Hostile Hashtag Takeover: An Analysis of the Battle for Februdairy

Deborah Kay Williams

Abstract


We need a clear, unified, and consistent voice to effect the complete dismantling, the abolition, of the mechanisms of animal exploitation.

And that will only come from what we say and do, no matter who we are.

— Gary L. Francione, animal rights theorist

The history of hashtags is relatively short but littered with the remnants of corporate hashtags which may have seemed a good idea at the time within the confines of the boardroom. It is difficult to understand the rationale behind the use of hashtags as an effective communications tactic in 2019 by corporations when a quick stroll through their recent past leaves behind the much-derided #qantasluxury (Glance), #McDstories (Hill), and #myNYPD (Tran).

While hashtags have an obvious purpose in bringing together like-minded publics and facilitating conversation (Kwye et al. 1), they have also regularly been the subject of “hashtag takeovers” by activists and other interested parties, and even by trolls, as the Ecological Society of Australia found in 2015 when their seemingly innocuous #ESA15 hashtag was taken over with pornographic images (news.com.au). Hashtag takeovers have also been used as a dubious marketing tactic, where smaller and less well-known brands tag their products with trending hashtags such as #iphone in order to boost their audience (Social Garden). Hashtags are increasingly used as a way for activists or other interested parties to disrupt a message. It is, I argue, predictable that any hashtag related to an even slightly controversial topic will be subject to some form of activist hashtag takeover, with varying degrees of success.

That veganism and the dairy industry should attract such conflict is unsurprising given that the two are natural enemies, with vegans in particular seeming to anticipate and actively engage in the battle for the opposing hashtag.

Using a comparative analysis of the #Veganuary and #Februdairy hashtags and how they have been used by both pro-vegan and pro-dairy social media users, this article illustrates that the enthusiastic and well-meaning social media efforts of farmers and dairy supporters have so far been unable to counteract those of well-organised and equally passionate vegan activists. This analysis compares tweets in the first week of the respective campaigns, concluding that organisations, industries and their representatives should be extremely wary of engaging said activists who are not only highly-skilled but are also highly-motivated. Grassroots, ideology-driven activism is a formidable opponent in any public space, let alone when it takes place on the outspoken and unstructured landscape of social media which is sometimes described as the “wild West” (Fitch 5) where anything goes and authenticity and plain-speaking is key (Macnamara 12).

I Say Hashtag, You Say Bashtag

#Februdairy was launched in 2018 to promote the benefits of dairy. The idea was first mooted on Twitter in 2018 by academic Dr Jude Capper, a livestock sustainability consultant, who called for “28 days, 28 positive dairy posts” (@Bovidiva; Howell). It was a response to the popular Veganuary campaign which aimed to “inspire people to try vegan for January and throughout the rest of the year”, a campaign which had gained significant traction both online and in the traditional media since its inception in 2014 (Veganuary). Hopes were high: “#Februdairy will be one month of dairy people posting, liking and retweeting examples of what we do and why we do it” (Yates). However, the #Februdairy hashtag has been effectively disrupted and has now entered the realm of a bashtag, a hashtag appropriated by activists for their own purpose (Austin and Jin 341).

The Dairy Industry (Look Out the Vegans Are Coming)

It would appear that the dairy industry is experiencing difficulties in public perception. While milk consumption is declining, sales of plant-based milks are increasing (Kaiserman) and a growing body of health research has questioned whether dairy products and milk in particular do in fact “do a body good” (Saccaro; Harvard Milk Study). In the 2019 review of Canada’s food guide, its first revision since 2007, for instance, the focus is now on eating plant-based foods with dairy’s former place significantly downgraded. Dairy products no longer have their own distinct section and are instead placed alongside other proteins including lentils (Pippus).

Nevertheless, the industry has persevered with its traditional marketing and public relations activities, choosing to largely avoid addressing animal welfare concerns brought to light by activists. They have instead focused their message towards countering concerns about the health benefits of milk. In the US, the Milk Processing Education Program’s long-running celebrity-driven Got Milk campaign has been updated with Milk Life, a health focused campaign, featuring images of children and young people living an active lifestyle and taking part in activities such as skateboarding, running, and playing basketball (Milk Life). Interestingly, and somewhat inexplicably, Milk Life’s home page features the prominent headline, “How Milk Can Bring You Closer to Your Loved Ones”.

It is somewhat reflective of the current trend towards veganism that tennis aces Serena and Venus Williams, both former Got Milk ambassadors, are now proponents for the plant-based lifestyle, with Venus crediting her newly-adopted vegan diet as instrumental in her recovery from an auto-immune disease (Mango).

