Social media safety has become an increasingly important question. Recent revelations by Wall Street Journal that Facebook was aware of the mental health risks of Instagram, and that the company has a weak response to its use by drug cartels and human traffickers, has only intensified social media safety concerns. Retailers have begun to ask themselves if they are responsible for social media safety. If they invite customers to interact with them on social media platforms, are they not exposing their customers to risk, and if so, what should they do about it? British cosmetics retailer, Lush, answered this question by announcing a boycott on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok until those platforms “take action to provide a safer environment” for their users. Lush cited the mental health effects of those platforms, and their concern with driving engagement regardless of whether that content was good or bad. In 2019, Lush deactivated its social media accounts, but the pandemic forced it to return to social media in order to continue to serve its customers. Lush’s return to social media highlights the difficulties of trying to disengage from social media: the platforms have become so powerful that being outside of them carries economic risks.

Some Retailers Can Thrive Without Social Media

Earlier this year, Italian luxury fashion house, Bottega Veneta, shocked its fans by signing off from social media. The fashion designer’s decision was motivated more by a belief that its products would have a higher status if they were hard to view, whispered about, and true fans forced to go to their stores to see and buy them, than by any concerns over mental health. However, the success of the policy suggests that retailers are less beholden to social media than they believe. The strength of Bottega Veneta’s work is such that the retailer does not need to do much to push sales. That, however, does not answer the question whether retailers have a responsibility to ensure the safety of their retailers when they are online.

The Responsibility of Retailers to their Customers

There is an emerging consensus that retailers owe it to their customers to provide a safe space for them, although there are obviously limits to what a company can do. It is important to monitor a business’ social media channels to ensure that customers behave responsibly when they are on them. Users who do not behave responsibly can and should be blocked or banned, if they do not react positively to a warning. This will allow other users to interact with the business on the social media channels, without being exposed to the content of that user. In practice what this means is that a customer interacting with a brand and deciding on whether they need to have microblading done, for instance, should not have to view content from other customers that harms their mental health. This is the basic pact that customers have with their suppliers and service providers. Not every retailer can exit social media, but every retailer can at least monitor its social media platforms and ban or block toxic content or users who disseminate such content.

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