CNBC Worries About Poor, Helpless Multinational Corporations Who Are Being ‘Cyberbullied’

Do you remember the last time your tweets made a corporation cry? Or when you Facebooked a multinational into deleting its home page? Or that one time when police were called in to investigate threats to withhold future purchases?

In an article far less overwrought than its title would suggest, some analysts are comparing social media backlash to “cyberbullying.”

Cyberbullying isn’t something normally associated with large corporations. However, in the last week alone social networking played a big role in humbling two culturally influential institutions: Starbucks and DC Comics. Both companies beat a hasty retreat from planned campaigns, and in the process learned a painful lesson in frontier Internet justice.

They join a gallery of big companies that have learned the hard way that hell hath no fury like a Twitter user scorned. So has social media ushered in the age of cyberbullying of big companies?

According to experts, the answer is yes … and no. By and large, the Internet is seen by many as a way to hold companies accountable for their business practices, and give consumers a measure of leverage. Yet it also means big firms no longer totally control their own narratives, and companies can quickly become helpless bystanders in their own story.

Since the average social media user’s market cap is far below that of the “bullied,” this would seem to be be more evidence that the internet levels the playing field like nothing that has come before it. Sure, pre-internet backlash was possible, but it involved letter-writing campaigns that worked only for those who enjoyed delayed gratification, boycotts that generally had more effect on local media coverage than the bottom lines of the companies targeted, and petitions with actual handwritten signatures very few people in the upper management levels ever saw.

Now, the backlash is not only immediate, but it’s massively multiplied. The word “firestorm” is thrown around, but despite its causal ubiquity, it’s actually a rather apt metaphor. When a company (and there’s so many to choose from) screws up — especially if its first reaction is to quell/ignore criticism — the complaints of the few become the movement of the masses. An entity’s reputation can go up in flames in a matter of hours, especially if its responses are combative or defensive. Memory-holing offending content or killing off social media pages is completely suicidal. And complaints about the “unfairness” of the criticism (even when the criticism isn’t legitimate) isn’t going to turn the tide, because no one really wants to hear a multi-million dollar corporation indulging in self-pity.

Of course, the same platforms that are decried as being tools of bandwagon-jumping haters can be used proactively by companies. Too many companies believe a fire can be extinguished by waiting for it to burn itself out. Engagement means more than blasting out corporate site links and discount codes. It means listening. It also means publicly dealing with screw-ups in real time. Some companies can’t handle this, having outsourced their social media presence to random employees or interaction-free bots. The internet can be “won,” but most companies apparently aren’t in the position to do so, despite years of social media unrest clearly indicating the importance of agility and responsiveness.

No matter what it feels like to be the target of the well-oiled internet hate machine, it’s a stretch to call this sort of thing “bullying.” Wrong or right, internet backlash usually involves “punching up.” Sure, the number of people involved can give this a “bullying” appearance, but the same tools being used to criticize can be used to connect. Far too many companies either can’t or won’t perform this essential part of maintaining an “online presence.” And when they don’t, they lose. Unlike most other bullying, the power still remains in the hands of the “bullied.” It’s up to them to use it effectively.

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