Dear Silicon Valley Tech Companies: Stop Treating Your Structural Challenges As Political Challenges

from the politics-and-business-are-not-the-same dept

A couple weeks back Karl wrote up an excellent analysis of the NY Times' big piece looking at how Facebook tried to deal with ongoing criticism of the company concerning the influence operations that it appears Russians used their site for. Karl's post focused on just how many companies make use of similar political smear campaigns, and everyone (including the press) should be much more tuned into this kind of thing. Indeed, a followup story from the NY Times last week showed that a bunch of other tech companies -- namely Lyft, Lime, Juul and Qualcomm -- all had hired the very same "Definers" firm that Facebook had hired to smear its opponents.

I wanted to write a follow up post, though, to make a slightly different point. This one is more directed at the people who work at all of the big tech companies: Stop thinking about running your companies as political campaigns, and focus most on what is best for end-users. It should be noted, of course, that all of these companies are a bit different, and they all do take different approaches to the market, but over the last few years, especially, one thing that has shined through with many of these companies is that they've dealt with the challenges suddenly being directed at them as political issues, rather than structural issues.

It's not difficult to see why this is happening. To some extent, it goes back to the popular saying: "We judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions." When these companies are getting attacked over their actions, they often feel wronged by the coverage, which they feel is unfair, because the press are often judging the decisions absent larger context that shows how they reached those results. And sometimes it is unfair. But there are still elements of truth in all of these complaints, and companies need to recognize even more, that these challenges are both structural and potentially existential, rather than one of people just being "unfair" in their coverage.

The second reason why this is happening is that the political world has spent years beating on Silicon Valley to be "more engaged" in politics, and so much is now being driven by how things look through a political lens that it's become controlling in many ways. All of these companies have hired tons of political operatives, who know how to do political campaigns. Not all of them care what the company is actually doing -- they just care about how it's perceived.

Years back, when I was studying "organizational behavior," in college, I remember the professor explaining office "politics" succinctly: raising your own profile while decreasing the profile of anyone else. And, indeed, there are many examples in the NY Times Facebook article of this kind of thinking in action. Rather than deal with the larger structural problems, Facebook decided to go after its critics and its competitors. After the NY Times piece came out, TechCrunch published a bunch of the pitches they received from Definers, noting how very political they were. Unlike most PR pitches, in which the sender identifies what company they're representing, and why they're emailing, Definers pitches were... different:

We checked our inboxes and none of the pitches Definers sent to TechCrunch made an explicit disclosure that the messages they contained had been paid for by Facebook to push a pro-Facebook agenda. They all required the recipient to join those dots themselves.

[....]

Here’s an example of Definers’ oppo mud-slinging we were sent targeting Apple and Google on Facebook’s behalf:

Just came across this – thought you might find it interesting: https://digitalcontentnext.org/blog/2018/08/21/google-data-collection-research/

“A major part of Google’s data collection occurs while a user is not directly engaged with any of its products. The magnitude of such collection is significant, especially on Android mobile devices, arguably the most popular personal accessory now carried 24/7 by more than 2 billion people.”

The study’s findings are rather shocking… It really highlights how other tech companies should be looked at critically – scrutiny shouldn’t just be on FB for data misuse. Apple & Google have been perpetrators of data abuse as well…

“Scrutiny shouldn’t just be on FB for data misuse” is the key line there, though it’s still hardly a plain English disclosure that Facebook paid for the message to be sent.

We received multiple Definers’ pitches on behalf of what looks to be three different tech companies — and only one of these is explicitly badged as a press release from the firm paying Definers to do PR. (In that case, e-scooter startup Lime.)

Not that they listen to me, but if there was a simple message I could get across to everyone working at these companies, it's that they need to stop treating actual structural issues and the actual impact of what they do as political fights, but as real, structural issues that need to be addressed. That's not to say admit that all of the criticism is valid -- because some of it is not. But, recognize that there is truth in many of the complaints, and to focus on actually doing right by your users, not simply attacking the messenger or denying the seriousness (and certainly not by merely pretending to take the issue seriously in public while privately admitting nothing will change). The fact that Facebook repeatedly denied "key aspects" of this story, only to post a blog post the night before Thanksgiving that more or less admitted everything they had previously denied, shows that the company is still treating this as a political campaign. Friday night news dumps are a classic political move to "bury" bad news, and the only time better than a random Friday night is the night before a major holiday.

