Donald Trump Caused The Techlash
from the 2016-election-was-the-tipping-point dept
In October 2016, I pitched USC a research proposal about the tech coverage’s non-investigative nature and the influence of corporate PR. I thought that at the end of this project, I’d have indictive documentation of how the tech media is too promotional and not tough enough. When I sat down to analyze a full year of tech coverage, the data presented quite the opposite. 2017 was suddenly full of tech scandals and mounting scrutiny. The flattering stories about consumer products evolved into investigative pieces on business practices, which caught the tech companies and their communications teams off guard.
Like any good startup, I needed to pivot. I changed my research entirely and focused on this new type of backlash against Big Tech. The research was based on an AI-media monitoring tool (by MIT and Harvard), content analysis, and in-depth interviews. I had amazing interviewees: senior tech PR executives and leading tech journalists from BuzzFeed News, CNET, Recode, Reuters News, TechCrunch, Techdirt, The Atlantic, The Information, The New York Times, The Verge, and Wired magazine. Together, they illuminated the power dynamics between the media and the tech giants it covers. Here are some of the conclusions regarding the roots of the shift in coverage and the tech companies’ crisis responses.
The election of Donald Trump
After the U.K.’s Brexit referendum in June 2016, and specifically, after Donald Trump became the president at the end of 2016, the media blamed the tech platforms for widespread misinformation and disinformation. The most influential article, from November 2016, was BuzzFeed‘s piece entitled, “This analysis shows how viral fake election news stories outperformed real news on Facebook.” It was the first domino to topple.
When I asked what was the story that formed the Techlash, all the interviewees answered, in one way or the other, that it was the election of Donald Trump. “Even though it wasn’t the story that people wrote about the most, it was the underlying theme.” Then, new revelations regarding the Russian interference with the U.S. election evolved into a bigger story. On November 1, 2017, Facebook, Google, and Twitter, testified in front of the U.S. Congress. The alarming effect was from combining the three testimonies together.
In the tech sector, there’s a sentence that you hear a lot: “change happens gradually then suddenly.” There were years and years of “build-up” for the flip, but the flip itself was in the pivotal moment of Donald Trump’s victory and the post-presidential election reckoning that followed it. The main discussion was the role of social media in helping him win the election.
If Hillary Clinton had been elected in November 2016, the Techlash might have been much smaller. “We would not have seen the amount of negative coverage. It is not just because almost every tech journalist is reflectively anti-Donald Trump; it is that almost every tech person is anti-Donald Trump.” As a result, Silicon Valley began to regret the foundational elements of its own success. The most dire warnings started to come from inside the industry as more sources spoke up and exposed misdeeds.
Then, in 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal unlocked larger concerns about social media’s influence and the careless approach toward user privacy. It also shed light on the fact that technology is progressing faster than consumers’ ability to process it and faster than the government’s ability to regulate it.
The companies’ bigness and scandals around fake news, data breaches, and sexual harassment
There were more factors at play here. It was also the tech companies’ scale and bigness, being too big to fail. All the tech giants are at a place where they are getting scrutiny, if nothing else, because of how big and powerful they are. On the one hand, growth-at-all-cost is a mandate. On the other, there are unforeseen consequences of that same growth.
According to the tech journalists, those unintended consequences are due to the companies’ profound lack of foresight. They were blind, and this blindness came back to bite them. Thus, it’s the companies’ fault for not listening to the journalists’ concerns.
However, the big data analytics and content analysis showed that focusing only on the post-election reckoning or the tech platforms’ growing power won’t fully explain the Techlash. A large number of events in a variety of issues shaped it. Their combination led to the “It’s enough” feeling, the mounting calls for tougher regulation, and the #BreakUpBigTech proposition.
We had cases of extremist content and hate speech, and misinformation/disinformation, like the fake news after the Las Vegas shooting; privacy and data security issues, following major cyber-attacks, like “WannaCry” or data breaches, like Equifax, but also at Facebook, Uber, and Yahoo, which raised the alarm about data privacy and data protection challenges; and also allegations of an anti-diversity, sexual harassment, and discrimination culture. It was in February 2017 that Susan Fowler published her revelations against Uber (prior to the #MeToo movement). It symbolized the toxicity in Silicon Valley. All of those time-bombs started to detonate at once.
