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

from the worst.-'victims.'-ever. dept

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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Comments on “CNBC Worries About Poor, Helpless Multinational Corporations Who Are Being 'Cyberbullied'”

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TasMot (profile) says:

“I’m a victim”, quoth the multi-million dollar company.

Wow, it used to be that the weak kid on the playground got “bullied”. Now, a billion dollar company like Starbucks does something stupid and they “got bullied”.

I feel so sorry for them. Would somebody get the government to throw them a billion dollars so that they feel better?

Call me Al says:

Disconnected thinking

I think that “Yet it also means big firms no longer totally control their own narratives, and companies can quickly become helpless bystanders in their own stor” is the big problem here.

It presents this idea of a corporation existing in isolation, just trundling along doing its own thing. This is not true. They want to sell things to us, the consumers. This is especially true with DC and Starbucks.

The immediacy now gives consumers an opportunity to shout about things they don’t think the company should be doing and so give the company an opportunity to revise their offering to better suit the consumer and therefore to protect or even increase their sales. Better product should mean better sales.

I think the problem with this is the extent to which the people doing the shouting are not in fact consumers of that product anyway… and won’t be of the revised offering either. I know a lot of people who sign all manner of petitions, post all manner of complaints and campaigns against this or that company but often wouldn’t dream of buying from that company anyway. These people are distorting the perception of the market which must confuse the hell out of the companies.

lars626 says:

When I was small my father had some rules.
One of the major one’s was “No lies and no denial.”
If you messed up you admitted it, and you Never lied to him.
The punishment for a lie was always much worse that the original error.

He also made sure you understood the punishment and why it was what it was. All together a pretty good parent.

If you screw up admit it and take your lumps. Make it right for damage done. Explain why you will do better next time. Move on.

Anonymous Coward says:

Cyber or not, “bullying” isn’t something that Twitter users can do to a multinational corporation.

First, corporations don’t have feelings.

Second, bullying usually involves a power imbalance. You might call it “bullying” when the federal government seizes a bunch of a company’s assets for no good reason, or tells the company to give it a bunch of money to settle some violation of a rule they just invented. Or when a media corporation tells one of its subsidiaries that it can’t run an article critical of one of its other holdings. That at least involves an improper abuse of power. But this? This is just people being critical. That’s not bullying.

Anonymous Coward says:

To consumers:

You have the right to speak your mind, even if you are merely a bystander and not an actual consumer of the corporation/product you are commenting about.

Just because you are not a purchaser of a corporations product doesn’t mean you have no right to criticize bad behavior.

To corporations:

Don’t start no shit…. won’t be no shit.

bob says:

power amplification

Technology is a power amplifier. The first adopters (most agile) get to start using the power first and it may seem that they are too powerful (think early days of the Internet and hackers). As time goes on the less agile finally adapt and learn how to utilize the new technology for their gain (think the US government today vs. the world). The same is true of corporations, right now they are still learning how to utilize social media but eventually they will learn and then their power will be amplified and they will again control the narrative for their company. It just takes them longer to adapt than individuals.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: power amplification

Wow. I don’t know how you could be more back-asswards. Corporations had the power to control the narrative early because the technology of mass communication was expensive and they had the money where the general population did not. As the technology developed and became cheaper, the masses started to take back some of that control. That is what is going on here, not companies not knowing how to communicate effectively and having to learn how to use social media.

bob says:

Re: Re: power amplification

while it is true that they had the ability to use the technology first due to cost constraints that doesn’t mean they could utilize it in an effective manner to reach people like they wanted to. Sometimes corporations get lucky and the first foray into new technology works. However as time goes on the use of the technology changes and if you aren’t staying adaptive to the needs and wants of your customers you will fall behind.

The masses being more agile could pick up the technology and start running with it and even innovate with it. While the behemoth corporations could only slowly change course and are still left walking while the world around them sprint.

Case in point.
When the internet first became more mainstream large corporations might have a website setup to visit. Maybe even try to sell things through the site. However agile smaller companies and individuals soon had better services and sites than any large corporation or government. Over time however large companies learned how to harness the web for their own benefit and thus their websites and services became better than any individual or small company could because the large companies have the money.