The dairy industry’s health focus continues in Australia, as well as the use of the word love, with former AFL footballer Shane Crawford—the face of the 2017 campaign Milk Loves You Back, from Lion Dairy and Drinks—focusing on reminding Australians of the reputed nutritional benefits of milk (Dawson).

Dairy Australia meanwhile launched their Legendairy campaign with a somewhat different focus, promoting and lauding Australia’s dairy families, and with a message that stated, in a nod to the current issues, that “Australia’s dairy farmers and farming communities are proud, resilient and innovative” (Dairy Australia). This campaign could be perceived as a morale-boosting exercise, featuring a nation-wide search to find Australia’s most legendairy farming community (Dairy Australia). That this was also an attempt to humanise the industry seems obvious, drawing on established goodwill felt towards farmers (University of Cambridge). Again, however, this strategy did not address activists’ messages of suffering animals, factory farms, and newborn calves being isolated from their grieving mothers, and it can be argued that consumers are being forced to make the choice between who (or what) they care about more: animals or the people making their livelihoods from them.

Large-scale campaigns like Legendairy which use traditional channels are of course still vitally important in shaping public opinion, with statistics from 2016 showing 85.1% of Australians continue to watch free-to-air television (Roy Morgan, “1 in 7”). However, a focus and, arguably, an over-reliance on traditional platforms means vegans and animal activists are often unchallenged when spreading their message via social media. Indeed, when we consider the breakdown in age groups inherent in these statistics, with 18.8% of 14-24 year-olds not watching any commercial television at all, an increase from 7% in 2008 (Roy Morgan, “1 in 7”), it is a brave and arguably short-sighted organisation or industry that relies primarily on traditional channels to spread their message in 2019. That these large-scale campaigns do little to address the issues raised by vegans concerning animal welfare leaves these claims largely unanswered and momentum to grow.

This growth in momentum is fuelled by activist groups such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) who are well-known in this space, with 5,494,545 Facebook followers, 1.06 million Twitter followers, 973,000 Instagram followers, and 453,729 You Tube subscribers (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). They are also active on Pinterest, a visual-based platform suited to the kinds of images and memes particularly detrimental to the dairy industry. Although widely derided, PETA’s reach is large. A graphic video posted to Facebook on February 13 2019 and showing a suffering cow, captioned “your cheese is not worth this” was shared 1,244 times, and had 4.6 million views in just over 24 hours (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). With 95% of 12-24 year olds in Australia now using social networking sites (Statista), it is little wonder veganism is rapidly growing within this demographic (Bradbury), with The Guardian labelling the rise of veganism unstoppable (Hancox).

Activist organisations are joined by prominent and charismatic vegan activists such as James Aspey (182,000 Facebook followers) and Earthling Ed (205,000 Facebook followers) in distributing information and images that are influential and often highly graphic or disturbing. Meanwhile Instagram influencers and You Tube lifestyle vloggers such as Ellen Fisher and FreeLee share information promoting vegan food and the vegan lifestyle (with 650,320 and 785,903 subscribers respectively). YouTube video Dairy Is Scary has over 5 million views (Janus) and What the Health, a follow-up documentary to Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, promoting veganism, is now available on Netflix, which itself has 9.8 million Australian subscribers (Roy Morgan, “Netflix”). BOSH’s plant-based vegan cookbook was the fastest selling cookbook of 2018 (Chiorando).

Additionally, the considerable influence of celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, Beyonce, Alicia Silverstone, Zac Efron, and Jessica Chastain, to name just a few, speaking publicly about their vegan lifestyle, encourages veganism to become mainstream and increases its widespread acceptance.

However not all the dairy industry’s ills can be blamed on vegans. Rising costs, cheap imports, and other pressures (Lockhart, Donaghy and Gow) have all placed pressure on the industry. Nonetheless, in the battle for hearts and minds on social media, the vegans are leading the way.

Qualitative research interviewing new vegans found converting to veganism was relatively easy, yet some respondents reported having to consult multiple resources and required additional support and education on how to be vegan (McDonald 17).

Enter Veganuary

Using a month, week or day to promote an idea or campaign, is a common public relations and marketing strategy, particularly in health communications. Dry July and Ocsober both promote alcohol abstinence, Frocktober raises funds for ovarian cancer, and Movember is an annual campaign raising awareness and funds for men’s health (Parnell). Vegans Matthew Glover and Jane Land were discussing the success of Movember when they raised the idea of creating a vegan version. Their initiative, Veganuary, urging people to try vegan for the month of January, launched in 2014 and since then 500,000 people have taken the Veganuary pledge (Veganuary).

