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Cyberbullying's new target: Big companies

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.

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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."

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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."

Social media's bullhorn

Many observers say Starbucks' heart was in the right place when it envisioned "Race Together," an idea for workers to engage customers in discussions about race. Yet after social media users mercilessly skewered the company's effort, Starbucks announced it would wrap up the controversial campaign after barely a week.

"It wasn't that Starbucks talked about race, they didn't know what they were doing," Gosline said. "When called out about it, they ran and took their toys home. "Prior to releasing that idea, they should have had a better understanding of how people would react to that."

The retreat recalled a similarly sticky spot that JPMorgan found itself back in 2013, when a seemingly harmless Twitter question-and-answer session with one of its top bankers was quickly hijacked by hostile spectators. The backlash prompted the banking giant to abandon the effort, which was widely panned as a public relations fiasco.

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The Internet's echo chamber—and its ability to whip average citizens into a frenzy on even the most peripheral of issues—is what another observer calls the "giant bullhorn" effect of social media.

"The views of a niche are being blown up … and drives what appears to be the public's view," said Jules Polonetsky, executive director of the Future of Privacy Forum, said in an interview.

"Social media is starting to drive the first round of public opinion," Polonetsky said. "It can provoke a more extreme view than what may be represented by the public."

'Taking your toys and going home'

The Joker menacing Batgirl
DC Comics

In that vein, something as anodyne as a comic book cover can become a battle cry for aggrieved fans.

As Starbucks was taking its lumps over "Race Together," a proposed cover for an upcoming issue of "Batgirl" struck some observers as sexist. The ensuing backlash put DC on the defensive for a week before the company decided, with little explanation or fanfare, to pull the plug on the cover.

According to MIT's Gosline, yanking a product or initiative can be a double-edged sword. While it can help a company acknowledge a bad decision, it can also cement a negative impression.

"When you take your toys and go home, the end of the narrative becomes your failure," she explained. "If you stay out there, you can repair your image … but when you end the conversation on a bad note, that's the last recollection people have about you."