Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Montreal Canadiens learn a hard Twitter lesson

Disclosure: I'm originally from Montreal, and I root for the Montreal Canadiens hockey team. I wouldn't call myself a superfan or anything remotely approaching that level of commitment - I'd rather play a sport than watch it - but when you grow up in a city that's home to such a storied franchise, it's hard to let go even after you move away.
But enough about me. Why am I sharing my deepest and darkest hockey fandom secret? Because my beloved Habs had a rough time on Twitter last week. Come with me and I'll explain:
The team wanted to do something nice for their fans to mark the 1 millionth follower to their Twitter account, @CanadiensMTL. So they tweeted their fans to let them know if they tweeted the hashtag #CanadiensMTL1M, they would receive an autotweet in response, complete with a picture of a Habs jersey with their customized Twitter handle.

Unfortunately, the process was automated, and before long, trolls from racist and profanity-laden Twitter accounts - including @ILoveISIS and some we can't even talk about on a family-friendly blog - began sharing the resulting Habs jersey pics online.

As background, there are lots of Twitter accounts set up by trolls that monitor Twitter for this kind of thing, and will automatically respond to hashtag-based contests with the intent of reaching a wider audience with their unique form of bile. Machine talking to machine: It's quite the modern twist on online vandalism.

There are indeed filters to keep “bad” words out and prevent them from being retweeted, but the trolls easily get around the filters by changing a letter here or a letter there, or substituting the occasional number in - i.e. a 3 instead of an E, or a 1 instead of an I. It’s a huge risk of automation, and the Habs simply didn’t anticipate it. The mortified Canadiens hockey club soon shut the campaign down, but not before the damage had gone viral. The team later apologized.

Interestingly, the same thing happened to the New England Patriots a year ago November. You'd think professional sports teams would do more due diligence before launching Twitter campaigns like this, but you'd be sadly mistaken.

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