The tech companies’ responses didn’t help
When I analyzed the tech companies’ crisis responses, I had different companies and a variety of negative stories, and yet the responses were very much alike. It created what I call “The Tech PR Template for Crises.” The companies rolled out the same playbook, over and over again. It was clear; big tech got used to resting on their laurels and was not ready to give real answers to tough questions. Instead, they published the responses they kept under “open in case of emergency.”
One strategy was “The Victim-Villain framing”: “We’ve built something good, with good intentions/ previous good deeds and great policies -but- our product/ platform was manipulated/misused by bad/malicious actors.”
The second was pseudo-apologies: Many responses included messages of “we apologize,” “deeply regret,” and “ask for forgiveness.” They were usually intertwined with “we need to do better.” This message typically comes in this order: “While we’ve made steady progress … we have much more work to do, and … we know we need to do better.” Every tech reporter heard this specific combination a million times by now.
They said, “sorry,” so why pseudo-apologies? Well, because they repeatedly tried to reduce their responsibility, with all the elements identified in number one: reminder strategy (past good work), excuse strategy (good intention), victimization (basically saying, “We are the victim of the crisis”), scapegoating (blaming others). They emphasized their suffering since they were “an unfair victim of some malicious, outside entity.”
The third thing was to state that they are proactive: “We are currently working on those immediate actions to fix this. Looking forward, we are working on those steps for improvements, minimizing the chances that it will happen again.” It’s Crisis Communication 101. But then, they added, “But our work will never be done.” I think those seven words encapsulate everything. Is the work never done because, by now, the problems are too big to fix?
It is the art of avoiding responsibility
One way to look at the companies’ PR template is to say: “Well, of course, that this is their messaging. They are being asked to stop big, difficult societal problems, and that is an impossible request.”
In reality, all of those Techlash responses backlashed. Tech companies should know (as Spider-Man fans already know) that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Since they tried to reduce their responsibility, the critics claimed that tech companies need to stop taking the role of the victim and stop blaming others. The apology tours received comments such as “don’t ask for forgiveness, ask for permission.” The critics also said that “actions should follow words.” Even after the companies specified their corrective actions, the critics claimed the companies “ignore the system” because they have no incentive for dramatic changes, like their business models. In such cases, where the media push for fundamental changes, PR can’t fix it.
The Techlash coverage is deterministic
On the one hand, there’s the theme of: “We are at a point where the baby is being thrown out with the bathwater. There was a perhaps ridiculous utopianism. But it has become just as ridiculous – if not more so – on the flip side now, of being dystopian. The pendulum has swung too far” (Evil List articles, for example). On the other hand, there’s the theme of “Journalism’s role is to hold power to account. We are just doing our job, speak truth to power, reveal wrongdoing, and put a stop to it. Whoever is saying that the media is over-correcting doesn’t understand journalism at all.”
While I articulated both themes in the book, one of the concepts that helped me organize my thoughts was ‘technological determinism.’ In a nutshell, some argue that technology is deterministic: the state of technological advancement is the determining factor of society. Others dispute that view, claiming the opposite: social forces shape and design technology, and thus, it is the society that affects technology. I realized that we could describe the Techlash coverage as deterministic: technology drives society in bad directions. Period.
Then, perhaps what the few tech advocates are pointing out is that this narrative doesn’t consider the social context or human agency. A good example was the Social Dilemma. The tech critics targeted the scare tactics used to enrage people in a documentary filled with scare tactics used to enrage people. And they didn’t even notice the irony. Sadly, since they exaggerated and the arguments were too simplistic, they made it easier to dismiss the claims, even though they were extremely important. My fear here is that the exaggerations overshadow the real concerns, and the companies become even more tone-deaf. So, perhaps, we deserve a more nuanced discussion.
“It’s cool — it’s evil” “saviors — threats”
From the glorious days and the dot-com bubble to today’s Techlash, there were two pendulum swings; the first between “It’s cool” and “It’s evil,” the second between “saviors” and “threats.” Moving forward, I would suggest dropping them altogether. Tech is not an evil threat, nor our ultimate savior. The reality is not those extremes, but somewhere in the middle.
Dr. Nirit Weiss-Blatt is the author of The Techlash and Tech Crisis Communication