The Veganuary website is the largest of its kind on the internet. With vegan recipes, expert advice and information, it provides all the answers to Why go vegan, but it is the support offered to answer How to go vegan that truly sets Veganuary apart. (Veganuary)

That Veganuary participants would use social media to discuss and share their experiences was a foregone conclusion. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are all utilised by participants, with the official Veganuary pages currently followed/liked by 159,000 Instagram followers, receiving 242,038 Facebook likes, and 45,600 Twitter followers (Veganuary). Both the Twitter and Instagram sites make effective use of hashtags to spread their reach, not only using #Veganuary but also other relevant hashtags such as #TryVegan, #VeganRecipes, and the more common #Vegan, #Farm, and #SaveAnimals.

Februdairy Follows Veganuary, But Only on the Calendar

Calling on farmers and dairy producers to create counter content and their own hashtag may have seemed like an idea that would achieve an overall positive response.

Agricultural news sites and bloggers spread the word and even the BBC reported on the industry’s “fight back” against Veganuary (BBC). However the hashtag was quickly overwhelmed with anti-dairy activists mobilising online. Vegans issued a call to arms across social media. The Vegans in Australia Facebook group featured a number of posts urging its 58,949 members to “thunderclap” the Februdairy hashtag while the Project Calf anti-dairy campaign declared that Februdairy offered an “easy” way to spread their information (Sandhu).

Februdairy farmers and dairy supporters were encouraged to tell their stories, sharing positive photographs and videos, and they did. However this content was limited. In this tweet (fig. 1) the issue of a lack of diverse content was succinctly addressed by an anti-Februdairy activist.

Fig. 1: Content challenges. (#Februdairy, 2 Feb. 2019)

Method

Utilising Twitter’s advanced search capability, I was able to search for #Veganuary tweets from 1 to 7 January 2019 and #Februdairy tweets from 1 to 7 February 2019. I analysed the top tweets provided by Twitter in terms of content, assessed whether the tweet was pro or anti Veganuary and Februdairy, and also categorised its content in terms of subject matter.

Tweets were analysed to assess whether they were on message and aligned with the values of their associated hashtag. Veganuary tweets were considered to be on message if they promoted veganism or possessed an anti-dairy, anti-meat, or pro-animal sentiment. Februdairy tweets were assessed as on message if they promoted the consumption of dairy products, expressed sympathy or empathy towards the dairy industry, or possessed an anti-vegan sentiment. Tweets were also evaluated according to their clarity, emotional impact and coherence. The overall effectiveness of the hashtag was then evaluated based on the above criteria as well as whether they had been hijacked.

Results and Findings

Overwhelmingly, the 213 #Veganuary tweets were on message. That is they were pro-Veganuary, supportive of veganism, and positive. The topics were varied and included humorous memes, environmental facts, information about the health benefits of veganism, as well as a strong focus on animals. The number of non-graphic tweets (12) concerning animals was double that of tweets featuring graphic or shocking imagery (6). Predominantly the tweets were focused on food and the sharing of recipes, with 44% of all pro #Veganuary tweets featuring recipes or images of food. Interestingly, a number of well-known corporations tweeted to promote their vegan food products, including Tesco, Aldi, Iceland, and M&S. The diversity of veganism is reflected in the tweets. Organisations used the hashtag to promote their products, including beauty and shoe products, social media influencers promoted their vegan podcasts and blogs, and, interestingly, the Ethiopian Embassy of the United Kingdom tweeted their support.

There were 23 (11%) anti-Veganuary tweets. Of these, one was from Dr. Jude Capper, the founder of Februdairy. The others expressed support for farming and farmers, and a number were photographs of meat products, including sausages and fry-ups. One Australian journalist tweeted in favour of meat, stating it was yummy murder. These tweets could be described as entertaining and may perhaps serve as a means of preaching to the converted, but their ability to influence and persuade is negligible.

Twitter’s search tool provided access to 141 top #Februdairy tweets. Of these 82 (52%) were a hijack of the hashtag and overtly anti-Februdairy. Vegan activists used the #Februdairy hashtag to their advantage with most of their tweets (33%) featuring non-graphic images of animals. They also tweeted about other subject matters, including environmental concerns, vegan food and products, and health issues related to dairy consumption.

As noted by the activists (see fig. 1 above), most of the pro-Februdairy tweets were images of milk or dairy products (41%). Images of farms and farmers were the next most used (26%), followed by images of cows (17%) (see fig. 2).

 

Fig. 2: An activist makes their anti-Februdairy point with a clear, engaging image and effective use of hashtags. (#Februdairy, 6 Feb. 2019)

The juxtaposition between many of the tweets was also often glaring, with one contrasting message following another (see fig. 3).

