No, Starbucks Wasn’t Cyberbullied Over #RaceTogether, and Backlash Isn’t Bullying

Starbucks and JP Morgan Chase are not at the same level of societal power as private individuals who reply to a hashtag conversation request with anger.
Publish date:
March 30, 2015
social media, cyberbullying, #racetogether, Backlash

This NBC news feature “Cyberbullying's Got a New Target: Big Companies” posits that recent online backlash toward ill-conceived initiatives by large corporate entities constitutes cyberbullying, and I disagree.

In painting companies like JP Morgan Chase and Starbucks as the victim, they reinforce the false narrative that we’re all on equal ground. Social media has given individuals, and especially marginalized groups, the ability to be heard to an extent that is growing every day, but negatively responding to a corporate question or conversation begun by the corporation, is not bullying.

Absolving the corporate entities of guilt or responsibility is the surest way to protect the barrier between Us and Them that allows this to happen in the first place. In referencing the recent DC Comics controversy that involved upset fans airing their concerns over a proposed Batgirl cover that portrayed her being held captive by the Joker, we’re told that “something as anodyne as a comic cover can become a battle cry for aggrieved comic book fans.”

Excuse me? You may think that comics or their covers are “anodyne,” but clearly the fans do not. Beyond that, the cover referenced an older storyline of sexual assault and showed their hero Batgirl being held at gunpoint by a man and crying. To poo-poo that as harmless imagery in an arena where women are fighting against a more resistant strain of sexism than in many other environments is either terribly uninformed or willfully ignorant. Pushback against harmful imagery is not cyberbullying.

Articles like this one fuel the pearl-clutching fear of these companies, and that fear is what leads them to go off half-cocked on social media. That’s totally counterintuitive, since glaring examples of social media failures seem as though they would serve as cautionary tales. But if that were the case, we’d be seeing fewer large-scale corporate social media fiascos, when in actuality we are seeing more.

In the example of JP Morgan Chase, they announced a Twitter Q&A back in 2013 that they canceled after immediate scorn from Twitter users. Just like McDonald’s. Just like the NYPD. And on and on…

Either these companies are brazen enough to think, “Oh, they fouled that up, but it won’t happen to us,” because of an inflated sense of how much the public loves them, or an erroneous sense that their corporate prominence and perhaps their longtime financial domination render them beyond reproach. They fail to see that the exact qualities that make them such successful corporate entities are ensuring their downfall on social media, as opposed to imagined cyberbullying campaigns.

To be at the head of a Starbucks or a JP Morgan Chase, or even to be high enough on the food chain that you’re developing initiatives like the ghastly Starbucks #RaceTogether mess, you have to be breathing rarified air that the average Twitter user does not breathe.

I want to believe it isn’t so. I want to believe that wealthy bankers and CEOs and marketing executives can be “just like us,” and I genuinely don’t like making assumptions and drawing strict dividing lines between us as humans based on a profession or status.

However. The online actions of these companies indicate that they either didn’t seek out or don’t care about the opinion of the average consumer, and they stubbornly refuse to learn from prevalent PR fails. The trend these days is for transparency, but that isn’t in keeping with how these powerful companies got that way, so they make half-assed efforts at transparency that are ultimately opaque.

They hold traditional auditions for commercials and spend millions to make them look like low-quality Vines because that’s what’s hot. But they don’t speak the language, and they’re often too haughty to learn from the natives.

Yes, there have been examples of major companies throwing bags of money at legitimate Vine or YouTube “sensations,” like Hyundai making stars out of music group Pomplamoose a few years back, but there’s largely the feeling that the big companies know best and they’ll do things in a big company way, even if it’s grassroots social media.

Thinking they know best is part of what made them successful in the first place. And it is what keeps them screwing up on the social media stage, and worse—not learning from their mistakes and the mistakes of others in the most functional ways. It takes humility to second-guess your plan, and too much second-guessing may sabotage success. Yet, a second opinion is crucial. Big companies spend trillions on market research, but when it comes to social media, they harbor misconceptions fueled by unchecked hubris.

They think “people are too sensitive these days” instead of “how can we display some sensitivity?” They see AAVE and slang and online trends and steal them, discounting the value of culture and intellectual property because it doesn’t translate readily to dollars and cents. They think of Twitter backlash as the modern-day boogeyman, some unnamed terror waiting in the dark to ruin their best laid plans.

These cries of cyberbullying are rooted in not taking responsibility and not recognizing the agency of human beings using social media in real time. Unfortunately, some people have gotten vicious in their indictment of certain hashtags and corporate campaigns. But backlash, clapback, response, debate, dissent… there are many ways to describe what happens, and each has its own qualities, but when the “victim” is Starbucks, we’re not talking about cyberbullying.

Language evolves with us and the word “cyberbully” itself is relatively new, (and we can’t even come to a consensus about whether it’s one word or two), but however you slice it, there is an element of power involved with bullying that isn’t going anywhere. A schoolyard bully using violence is bigger or stronger. A classroom bully using brains or snark is smarter. An online bully has a cloak of anonymity yet calls the victim out by name, or they have the power of a mob, digitally assembled for the purpose of attacking the victim.

Even if you want to say that these large companies were “attacked,” it was in direct response to their actions and sometimes, their request for conversation. That doesn’t necessarily make it OK, but it also doesn’t make it cyberbullying. If we’re going to have the conversation, we need to be clear and specific and have them take more accountability.

As a parallel, I recently appeared on MSNBC’s “The Last Word” discussing online bullying, and I discussed horrific messages I’ve personally received online in the aftershow. Invitations to kill myself or go die in a fire, death and rape threats, and pictures of black people being lynched have all made unwelcome appearances in my Twitter mentions. Yet I don’t call it cyberbullying.

This is not OK, and Twitter itself has stated that it needs to do better with regard to harassment, but I’m a person who expresses strong opinions online and on television and the worst of the messages are either from people who disagree or actual hateful trolls who post racist and sexist messages for sport.

Again; this is not OK. It is a problem that we as an online community are addressing and will continue to work on, but again: I don’t see it as cyberbullying.

These people have no power over me. I’m not trying to be some big badass here—there have been times when the force of it has made me cry or rant or log off when I didn’t really want to, but there is no actual power differential that we can point to.

Starbucks and JP Morgan Chase, as entities with corporate social media accounts, are not at the same level of societal power as private individuals who reply to a hashtag conversation request with anger.

Another thing to look at is the outcome. Has Starbucks gone out of business? Was CEO Howard Schultz forced to step down? Mind you, I’m not suggesting that these are desired outcomes at all.

I’m saying that in a world where Megan Meier, Amanda Todd, Ryan Halligan, and Tyler Clementi are only a few of the victims who have committed suicide due to being cyberbullied, I’ll thank you not to throw around the word “cyberbullying” with respect to major corporations that continue to prosper.

I feel crass even using their names as examples, but I still have air in my lungs and Starbucks is still thriving, so it’s important to me that we’re not all lumped into one barrel of digital victimhood. Cyberbullying absolutely does not require a loss of life to be real, but look at how many lives have been lost.

Words mean things. That goes for the terribly lost souls who use the internet to tell people they should die, as well as for those would lump major companies in with actual victims of cyberbullying. Social media absolutely can whirl out of control for a number of reasons, and I actually don’t agree with certain instances of public citizens’ jobs being called for in certain instances, but in the conversation about “big companies,” cyberbullying doesn’t come into play.

We throw around the word "bully" so much that a strong response becomes the sin of the responder, regardless of what they were responding to. Words mean things, and we all have to do better.

Promo image by 4028mdk09 / Creative Commons.