IBM gets burned on Twitter for #HackAHairDryer

December 10 2015
Published in Crisis

IBM was in the hot seat this week after #HackAHairDryer, their campaign to encourage more women to get involved in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) backfired on social media.

In what The Verge called one of the worst PR efforts in recent memory, IBM encouraged women to post ideas about how they would hack the humble hair dryer. It was all over in barely 48 hours: the backlash on Twitter resulted in the campaign being pulled completely and IBM posting an apology. Using the Visibrain Twitter monitoring platform, we looked back at the 18,581 tweets posted between December 7th and December 8th to see what happened on Twitter and how IBM handled the crisis.

A delayed backlash

@IBM tweeted to promote #HackAHairDryer several days before the crisis started, on December 1st and December 4th (the tweets have since been deleted), and the negative comments started almost immediately:

However, if we look at the overall tweet volume graph for the first few days of December, we can see that it took until December 7th for the tweet volumes to really start to climb.

An overview of the tweet-volume timeline during the hackahairdryer crisis

So what was the cause? If we take a closer look at the tweet volume graph, we can see that activity started to rise at 5.47 am (times in CET):

An overview of the tweet volume graph at the moment the hackahairdryer crisis started

5.47 am was precisely the time influential scientist Upulie Divisekera @upulie tweeted this:

By 7.00 am, she had already been retweeted 170 times and by the end of the following day, that number had risen to 1,143 retweets, making her the most retweeted user of the campaign. If we filter on her post, we can see that she was retweeted by users with very high audiences:

The top influencers tweeting about the hackahairdryer scandal

The uproar gained momentum as the news was retweeted by influencers and high-audience media accounts started to cover the story. By filtering on the users with the highest audiences, we can see that the #HackAHairDryer controversy was covered by some of the world’s biggest media accounts on Twitter, such as BBC News, Time, and the Wall Street Journal:

The top media accounts that were tweeting about the hackahairdryer controversy

Twitter responds to #HackAHairdryer with floods of irony

The sarcastic tweets kept flooding in, and all of the most retweeted posts of the day had an ironic tone:

The most retweeted posts about hackahairdryer

A closer look at the top hashtags for the campaign confirms the extent of the damage, a very large number of obviously negative hashtags appear in the hashtag cloud, including #fail, #embarrassing and #everydaysexism:

The most common hashtags found in #hackahairdryer tweets

Even the more positive hashtags originally used to promote women in the field such as #womenintech and #womeninstem were hijacked to protest the campaign. In the screenshot below, we can see that the top 2 tweets using these particular hashtags criticized #HackAHairDryer:

The top 2 tweets using the #womenintech and #womeninstem hashtags

The whole community stands with #WomenInTech

Women weren’t the only ones speaking out against #HackAHairDryer. Men were also taking to Twitter to criticize IBM’s sexist campaign:

If we look at the genders of users tweeting about the campaign, we can see that there were almost as many men tweeting (48.7%) as there were women (51.3%):

A comparison of the number of men tweeting about #hackahairdryer vs the number of women

IBM admits the campaign “missed the mark”

IBM was obviously not expecting such a violent reaction to its well-intentioned campaign, but the company responded well. If we filter on tweets posted by @IBM, we can see that they tweeted to several top media accounts to comment on the situation, before responding directly to its followers:

Tweets sent from IBM's official Twitter account during the hackahairdryer controversy

The apology was generally well-received, attracting a few positive tweets:

The #HackAHairDryer campaign is a typical example of a lightening-speed social media crisis, a controversy that ended almost as quickly as it began.

Many have qualified the campaign as a rookie mistake: the concept was obviously well-intentioned but using a gender sterotype to combat gender stereotypes was always going to be a recipe for disaster.

However, IBM responded admirably: not only did they manage to react and comment on the situation reasonably quickly, the decision to pull the campaign stopped the controversy in its tracks.

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Published in Crisis