Hands off social media

Alexander Buhmann, Christian Fieseler, Kateryna Reiby

Should companies try to hold the steering wheel in online discussions about corporate social responsibility? A new study shows that the reactions of stakeholders are more positive when they experience low levels of moderation.

To broadly engage with the public about societal, environmental, and political issues, is strategically relevant to organizations in their ongoing efforts to safeguard legitimacy and social acceptance beyond merely the financial bottom line. A lot of such stakeholder engagement today is happening via social media.

Online dialogue gone askew

A few years back, the American Bank JPMorgan Chase attempted to engage with finance students on career-related questions via social media. To do so, the bank had—under the hashtag #askJPM—set up a Twitter Q&A. Within minutes, Twitter users hijacked the hashtag to criticize the bank for issues ranging from tax fraud to business dealings with Mexican drug cartels. Only hours later, when realizing the potential backlash to its reputation, JPMorgan Chase canceled the campaign. They did so, publicly, in a tweet that reflects remarkably on their own failure to manage stakeholder conversations online: “Tomorrow's Q&A is cancelled. Bad idea. Back to the drawing board.”

To moderate or not to moderate?

Organizations regularly struggle to meaningfully engage with their stakeholders on societal, political, and environmental topics via social media. More often than not, such discourses unravel into splintered and negative conversations. Corporate communicators need to know whether it is useful to restrict or encourage access to discussions and how different levels of guidance and steering (namely: ‘moderation’) may influence attitudes of their clients and customers. How should online stakeholder conversations be managed? Should they be managed at all? How much moderation from the organization is necessary or tolerated by social media users?

Shifting focus from practices to effects

Previous research has explored different practices and patterns of corporate interventions in online conversations about corporate social responsibility (CSR). A study found that corporations use four different approaches to effectively engage in online dialogue with stakeholders: (1) directing conversations, (2) moderating conversations (3) building ‘open-script’ conversations and (4) crowdsourcing conversations ‘bottom up’. We wanted to study the effects of these practices in conversations with stakeholders.

Social media likes

What level of control generates likes or dislikes? 

Reactions from the public

In two experiments, we set out to test the effects of different approaches in managing online conversations (i.e., based on different levels of ‘moderation’ by the organization) on important stakeholder communication outcomes, such as attitudes, trust, commitment to, and satisfaction with an organization.

Moderation here can differ, for example, in who initiates a conversation (organization vs. stakeholders), or in whether the organization empowers or restricts user comments. Does the organization for instance allow a discussion to continue openly or rather decide to restrict or even terminate it in a reaction to critical comments? Our result show that the level of such outcomes vary significantly with the conversational approach employed. In sum, the outcomes of the different experimental studies suggest that stakeholder outcomes are positively influenced by low levels of moderation.

Hands off— mostly

Organizations must constantly and actively decide which online conversations to enter, whom to engage and to what degree to interfere with, manage or control these conversations. Our experiments would suggest that it’s best for organizations to take a “hands off” approach on social media, where stakeholders can enter or initiate the conversation on almost any CSR issue.

However, while more openness and rather ‘unguided’ conversations may generally lead to more favorable stakeholder communication outcomes, in cases of high issue complexity, a certain level of ‘curation’ may indeed be appreciated by stakeholders.


Buhmann, A., et al. (2021). "Muzzling social media: The adverse effects of moderating stakeholder conversations online." Technology in Society 64: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techsoc.2020.101490 (open access)

Illia, L., Romenti, S., Rodríguez-Cánovas, B. et al. Exploring Corporations’ Dialogue About CSR in the Digital Era. J Bus Ethics 146, 39–58 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-015-2924-6

M. Aspen, JPMorgan’s #AskJPM Twitter Experiment Goes Horribly Awry, American Banker, 2013. https://www.americanbanker.com/news/jpmor gans-askjpm-twitter-experiment- goes-horribly-awry. (Accessed 9 December 2020).



Published 28. January 2021

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