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VS250 – Virgin Atlantic’s online racism crisis

Reading Time: 2 minutes Virgin Atlantic flight VS250 had a tough finish to the week as Chinese social media users and their overseas counterparts united to hit the airline hard. The problem had percolated for the previous two weeks on Chinese social media as netizens fumed at the way cabin staff had allegedly treated a Chinese woman traveller.

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Virgin Atlantic flight VS250 had a tough finish to the week as Chinese social media users and their overseas counterparts united to hit the airline hard. The problem had percolated for the previous two weeks on Chinese social media as netizens fumed at the way cabin staff had allegedly treated a Chinese woman traveller.

160319 vs250 virgin atlantic racism issue from Ged Carroll

Chinese social media users are known for their direct co-ordinated action such as the ‘human flesh engine’ in a way that is similar to Anonymous or Reddit readers – but at a greater scale.

Looking at the VS250-related social data we can see that there were two concerted pushes on social media. The first one happened on Twitter at 4am – 5am and then hours later it landed on Facebook. Interesting that the open nature of Twitter was the first place Chinese netizens went. Presumably because it was more visible and likely to get picked up. A second reason might be the superficial similarity with Weibo made it their first choice.

The surge post volume would be enough to stress even the largest and most sophisticated customer services team.

Key lessons for brands:

  1. A Chinese market problem has the potential to be an international one. The Virgin Atlantic team had a good two weeks to either shutdown the protest through a quick resolution or prepare for the Chinese netizen onslaught. They didn’t seem to do either
  2. The Great Firewall will not keep the protest isolated. In fact through benign neglect the Chinese government has encouraged patriots to jump the firewall on issues like Taiwan
  3. Expect a more co-ordinated approach if the protest jumps the firewall. It can be diagnosed by looking at realtime data
  4. Chinese netizens can effectively drive international media coverage, despite western scepticism or possible concerns of state collusion. (They often give the Chinese Communist Party too much credit, and not enough credit to the effective adhocracy Chinese netizens create)
  5. Sentiment analysis doesn’t seem to be a good trigger / escalation vector in this incident as the tweets mostly seemed to register as neutral based on the analysis tools that I used. On their own it wouldn’t indicate anything untoward – which negates some of the pretty command dashboards you see

Here’s a similar analysis that I did on the Panama Papers.

More information
Trail of conversations on Sina Weibo – you need an account to log-in and see the content
Virgin Atlantic targeted after racism accusations | Global Times
Woman Was Called “Chinese Pig” on Flight by Passenger, Only to be Threatened by Crew to Leave the Plane in Mid-air | People’s Daily – probably the best write up of the incident by Chinese government’s paper of record
Virgin Atlantic investigates abuse case as story goes viral | China Daily – London bureau breaks the western social media debacle for English language readers
Chinese woman claims flight attendants ignored her after man called her ‘Chinese pig’ | asiaone – asiaone is a Singaporean news aggregator owned by SPH who own The Straits Times
Richard Branson sends apologetic tweet after woman claims she was called a ‘f****** Chinese pig’ on Virgin flight by fellow white passenger… but cabin crew threatened to kick HER off the plane | Mail Online – the Mail Online piece is particularly importance as it validates the story for western audiences and other media such as The Metro
Richard Branson apologises to woman called ‘Chinese pig’ on Virgin flight | Metro.co.uk