For many years I've said that one of the reasons why I find the tech industry so important is that it has -- historically -- been a demonstration of what good happens when certain (not all) companies and their users have interests aligned. Rather than working at cross purposes, or trying to screw over users, many tech companies have shown that they can provide value in a way that everyone comes out of it better off. When they actually focus on doing the right thing -- even at the short term expense of the bottom line -- good long term strategies tend to result.

However, treating everything as a political campaign is the opposite of that strategy. It means attacking critics and competitors, rather than focusing on doing what's right. And, unfortunately, this political thinking is becoming pervasive across the tech industry. Some will argue that it has actually always been true, but that's not accurate at all. Much of Silicon Valley's success was premised on taking a very different approach -- one that really did focus on doing the right thing, rather than the most expedient or the most immediately profitable. But, that has changed for many, many companies. And even if it may be understandable as to why it is happening, that's still no excuse.

So, for everyone who works at these companies, please take a step back and think about what your actual vision is. Are you making decisions to actually do what's best for the users of your products. Or are you simply attacking your critics and competitors? If it's the latter, it seems like a clear sign that your company has lost its way.


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  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    thud the antitech barbarian, 27 Nov 2018 @ 9:58am

    Lead by example: stop the harassment here,

    of dissenters. You'll find that criticism of you automatically reduces.

    I'm premising that most of all on YOUR LIE that a "voting system" by "the community" is what "hides" comments. -- But it's in no way "voting" when no up votes are even possible! -- Now, IF you start explaining that an Administrator looks at "report" and "insightful" to decide, then you'd admit what I've long stated. -- So you're TRAPPED.

    Similarly, "social media" try to claim they only police "hate speech", but the definition is entirely at their discretion.

    And so, you and "social media" are rightly blamed for putting the mechanisms / policies in place that enforce "politics".

    Problem is on your and the corporate end, Masnick. Users are just reacting, have little control. -- As here.

    You're just as usual trying to square a circle, when so long as aren't strictly neutral (by common law "free speech" terms), just keep getting yourself tangled up, besides that your enemies make ever more pointed comments, which are TRUE.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      thud the antitech barbarian, 27 Nov 2018 @ 10:02am

      Re: Lead by example: stop the harassment here,

      Oh, and as for your notion that corporations will focus on long-term: PFFFT!

      If you were sincere about that wish, you'd argue for high corporate tax rates that simply remove the motive of money, while providing for public works / uses that you also claim to want. But in practice, you're a born plutocrat and your only concern for society is corporate profits.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 27 Nov 2018 @ 10:13am

      Re: Lead by example: stop the harassment here,

      "I'm premising that most of all on YOUR LIE that a "voting system" by "the community" is what "hides" comments."

      Please prove it's a lie.

      (bill starting at $1010 so far...)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        That One Guy (profile), 27 Nov 2018 @ 10:19am

        As the article notes, 'you expect of others what you would do.'

        It's funny, and rather telling, that they are so obsessed with the idea that it simply must be TD staff 'oppressing' them that results in their comments being hidden(which would require TD staff to obsess over them to the same extent that they obsess over TD and other commentors), rather than accepting the simple fact that it's the TD community flagging their posts as the unhinged, dishonest ranting of a lunatic/troll.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 27 Nov 2018 @ 10:32am

          Re: As the article notes, 'you expect of others what you would do.'

          10 Practical Rules for Dealing with the Borderline Personality

          July 16, 2010 By Mark Bennett

          I get to deal with a whole lot of crazy at work. The following rules are applicable to lots of flavors of crazy, but I've had a heavy dose of borderline personalities lately. So here are my ten rules for dealing with borderline personalities and other crazy people:

          If you don't have to deal with a crazy person, don't.

          You can't outsmart crazy. [Thanks to Lisa J] You also can't fix crazy. (You could outcrazy it, but that makes you crazy too.)

          When you get in a contest of wills with a crazy person, you've already lost.