 

Fig. 3: An example of contrasting #Februdairy tweets with an image used by the activists to good effect, making their point known. (#Februdairy, 2 Feb. 2019)

Storytelling is a powerful tool in public relations and marketing efforts. Yet, to be effective, high-quality content is required. That many of the Februdairy proponents had limited social media training was evident; images were blurred, film quality was poor, or they failed to make their meaning clear (see fig. 4).

 

Fig. 4: A blurred photograph, reflective of some of the low-quality content provided by Februdairy supporters. (#Februdairy, 3 Feb. 2019)

This image was tweeted in support of Februdairy. However the image and phrasing could also be used to argue against Februdairy. We can surmise that the tweeter was suggesting the cow was well looked after and seemingly content, but overall the message is as unclear as the image.

While some pro-Februdairy supporters recognised the need for relevant hashtags, often their images were of a low-quality and not particularly engaging, a requirement for social media success. This requirement seems to be better understood by anti-Februdairy activists who used high-quality images and memes to create interest and gain the audience’s attention (see figs. 5 and 6).

 

Fig. 5: An uninspiring image used to promote Februdairy. (#Februdairy, 6 Feb. 2019)

 

Fig. 6: Anti-Februdairy activists made good use of memes, recognising the need for diverse content. (#Februdairy, 3 Feb. 2019)

Discussion

What the #Februdairy case makes clear, then, is that in continuing its focus on traditional media, the dairy industry has left the battle online to largely untrained, non-social media savvy supporters.

From a purely public relations perspective, one of the first things we ask our students to do in issues and crisis communication is to assess the risk. “What can hurt your organisation?” we ask. “What potential issues are on the horizon and what can you do to prevent them?” This is PR101 and it is difficult to understand why environmental scanning and resulting action has not been on the radar of the dairy industry long before now. It seems they have not fully anticipated or have significantly underestimated the emerging issue that public perception, animal cruelty, health concerns, and, ultimately, veganism has had on their industry and this is to their detriment. In Australia in 2015–16 the dairy industry was responsible for 8 per cent (A$4.3 billion) of the gross value of agricultural production and 7 per cent (A$3 billion) of agricultural export income (Department of Agriculture and Water Resources). When such large figures are involved and with so much at stake, it is hard to rationalise the decision not to engage in a more proactive online strategy, seeking to engage their publics, including, whether they like it or not, activists.

Instead there are current attempts to address these issues with a legislative approach, lobbying for the introduction of ag-gag laws (Potter), and the limitation of terms such as milk and cheese (Worthington). However, these measures are undertaken while there is little attempt to engage with activists or to effectively counter their claims with a widespread authentic public relations campaign, and reflects a failure to understand the nature of the current online environment, momentum, and mood.

That is not to say that the dairy industry is not operating in the online environment, but it does not appear to be a priority, and this is reflected in their low engagement and numbers of followers. For instance, Dairy Australia, the industry’s national service body, has a following of only 8,281 on Facebook, 6,981 on Twitter, and, crucially, they are not on Instagram. Their Twitter posts do not include hashtags and unsurprisingly they have little engagement on this platform with most tweets attracting no more than two likes. Surprisingly they have 21,013 subscribers on YouTube which featured professional and well-presented videos. This demonstrates some understanding of the importance of effective storytelling but not, as yet, trans-media storytelling.

Conclusion

Social media activism is becoming more important and recognised as a legitimate voice in the public sphere. Many organisations, perhaps in recognition of this as well as a growing focus on responsible corporate behaviour, particularly in the treatment of animals, have adjusted their behaviour. From Unilever abandoning animal testing practices to ensure Dove products are certified cruelty free (Nussbaum), to Domino’s introducing vegan options, companies who are aware of emerging trends and values are changing the way they do business and are reaping the benefits of engaging with, and catering to, vegans. Domino’s sold out of vegan cheese within the first week and vegans were asked to phone ahead to their local store, so great was the demand. From their website:

We knew the response was going to be big after the demand we saw for the product on social media but we had no idea it was going to be this big. (Domino’s Newsroom)

As a public relations professional, I am baffled by the dairy industry’s failure to adopt a crisis-based strategy rather than largely rely on the traditional one-way communication that has served them well in the previous (golden?) pre-social media age. However, as a vegan, persuaded by the unravelling of the happy cow argument, I cannot help but hope this realisation continues to elude them.

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Keywords


Twitter, hashtag, bashtag, dairy industry, #veganuary, #februdairy, vegan



Copyright (c) 2019 Deborah Kay Williams

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