First published on Caravan & Camping Australia, February 2018
The caravan and RV community has been abuzz recently with talk of the legal stoush between Lotus Caravans and the administrator of the Facebook group Lemon Caravans & RVs in Aus.
The finale of this saga is yet to be played out so I won’t go into the details of the case but the matter does raise a broader issue of quality standards, self-regulation of the caravan industry and the role of consumer bodies such as state base Administrative tribunals and of course the ACCC.
While there has been a plethora of opinions proffered on the effectiveness of these consumer tribunals and the consequences of a self-regulated industry, very little attention has been paid to the ongoing role of social media, and in particular the Facebook Group behind the Lotus/Leigh stoush.
Originally, Lemon Caravans & RVs Aus, a Facebook group with over 26,000 members, was a forum where disgruntled caravan and RV customers could tell their personal stories about what they deemed lemon or substandard caravans, shonky repairers or untrustworthy dealers. From the early days there has been a buyer beware list, formerly known as the lemon List, to warn prospective buyers about potential faults with particular caravans. The group now calls itself a victim’s support group but the list still exists and has only recently been re released.
But how accurate is the information on the buyer beware list and more generally, the group itself? That’s the million dollar question. While the original idea was to detail faults based on firsthand experience, the group soon became a free for all with caravans, dealers and repairers being castigated in the group, sometimes based on second or third hand information (hearsay) and manufacturers named and shamed for minor faults which occurred well outside of the warranty period by what was sometimes the second or third owner of the van.
Of course there were also some pretty horrific stories from customers who bought new caravans in good faith, sometimes spending their life savings, and ended up with a lemon. In not all, but a lot of these cases the buyer was then treated abysmally by the dealer or manufacturer and had hells own trouble trying to get their caravan repaired or replaced. Some battles for restitution still continue to this day.
And therein lays the rub:
How do we evaluate the integrity of the information on both the list and what is posted on the group?
The answer to this question is we can’t. And we can’t because, as I see it, there appears to be no transparency. Any member of the group can post (from time to time the posts have to be approved by the admin), any member can read posts, view the list, download the list or screenshot the posts, and share it with whomever they like, either internal or external to the group. But the list itself often contains no information whatsoever about why the caravan or dealer is named and posts are sometimes driven by emotion and aren’t always completely factual. Was it a firsthand report? Was the issue a major failure or a minor fault? Was the manufacturer or dealer given ample opportunity to rectify the issue?
Unless you make further enquiries to the Administrator of the group you may never know and even if you do, the information may not be forthcoming.
Which brings us to the second question, how does a manufacturer seek redress if they are erroneously placed on the list or named in the group? This is where the waters muddy. The manufacturer or dealer may not even know they’ve been named in the group or the list, unless they’re alerted to it by a member, because manufacturers and dealers themselves are not permitted to be members of the group.
So it comes down to a negotiation between the manufacturer or dealer and the administrator of the group, who, I’m told, has no vocational experience relating to the manufacturer of caravans, camper trailers or tents, nor have they ever worked in the retail or wholesale arms of the RV industry.
Is it fair that a manufacturer and/or dealer have no right of reply when it comes to unsubstantiated claims made in a closed Facebook group with over 26,000 members, a large number of whom are looking to buy? Does it appear extortionate when a manufacturer or dealer has to humble themselves before a Facebook group administrator, who has no integral knowledge of the manufacturing process. in order to have erroneous listings or comments removed? I’ll let you decide but personally I think it’s unfair; in fact some might call this type of behaviour bullying.
Now that we’ve used the ‘B’ word, we can’t proceed without addressing the behaviour of some of the supporters of the Lemon Caravans & RVs in Aus Group. It’s a big group and the following only applies to a vocal minority.
I’m fairly active in the online caravan and RV community. I started the Facebook group Caravan and Camping Australia which is closing in on 55k members, I’m a member of most of the Facebook caravanning groups and pages as well as some other caravan and camping forums, and I was a member of the Lemon Caravans & RVs in Aus group until I was removed by the admin for disagreeing with a particular tactic she used to garner support. The tactic involved trying to link a tragic caravanning accident in Queensland which claimed a life, to the issue of faulty caravans, when clearly there was no evidence to suggest this was anything other than a tragic accident.
The one thing I find to be a constant is the claim from some of the Lemon group supporters that they themselves are being bullied. Now I don’t want to be dismissive of these claims, but from my point of view, when someone disagrees with you it means you have a difference of opinion, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being bullied.
On the other side of the coin is the support and blind loyalty some of the Lemon group members lavish on their administrator. Time and again I’ve witnessed online posts that are critical of the group or the admin or simply offer a different perspective on a particular issue, a perspective at odds with the agenda pursued or opinion of a member of the group, turn into a free-for-all. In my experience the insults, name calling and vulgar language predominantly emanate from the Lemon group supporters, who, for the most part, aren’t there to contribute to the discussion, but are there to attack, discredit and bully others in order to shut down the conversation. This constitutes classic trolling behaviour. Recent posts on the Facebook pages Caravanning News and Time to Roam Australia have highlighted this perfectly. The debate was lively, but the bullying and bad behaviour was definitely one sided.
Credibility, accountability and transparency are the cornerstones of any campaign for change. Take away one of those and the whole lot crumbles. While the notion of a ‘keep the bastards honest’ group is a noble and worthy pursuit, the execution relies on these cornerstones being in place. If not, it’s just a rabble without a cause.