          The crazy person doesn't have as much to lose as you.

          Your desired outcome is to get away from the crazy person.

          You have no idea what the crazy person's desired outcome is.

          The crazy person sees anything you have done as justification for what she's about to do.

          Anything nice you do for the crazy person, she will use as ammunition later.

          The crazy person sees any outcome as vindication.

          When you start caring what the crazy person thinks, you're joining her in her craziness.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 27 Nov 2018 @ 10:20am

        Re: Re: Lead by example: stop the harassment here,

        True story. I read the shit he posts under his numerous pack of login names and I flag it as not relevant each and every time. If it is the same Quixotic idiot posting on someone else's website and complaining that his voice isn't being heard, the common denominator is you. You are the crazy one and nothing you will ever write will change that. Your insanity leaks into every word you write and causes everyone who reads it to go: Hmm, that is really weird and not related to this article. Bam you have been flagged by society, not site moderators. Get a clue and go away.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      techflaws (profile), 27 Nov 2018 @ 10:16am

      Re: Lead by example: stop the harassment here,

      I'm clicking on report because you are a pompous dickweed. You're welcome.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 27 Nov 2018 @ 10:26am

      Re: Lead by example: stop the harassment here,

      But it's in no way "voting" when no up votes are even possible!

      So when I vote for my Senator, it doesn't count as "voting" because I can't downvote the opposition? Fascinating argument.

      And before you claim that's somehow different because "upvote vs downvote," it's not. Most voting systems work by presuming a "default" state, and then accumulating votes until the threshold of the "special" state is reached. In Senate races, the default state is "not being Senator," but if you accumulate enough votes you reach the special state of "Senator". In Techdirt, the default state is "visible comment," but if you accumulate enough votes then you can reach the special state of "hidden comment."

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 27 Nov 2018 @ 11:16am

      Re: Lead by example: Leave

      Aw you still mad that the hoi polloi are treating your brain drool with the respect it deserves?

      Maybe it’s their way of saying you’re not wanted and you promised to leave forever bro.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Wendy Cockcroft, 28 Nov 2018 @ 2:30am

      Re: Lead by example: stop the harassment here,

      I voted your comment as abusive, Blue. Now please shut up and go away.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Nov 2018 @ 10:04am

    The problem companies like Facebook have in doing what's right for their users, is that their users and their customers are not the same people.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Nov 2018 @ 10:06am

    End users? What about shareholders?

    It seems like you left out the most important party here - the people that actually own the companies in question. Usually what's good for users will also be good for investors, but not always and I think a lot of the things you have called out here were directed by shareholder interest, not user interest.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Thad (profile), 27 Nov 2018 @ 10:54am

      Re: End users? What about shareholders?

      Usually what's good for users will also be good for investors

      That's the theory, anyway.

      A whole lot of publicly-traded corporations' shareholders don't seem to agree.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 27 Nov 2018 @ 11:02am

        Re: Re: End users? What about shareholders?

        Shareholders seem to be single minded. This quarters profits.

        I would love to see a study that shows how many shareholders are users of the products/services of companies they hold shares in. There are some companies where individuals don't have access to, or need of the products/services, so the study should look at those where the end users are individuals.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        That One Guy (profile), 27 Nov 2018 @ 11:06am

        $25 today vs $1 per week for the foreseeable future

        Short-term vs Long-term thinking.

        In the long term it pays to keep your users in mind and make sure that your focus is on giving them reason to use your platform/service/product and keep using it. In the short term however it can be much more profitable to see how much value you can get from them right now, no matter what that does to your reputation/platform/service/product in the process.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Thad (profile), 27 Nov 2018 @ 11:16am

          Re: tl;dr

          Anticompetitive behavior can be very good for shareholders in the long term. If you drive competitors out of business, it doesn't matter how bad your reputation is.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 27 Nov 2018 @ 11:10am

      Re: End users? What about shareholders?

      "sually what's good for users will also be good for investors"

      LOL - sure it is

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Nov 2018 @ 10:35am

    I think the problem is a bit more complicated than just one of attitude. As these companies have grown in importance and power over our lives, their terms of service feel more and more like legislation, the punishment for breaking them becomes a lot more severe than merely losing the ability to conduct business with one specific entity.

