as allies or enemies online. Their response can validate your cause and potentially bring more attention to your issue. Fans and allies will make sure the movement doesn’t die out if you stop tweeting or posting for awhile. Enemies and detractors still add your name to the conversation — stirring up trouble is truly a case where any press is good press.

2. Be a [Relentless] Troll.

Trolling, though controversial and immature, often does generate press and attention, so if that’s what you’re looking for, it is a valuable weapon.

This week, many colleges are being trolled by conservative groups with “White Student Union” pages. These pages have received a lot of negative reaction from the universities and students — many of which have asked Facebook to take them down. The pages were reportedly set up by white supremacist groups that wanted “butthurt” to ensue from liberals.

Despite their clearly vile, racist motivations, the pages have achieved their desired end goal — and resulted in colleges and universities dignifying their trolling with official condemnations. Facebook has not removed many of the the pages, and the trolls have taken advantage of the anger directed at them. Their audiences love seeing “liberal outrage” happen, and that’s exactly what they’ve gotten.

Trolling also means you should complain on enemy pages. Whoever your enemy is, they likely have some kind of web or social media presence. Find them, and post all over it. Make sure you are as visible as possible with your criticism, and link people to your website, blog, Twitter, or whatever acts as the home base for your movement. Make your grievances as public as possible.

Skilled trolls are hard to ignore — just make sure you don’t get banned from any social networks in the process.

*In my previous article, I suggested that lying or faking influence on social media was something never to do. This advice was for those looking to gain influence, prestige, and a strong reputation built on honesty and public trust. This new article is for those who seek notoriety — or fame by any means necessary. If this is your goal, feel free to pay for followers, and falsify your influence as much as you like. It is the appearance of powerfully backed opinions, rather than substance behind them, that often courts controversy best in the social media circus.

3. Get [VERY] Political.

But not so often that it becomes tiresome for your audience — you have to be innovative in your topic selection.

Some people are very averse to being ‘political’ on Facebook. I am not one of them. I began posting political content as an experiment, to see who would react to what, and what their response would be. In particular, I received a lot of vitriol for my views, alongside many messages of support. (FYI: I am very liberal, think left of Bernie Sanders and aligned with #BlackLivesMatter, and I also don’t post things I disagree with without stating why) I had conservatives tell me I was a fascist, that I wished I were Black, and received lots of comments insinuating negative things about me — both publicly and privately.

This experiment taught me that politics and political posts are often highly engaging pieces of content and elicit strong, polarizing reactions — but that engagement will drop in the long run from people that disagree with you or disapprove of your views, particularly if you argue them down or ignore them (this was my experience with “friends” on Facebook that would “unfollow” or block my posts). If you post about politics too frequently or in a way that doesn’t seem substantive, you can also risk lose support from allies (at least in terms of numerical metrics like comments and likes).

However, don’t be afraid to continue to push your views. Exposing people to different viewpoints has a measurable impact on behavior in the long run, and can help you spread your ideas online.

4. Leverage the Moment.

Social media, and Twitter in particular, is built on a culture of immediacy — you want to be the first to throw your hat in the ring when a new issue arises — but you also want to have the best hat. Your content must be both timely and high in quality, and you want it to be seen.

Hashtags will help increase your level of exposure. It’s important to look up the proper ones that will land you the most exposure and get your tweets seen by the right people.

If you’re making your own, keep it simple. The hashtag should be short, catchy, and to the point: #YesAllMen, #LeanIn, #BlackOnCampus, etc.

Don’t let your hashtags get hijacked. Some campaigns fail because they get taken over by the opposition. This is what happened to #AskJPMorgan’s ad campaign, and has happened to many others over time. The best way to combat this is to make sure your audience is strong and committed to helping you get the word out. There will be people on the other side of the fence, but don’t let their voices be the only ones heard.

You can, however, hijack the hashtags of others. Looking for their hashtags can help you seize the moment — and finding those with Twitter’s moments, Facebook’s Trending Topics, MuckRack, and other social search tools is a great place to start.

5. Get Offline — Social Isn’t Everything.


Getting people off the computer and onto the streets is the best way to make sure a movement goes forward.

This will involve organizing protests, meetings, and other things. It’s well documented by online activists that social media is an augmentation tool. It gives them a place to speak and to have important conversations, spread information, and organize with other activists.

However, the hashtag is not the movement — it is important to make sure that your campaign gets people out of their seats and into the streets.

Above all, remember that social media relevance and success takes time, effort, and consistent commitment to your message. Even stirring up controversy can be a process. Amassing a following and gaining validity can be a struggle, but it is ultimately rewarding. Starting a controversy often requires tactics that are, well, controversial. Find your voice in the conversation, or create a unique new space in which you can speak your truth — and defend that space vociferously.


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