Great Britain

When brands like Yorkshire Tea take part in online outrage, it's never a fair fight

On Monday morning, the Twitter account of Yorkshire Tea account posted a tweet explaining that the brand had been wrongly accused of sponsoring a tweet from new Chancellor, Rishi Sunak. “On Friday," it read, "the Chancellor shared a photo of our tea. Politicians do that sometimes (Jeremy Corbyn did it in 2017). We weren't asked... Lots of people got angry with us all the same”. The brand claimed to have spent three days “answering furious accusations and boycott calls… It's been pretty shocking to see the determination some have had to drag us into a political mudfight…”

The account then said it was “speaking directly... as the person who's been answering these tweets,” to reveal the strain that person had been under. “It's easier to be on the receiving end of this as a brand than as an individual," the person behind the brand's social media acknowledged, adding that they had "a team to support me when it got a bit much". Finally they implored "anyone about to vent their rage online, even to a company" to "remember there's a human on the other end of it... try to be kind”.

The five tweets in this thread have been liked more than 171,000 times and retweeted by more than 18,000 other users. But the Rishi Sunak moment turned into true viral gold for Yorkshire Tea when the brand fired off a snarky reply to a woman who was arguing with its account.

“Sue, you're shouting at tea” became a viral Twitter meme on Tuesday afternoon straight through to Thursday morning, with the hashtag #SueYoureShoutingAtTea trending on the site (alongside its misspelled variants and others such as #YorkshireTeaGate). Tweets using the hashtag included “this thread is amazing”; “it fills me with a strange sense of #British pride";  the tweet was described as "legendary" and "brilliant", and an indicator that "people will stand by you if you stick up for yourself”. Nick Harvey, a music writer for television, even tweeted a twee parody song which has itself been viewed 116,000 times, in which one of the only lyrics that isn’t “Sue, you’re shouting at tea” is “you really need to take a long, hard look at yourself”. The song, and other comments, suggested that the emotional response was not entirely positive. The tweet was “a great example of how to deal with these moon howlers”.

When I tried to speak to Sue for this piece, it was clear that her week had been rougher than Yorkshire Tea's, and that no team existed to support her against the pile-on that ensued. Immediately she presumed I was yet another person looking to join the many that had berated her for criticising a tea brand.

“Apparently I have to ‘reap what I sow’,” she replied. “I am told that I should feel bad about upsetting someone on the end of an established company’s Twitter account". Sue has received a deluge of comments from other Twitter users, who have called her "pathetic", an "idiot", and told her to "shut up". She reports being described as a “sad, lonely, rabid lefty bedwetter who should not be wasting oxygen”. Sue observes that in the minds of the righteous mob, "this was apparently 100 per cent deserved”.

Yorkshire Tea did tweet that it didn't want to start a pile-on. But the company did not take any steps to prevent one, such as deleting the tweet that incited it or replying to the more offensive comments directed at Sue. After spreading a message of kindness and patience online, Yorkshire Tea has benefited from a response described in PR as a “clap back” – the engagement and acclaim that comes from publicly taking down a critic.

Of course, there is a person behind any brand's Twitter account, and Yorkshire Tea’s initial message is correct: we should treat those people with care. But we should also be honest about what's happening when a brand with a verified account, over 160,000 followers, and the backing of a company that makes more than £200m a year decides to publicly humiliate a woman online, while preaching the increasingly trendy “be kind!”

The irony of this distorted power relationship is summed up by the creation of a mug emblazoned with Yorkshire Tea’s viral tweet, the proceeds from which will go toward preventing suicide.

In a piece for Metro titled “Brands on Twitter aren’t your friends, they just want your money”, the journalist Yomi Adegoke writes about the problem with "stanning" – enthusiastically supporting – these accounts. “As soon as companies realised that ‘savage clapbacks’ and witty internet commentary could help secure column inches and free promo via viral one-liners,” she writes, “our Twitter feeds have turned into a cacophony of performative put-downs, stolen memes and ironic lower case lettering from companies.”

There’s no doubt that Yorkshire Tea had to acknowledge the Rishi Sunak tweet and the brand had every right to defend itself against claims that the picture was sponsored. And real people do exist behind brand Twitter accounts. But there are real people behind most Twitter accounts, and we should tread carefully when we celebrate a brand preaching about niceness and mental health, especially when it comes at the expense of someone else who holds far less power.