    These sets of pseudo legislations have real power, and these companies have become government-like in their reach, thus political groups are maneuvering to capture and wield that power. Asking them to act as if these powers didn't exist seems like a naive approach. Perhaps suggesting ways to create checks for these powers would be wiser... as the only currently existing check is public opinion, which explains why they are hiring politically motivated PR firms.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 27 Nov 2018 @ 10:46am

      Re:

      I am not disagreeing with your premise (it makes sense), but given the attention span of the general public towards real politics (aka elections), how does one go about getting them to pay attentions to these things? In addition, those entities (both the corporations and their 'representatives' will work with a whole lot more in the way of assets (both money and comminication lines) than any of their opponents.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 27 Nov 2018 @ 12:18pm

    BS abounds...this isnt new..

    Iv watched this crap for years..
    If it wasnt Shell oil/now BP it was someone else..
    Hiring persons to jump into the politics and get them to DO WHAT they wanted..
    Look up super fund sites..AND WHY most are still there..THATS a big one.
    then lets look at, WHY corps are getting promises NOT to pay tax, if they Grow business in that state..(Big Box of worms)

    3 things hit corps..
    Old (1920's).. An economy that grows 3% per year is a good sign of prosperity.
    1970...CORP Taxes from the Wars, Dropped from around 90% to 25-30%.
    Court case..Final comment. A corporation is not responsible to anyone except the investors.

    Who here still thinks this is a capitalist nation??
    Its not supposed to be.
    And We cant be capitalist if there is little to no competition...
    1 company owns the 6 major name brands for Drys/washers/.../... There allot of this going around..
    How many Cereal, company WERE THERE?>?>
    How many beer companies have been Bought up by Anheuser Bush..
    How many NON-COMPETE contracts are out there...so you only get Pepsi or Coke in a shop?? How many Stores Stock OTHER soda drinks, then from the Major 2-3..

    How much MORE can we write on this??

    How much should the price of GAS BE?? it was $0.35 but inflation makes it Equal to $2.26..
    And thats Another part of this...WHY ADD MONEY to the economy to TRY to fix things...
    IT DONT WORK THAT WAY...i wish I could take all my money and turn it to pennies and make people think they were dimes..

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 27 Nov 2018 @ 12:22pm

      Re: BS abounds...this isnt new..

      And a stupid remark..
      Corps are funny.. As they love to inflate prices OR make things seem to be Rare/hard to get..
      Its an old thing, but it based on some facts.. the Biggest supplier of Underground and illegal music/movies/goods tends to be those same corps.. OR another corp trying to subvert the other..
      Its not hard..

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Nov 2018 @ 12:26pm

    "all of the big tech companies: Stop thinking about running your companies as political campaigns, and focus most on what is best for end-users."

    Just delete the word "tech" because pretty much all corporations work this way including "Christian" ones like Hobby Lobby, Catholic Health Initiatives, as well as traditional corporations such as IBM, GE, Merck, etc. It's endemic in the corporate mentality to try to politicize and legislate their business methods to shut out competition and silence criticism and therefore increase profits. They tend to pour money heavily into both political parties to either create regulation capture with the Democrats, or roll back health/safety/consumer protection regulations with the Republicans or Libertarians.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    John Smith, 27 Nov 2018 @ 1:49pm

    This is astroturfing, nothing unique to Facebook, and something which has been messing people up since the internet began.

    Section 230 immunizes websites against false-advertising claims, creating a "Wild West" environmednt.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 27 Nov 2018 @ 2:30pm

      Re:

      No. No it does not.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 27 Nov 2018 @ 3:06pm

      Re: flaccid mind; flaccid body

      You fresh off another three day psych hold bro?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
        identicon
        John Smith, 27 Nov 2018 @ 6:48pm

        Re: Re: flaccid mind; flaccid body

        Sounds like someone is projecting their own medical history onto someone they cannot debate with logic.

        The site owner's sponsors should know they are allowing this type of speech, however.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Toom1275 (profile), 27 Nov 2018 @ 7:48pm

          Re: Re: Re: flaccid mind; flaccid body

          Sounds like someone is projecting their own medical history onto someone they cannot debate with logic.

