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What to do when your live event hashtag gets hijacked

The Twitter hashtag at a recent CIPR award’s dinner was hijacked by ISIS sympathisers. Here’s how the team handled it.

The test for the success of an event of Twitter chat used to be the appearance of porn bots in the Twitter stream. It signalled that the hashtag had started to trend.

If a hashtag is used frequently enough by a community it will trend in a city, region or country. There’s often a large enough concentration of people active on Twitter during an event, or participating in a Twitter chat, for this to occur.

Activists and spammers monitor niche trending hashtags to push out messages promoting their cause. The purpose can be anything from promoting illicit products, to porn or propaganda.

CIPR North East Pride event

Last week unwanted guests turned up on the #PrideNE Twitter hashtag at the North East CIPR Pride awards dinner in Newcastle.

ISIS sympathisers started posting propaganda messages and links to videos using the #PrideNE hashtag, 90 minutes into a four hour event.

130 media and public relations people in a room tweeting about their evening was enough to generate a local trending topic.

We monitored the situation for 10 minutes and took the decision to abandon the hashtag. Continued use of #PrideNE brought more tweets from activists and spammers.

When a hashtag is hijacked at a live event you’ve limited options. It spotlights the democratic nature of Twitter but also the issues that Twitter faces in making the platform more robust.

Spam accounts can be tagged and a ticket can be raised with the Twitter Trust & Confidence team but neither is a quick option. You can’t do anything about committed, transparent activists.

Here’s what we did. I’d be keen to hear if you’ve experienced a similar situation and what resolution you took or what you might have done differently.

#1 Monitoring

It was clear within 10 minutes that continued tweeting resulted in more spam tweets. Activists and spammers locked onto the hashtag and weren’t going to let it go.

#2 Halting the hashtag

We decided to stop using the #PrideNE hashtag. We also decided not to switch to a second hashtag because with more than two hours still to run the situation would almost certainly have reoccurred.

#PrideNE is one in a series of annual events hosted by the CIPR. It is well known in the CIPR community and was being followed by people inside and outside the room. Switching may also have led to confusion at future events.

We decided to ask people to continue tweeting but to stop using the hashtag. @CIPR_NorthEast, the main account for the North East CIPR group, retweeted as many tweets from the event as possible.

@CIPR_NorthEast also tweeted the winners and runner-up in each award category.

#3 Communication

Rather than making a formal announcement and interrupting everyone’s dinner, potentially causing alarm, the event organisers pushed a statement out onto the main event screen as part of a carousel of images.

No formal statements were made during the evening. Instead attendees were notified as part of the normal course of events by the host and people presenting awards.

pridene

Several people at the event, myself included, took a photo of the statement on the main screen and shared it on Twitter and other social networks.

I’m not sure how smart this was as a slew of “what’s the hashtag, we want to check this out” type comments followed. We responded to these the following morning to avoid drawing further attention to the issue.

#4 Twitter wall

Filters and moderation should be part of any Twitter wall solution. The moderator decides what goes live on the Twitter wall. We decided to pull the wall at the event to discourage people using the hashtag.

#5 Twitter moderation

After the event we reported the spammers to Twitter by marking each account as spam. Many of the accounts have been deleted but a core of dedicated, transparent activists remain.

#6 Twitter chat

I’ve participated in Twitter chats that have been hijacked by spammers on three occasions over the last seven years. It has always occurred in the last five minutes of a chat when the hashtag has started trending. In this case you can either continue the chat or call it off.

Evaluation

The event passed off okay. The lack of hashtag became a talking point rather than an issue.

With no one using the hashtag it quickly stopped trending and activists and spammers disappeared. Winners started using the hashtag later in the evening, and following the event, to celebrate their success.

I’d recommend creating a Twitter list of attendees and interested parties at future events. This would act as a good backup to a hashtag for anyone wanting to follow the conversation. 

The potential for a Twitter hijack should be on your risk register for any event that you’re planning.

Thank you

Thanks for the calm, quick thinking action of everyone involved in the evening, especially the CIPR Awards team, the North East CIPR team, and Redbrand.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

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