Social Media Reactions to MH370

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When Malaysia Airlines flight 370’s disappearance first became public, discussion was fierce. In times past, such discussion might have taken place in town halls or behind closed doors. But this is the age of social media, the circumstances surrounding MH370’s disappearance have provoked discussion across a variety of social platforms. Everyone has their own personal soapbox. In this blog post we focus on a few notable exchanges from the social media discussion of this tragic event.


By this point, it’s hard not to have heard of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. Departing from Kuala Lumpur International airport on March 8th at 12:41 a.m., the aircraft went missing later that day. The event sparked a huge response on social media, from hopes to hoaxes.

Hoaxes and Conspiracy Theories
Although social media can be an effective way to get the word out about various disasters and social injustices, it also has a darker side. In the case of MH370, this dark side has taken shape in the form of numerous hoaxes. It initially began with reports of the craft having landed safely, reportedly in Nanning, China. As NBC notes, one Twitter poster commented that he had “some inside news from a pilot uncle that #MH370 has emergency landed somewhere in China! Hope everyone is safe.” Regardless of the intent of posts like these, the effects were nonetheless damaging to those who had family members or friends aboard the aircraft. The rumors escalated, with Malaysian media outlets publishing similar stories. It did nothing to help matters that there were also reports of phones ringing when called without going to voice-mail, as well as passengers showing up as online on QQ, a popular Chinese messenger. However, it turns out that phones don’t necessarily have to go to voice-mail when disabled. Similarly, a functioning phone isn’t required to show up as online on a messenger app.

The missing aircraft also gave rise to a few rather far-fetched conspiracy theories. Alexandra Bruce at ForbiddenKnowledgeTV claimed that aliens were involved, while others claimed the Bermuda Triangle now had a twin sister in the Gulf of Thailand. One British tabloid even reported that the MH370 had somehow ended up on the moon. Claims of teleportation were made.

Volvo China’s Slip Up
There are many lessons for social media marketers to learn from this tragedy. Although it may seem like common sense, it is never a good idea to try and profit from any sort of disaster, especially when the connection between said disaster and your company is tenuous at best. Volvo Car Corporation learned this the hard way when an employee posted an insensitive message on Sina Weibo (a Chinese equivalent to Twitter). The following is that post translated into English:

“The rescue operation for the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 plane is in full swing. Passenger safety is also a top priority at Volvo Cars, let’s pray together for the 239 lives that were on board of the plane. Bless them, and may a miracle occur.”

Even the quickest read-through can tell us what is wrong here. Although the post was taken down within the hour, the damage was done. Weibo users attacked the car manufacturer in droves, calling the post insensitive and greedy. Essentially, if you can’t think of a tactful way to comment on a disaster (such as mobilizing your own forces in some sort of relief effort), just don’t.

Malaysia Airlines’ Controversial Text
Another lesson comes from Malaysia Airlines itself. It’s a given that the media is going to have a field day with situations like these. Both because of the incredible nature of the story (how is it that, in today’s age of technology, we are still somehow unable to find MH370?) and the desire to get as many views as possible. This meant that, no matter what they did, Malaysia Airlines was in for a PR nightmare. Concerned citizens took to social media to air their grievances, while others took to their local branch of the Malaysian Embassy. Then, for one reason or another, at the height of emotional tension, Malaysia Airlines sent the following text message to families of passengers on MH370:

“Malaysia Airlines deeply regrets that we have to assume beyond any reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board survived.  As you will hear in the next hour from Malaysia’s Prime Minister, we must now accept all evidence suggests the plane went down in the Southern Indian Ocean.”

Sources vary as to why the decision to text these families were made. Some say it was simply a callous, inhumane mistake. There was no evidence to back the claim up. Nothing to assuage the pain. Others claim it was an opt-in service, something families could choose to become a part of in order to get up-to-date information about the accident. This makes sense, but when families opted to receive such updates, did they expect to get the text found above? Most likely not. Or perhaps, Malaysia Airlines simply thought this was the only way to reach all of the families as quickly as possible, before the Prime Minister’s report. Regardless, the fact remains that it DID happen. And criticism was fierce.

Social Media Lessons
So, what can we learn from this? To begin with, a text such as this should never be sent. A text is an informal method of communication. Yes, Malaysia Airlines may have had good intentions. They may have only wanted to make sure the families of passengers on MH370 found out before the rest of the world. But a short two sentence message like this could be worse than nothing at all. It effectively eliminates hope without giving any evidence.

Company scandals. Safety recalls. Layoffs. Disasters both natural and otherwise. None of these are good for an organization’s public image. In order to weather the storm of criticism that follows these events, a company has to watch what they say. The situation is different for each company, and for each situation. Although a public statement must be issued, we, as social media marketers, must choose our words carefully. If we are at fault, we should own up to it.


The situation surrounding and viable response to any one problem is going to differ depending on the company .So what would I do if I was in charge of managing Malaysia Airlines’ social media response to MH370’s disappearance? I don’t know. I don’t work at Malaysia Airlines. I don’t know the particulars of the incident. I don’t know anything about the company’s history or policies. The one thing I do know is that I would not send that text. Beyond that… not much.

To sum things up, social media can be a wonderful thing for building brand loyalty. Thousands, maybe even millions of fans right there, commenting and sharing your content in droves. But when things go badly, you could have thousands, or even millions of former fans and concerned citizens in the discussion. It’s important to watch what you say and act with empathy.


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