          Yep. That's you - ever and always.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 27 Nov 2018 @ 9:06pm

          Re: Re: Re: impotent mind; flabby body

          They do and they know it’s perfectly legal. As do you, deep down. Otherwise you’d hire an actual lawyer, instead sending vacous legal threats that even Prenda Law would consider too far fetched to work.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        John Smith, 27 Nov 2018 @ 6:51pm

        Re: Re: flaccid mind; flaccid body

        Dear Mike Masnick:

        Please place a litigation hold on all data relating to the poster to whom I am replying, and their post. I've already taken a screenshot of this post to prove the request was made.

        Libel isn't the only law of the land. Tread very carefully and don't start fights you aren't prepared to finish. I don't suffer cowards or those who enable them.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 27 Nov 2018 @ 8:55pm

          Re: Re: Re: cowardly mind; impotent penis

          I really, really want you to put that in front of a judge. Can you give a week or so notice so I can fly to wherever you’re filing and laugh at you in person when the judges tosses you on your ass. Oh by the way, if you were actually dumb enough to try to use that as an actual legal notice you would of course have to provide your real name. And then we’d find out just how much of a liar you really are. Don’t talk shit unless you’re willing to back it up.

          Coward

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 28 Nov 2018 @ 12:09am

          Re: Re: Re: flaccid mind; flaccid body

          Litigation hold on whose behalf? A fake name chosen specifically to avoid tying your identity or an electronic trail to the messages you made calling for murder and sexual harassment? You seriously have no idea how courts work if you think they're there to be your personal bill collection agency.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 27 Nov 2018 @ 6:11pm

      Re:

      And rape laws punish unwanted pussy grabbing but that's never stopped you either.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
        identicon
        John Smith, 27 Nov 2018 @ 6:49pm

        Re: Re:

        So many people here resort to lies and outright hate crimes to try to win internet arguments.

        From now on I'm just crediting the site owner with any posts like this, compiling them, and will be putting them on blast to the right people. No need to engage the trolls here.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 27 Nov 2018 @ 9:01pm

          Re: Re: Re: Little bitches run away

          Dawww the big meanies making you cry again?

          Run away like you do.

          I do have one compliment for you. You are a master of the kind of base level projection, that most not very bright eight year old would think is clever.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 28 Nov 2018 @ 12:06am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Thanks for confirming those IP addresses tied to the RIAA are, in fact, guilty of committing copyright infringement. Site owners must be responsible after all.

          Seriously, you're bloody terrible at thinking things through.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 28 Nov 2018 @ 3:33pm

      Re:

      You really think astro-turfing began with the internet?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Nov 2018 @ 4:03pm

    These companies are all giant blood sucking leeches and I’m very glad the general public has finally caught on to that fact.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    mechtheist (profile), 28 Nov 2018 @ 4:02am

    Rent seeking

    This practice seems rather similar to rent seeking. Here, they're putting in a lot of effort to gain advantage by smearing their competitors. Rent seeking involves focusing effort and resources to gain advantages like monopoly in some area, exclusive markets,lobbying for regulations that favor only their company, or entry barriers,etc, trying to increase profits in ways that do nothing to improve productivity, improve the product, increase customer satisfaction, or improve their basic technologies.

    An economy that becomes more and more dominated by rent seeking activities is an economy that is on the road to collapse. Our economy, surprise surprise, is becoming ever more dominated by rent seeking activities.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Wendy Cockcroft, 28 Nov 2018 @ 5:56am

    What mectheist says

    So, for everyone who works at these companies, please take a step back and think about what your actual vision is. Are you making decisions to actually do what's best for the users of your products. Or are you simply attacking your critics and competitors? If it's the latter, it seems like a clear sign that your company has lost its way.

    The first sign that a company has strayed from its initial stated vision is the entrenchment of incumbency and rent-seeking. Part of that activity involves cutting corners on service delivery to maximise profits.

    In this case they're harvesting our data and using that to pay for the "free" service. We're the product. The only question now is, was Facebook ever about connecting people or was it always about fishing for data they could flog to advertisers, etc., while sucking in ever more users to harvest their data?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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