In the Wild West of the Internet, social media is often credited with giving a voice to the average citizen and helping to introduce democracy and activism to turbulent parts of the world. Yet on the flip side, online grievance campaigns have become an increasingly frequent phenomenon—with even big companies now tasting the wrath of angry swarms of web activists.
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.
"Back in the day of the 'Mad Men' era, companies had complete control over messages and what consumers were able to see," said marketing expert Renée Richardson Gosline, a professor at M.I.T's Sloan School of Management, in an interview. "That control has not gone away, but the pendulum is swinging toward co-creation and co-control."
That means online activists have at their disposal the means to make questionable corporate behavior go viral. Just ask Sallie Mae, who in 2013 was accused of harassing the family of a dead college student for the balance of a student loan. A relative took to Twitter to denounce the company, unleashing a torrent of social media haranguing that forced the company to back off its aggressive collection efforts.
As institutions like Starbucks, DC and JPMorgan Chase have learned, "the consumer has a voice, too," Gosline told CNBC. As far as companies are concerned, "it's no longer a soliloquy, nor are they completely in the audience."
Using social networks to blast big companies isn't exactly bullying, she explained, but something that gives users credibility with their followers, and is part of the whirlwind of free speech.
"The cyberbullying you see is one-half of a coin that puts it into a narrative," she said. "We obviously construct a hero or the villain, and if you're the company you want to fall on the former. If you're on Facebook or Twitter … people may not actually be that outraged, but you gain social capital by calling out a company as being incorrect."