If you follow social media trends, the odds are that you now have heard of Cooks Source Magazine, a formerly not-very-well known local cooking magazine based in New England. If you haven’t been following this there’s plenty of virtual ink spilled on the matter but the Economist, as always, has a great summary of the story. The short version is that Cooks Source allegedly used a writer’s article without permission, the writer blogged about it, the story went viral, and within twenty-four hours Cooks Source was on the receiving end of swift Internet justice, eventually earning their own Downfall video parody.
On the face of it, it would look like another case of understandable Internet mob justice motiviated by righteous indignation, similar to the tidal wave that came down three years ago on Lori Drew, the mother whose alleged harrasment of Megan Meier on MySpace led to her suicide.
There is one thing that’s very different and important to understand about the Cooks Source situation. Cooks Source will likely go out of business. But that outcome seems to have less to do with the white hot outrage that can fade quickly, and more to do with how angry people used Cooks Source’s own Facebook page to coordinate actions effectively targeting Cooks Source on a business level. Users quickly began to use the Cooks Source Facebook page to coordinate actions, contacting advertisers to urge them to pull support from the magazine, and finding numerous other instances of articles taken without proper permission and/or attribution that could potentially be used by the harmed parties to file lawsuits.
Less than twenty-four hours after the issue broke, the List of Cooks Source Advertisers discussion group appeared on the Cooks Source Facebook page. People with copies of the print magazine systematically combed through through the current issue and posted names of advertisers to the group, in part because Cooks Source isn’t available online. With that information posted in a collaborative forum, people began working together to obtain information on Cooks Source advertisers and contact them to urge them to pull their advertising from the magazine. Some people even used the discussion group to remind those contacting advertisers to temper their tone and be polite. Those who had contacted advertisers and gotten agreement to pull their advertising reported back to the group, urging others to no longer contact those advertisers. Later, the Reward those who do right: Buy something from Cooks Source ex-advertisers group sprang up to actively encourage people to support those advertisers who pulled their support for Cooks Source.
Meanwhile, the List of Cooks Source article sources. Please add more group also sprang up. While some people were busy targeting advertisers in a coordinated way, people here were systematically looking at (and in some cases posting scanned copies) of articles and then trying to find instances where the text and/or images of the articles appeared to possibly be taken from other sources and providing links to both for comparison. In what is potentially an even more serious attack on Cooks Source as a business, people found, at last count, nearly 160 articles and images that they believe could have issues around permission and attribution. As a precautionary measure, the work was moved off of the Cooks Source facebook page into a Google doc, where people continue to collaborate. As major corporations such as Disney, Food Network and NPR are potentially included in this list, the risks to Cooks Source as a business in terms of possible lawsuits now is quite serious.
Unlike other instances of Internet justice, in this case, the mob got smart. Rather than simply bluster, they started taking real steps that could hurt Cooks Source as a business. The fact that these actions were enabled by Cooks Source’s own Facebook page is ironic but also points to a real risk that any organization with a clear, central online social media presence faces: that the social media capabilities that help your organization can be turned against you quickly. Regardless of one’s stance on the merits of the case, from a social media issues management point of view, the single greatest mistake Cooks Source made was failing to immediately lock down the collaborative features on their Facebook page (i.e. their Wall and Discussions).
At one point, a user posted a question in the Discussions, asking if advertisers were being contacted. Another person immediately replied “Don’t worry, the Internet is on it”. The questioner then replied “I <3 [love] the Internet”. The Cooks Source episode shows that “the Internet” is indeed on it, and it’s learning how to be smarter in bringing its huge, collaborative power to do more than simply rant. Cooks Source is an important episode for everyone who handles social media outlets to understand, particularly from the standpoint of issues management. Your sites can and will be used against you in times of crisis: make sure you plan for that.