Same thing will eventually happen with social media, eventually.

lars626 says:

Re: Re: Re: power amplification

You seem to be assuming a zero sum game where the resource is limited. In this case there is no way they can buy all of social media. Someone else will create a new service and spoil the plan. The worst they can do is to create a lot of noise and attempt to drowned the message.

bob says:

Re: Re: Re:2 power amplification

That is my point, at some moment a new service will appear because the agile are able to innovate and change faster than large companies or governments. See DefCon 21 – Unexpected Stories – From a Hacker Who Made It Inside the Government

I foresee a time when all social media will be so inundated with ads or other corporate trackers that large corporations will be back on the same footing as the individual. It could be the company to control the narrative takes legal, financial, or censoring action, then again they might just realize they suck and change how they operate (here’s hoping).

At some point someone new will create a different service that makes it possible to once again outplay the large entities, thus amplifying the power of the people again. It will always be a cat and mouse game between who has the power.

Look at the music industry and online streaming. At first people realized that Napster was a way to try music and find out if they liked an artist before buying the music. Finally music companies started selling online and they profited and regained control of their market. Until someone else found that you could stream music free supported by ads. Or that you could create P2P networks, use VPNs or other services to get around the power of the music giants. Indie artists could start selling to the public without going through record labels and so the indies became bigger and pulled more control from the giants.

Innovation and change are required to retain power. The model that allows the most agility in the market will be the model that survives and later adopted by legacy players to the market. The Internet is a power amplification machine because only the agile models get adopted. First by the individuals or small companies and then later by the big ones. Once the big companies get involved they have the money to continue to amplify their power so they become more powerful again. Just have to wait for the next innovation to give us back the power.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: power amplification

Wrong. The big thing about social media is that it routes around the control of the traditional gatekeeper entities allowing the masses to widely distribute information to others. They can’t magically adapt somehow to regain exclusive control again. This is why they don’t spend tons of money trying to “get better at social media” and instead spend those tons of money fighting against things like net neutrality in a vain attempt to remodel the Internet in traditional media image where gatekeepers have control again.

Anonymous Coward says:


Corporations have a great deal of money that they can put to use, by essentially “buying” their own online fan base. There’s no shortage of internet firms that sell professional “Astroturfing” services. And it’s not just about hit-and-run snipers, as many online-propaganda firms claim to have developed a large stable of online “opinion leaders” that can be pressed into action — for a price.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Astroturfing

Professional astroturfing firms don’t provide an existing fan base that can be “bought”. They try to create the illusion of an existing fan base in hopes that others won’t look too deep into it and jump on the bandwagon and join them. They don’t have anywhere near the budget it would take to actually pay that many people to support them. Also there are quite a few people out there that are reasonably skilled at tracking and exposing these attempts for what they actually are.

Anonymous Coward says:

Boycotting is still alive and well...

… but operating under the name of “social media firestorm”.

It never did work as well against a corporation as it did against an individual, simply due to scale: a 10% drop in retail sales doesn’t cause the wholesaler that much pain.

But create a commotion on the interwebs, and retailers might cut their orders, causing distributors to do the same. And THAT would hurt the producer much more immediately.

For that matter, when your distributor sends you a link to a well researched article on, you start to think what a terrible shame it would be if said distributor was to stop carrying your product….

That One Guy (profile) says:

That's a feature, not a bug

Yet it also means big firms no longer totally control their own narratives, and companies can quickly become helpless bystanders in their own story.

Companies no longer being in total control of the narrative, that’s a good thing for consumers. If the company is able to throw out whatever spin they want, then they get to control the reaction and public perception of their product and/or company, and as should be obvious, if they can control those perceptions, then they will never be bad, even if the product and/or company is.

With companies no longer in full control there though, companies have to be a lot more careful about their spin. Make claims that don’t stand up, or worse flat out lie, and they will be called out on it. As such they very much have a ‘be honest or be forced to be honest’ threat hanging over their heads, and that’s all for the better I’d say.

Anonymous Coward says:

Well here’s you a clue for those mega-corporations. When you do something I disapprove of know that I won’t need the internet to stop buying from you. It’s a practice I’ve followed all my life and I don’t need the internet to make my mind up for me.

Take the entertainment groups as a prime example, but Monasanto would work or most of the large corporations that believe labor should be so cheap that they shouldn’t pay the worker a living wage.

The MPAA and the RIAA are constantly in the news and if it’s not them then it’s their sockpuppets in other countries. I’ve gotten to where I hate them and their belief of their righteous entitlements. I want not one penny of my money going to support them. That means not buying their products. You piss me off, I am not going to buy your product.

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