TECHLASH 2.0: The Next-Gen TECHLASH Is Bigger, Stronger & Faster

from the escalation dept

The roll-out of the “Facebook Papers” on Monday October 25 felt like drinking from a fire hose. Seventeen news organizations analyzed documents received from the Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, and published numerous articles simultaneously. Most of the major news outlets have since then published their own analyses on a daily basis. With the flood of reports still coming in, “Accountable Tech” launched a helpful aggregator: facebookpapers.com.

The volume and frequency of the revelations are well-planned. All the journalists were approached by a PR firm, Bryson Gillette, that, along with prominent Big Tech critics, is supporting Haugen behind-the-scenes. “The scale of the coordinated roll-out feels commensurate with the scale of the platform it is trying to hold accountable,” wrote Charlie Warzel (Galaxy Brain).

Until the “Facebook Papers,” comparisons of Big Tech to Big Tobacco didn’t catch on. In July 2020, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Sundar Pichai of Google, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and Tim Cook of Apple were called to testify before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust. A New York Times headline claimed the four companies prepare for their “Big Tobacco Moment.” A year later, this label is repeatedly applied to one company out of those four, and it is, unsurprisingly, a social media company.

TECHLASH 1.0 started off with headlines like Dear Silicon Valley: America’s fallen out of love with you (2017). From that point, it becomes a competition “who slams them harder?” eventually reaching: Silicon Valley’s tax-avoiding, job-killing, soul-sucking machine (2018).

In the TECHLASH 2.0 era, the antagonism has reached new heights. The “poster child” for TECHLASH 2.0 - Facebook - became a deranging brain implant for our society or an authoritarian, hostile foreign power (2021). In this escalation, virtually no claim about the malevolence of Big tech is too outlandish in order to generate considerable attention.

As for the tech companies, their crisis response strategies have evolved as well. As TECHLASH 2.0 launched daily attacks on Facebook its leadership decided to cease its apology tours. Nick Clegg, *Facebook VP of Global Affairs, provided his regular “mitigate the bad and amplify the good” commentary in numerous interviews. Inside Facebook, he told the employees to “listen and learn from criticism when it is fair, and push back strongly when it is not.”

Accordingly, the whole PR team transitioned into (what company insiders call) “wartime operation” and a full-blown battle over the narrative. Andy Stone combated journalists on Twitter. In one blog post, the WSJ articles were described as inaccurate and lacking context. A lengthy memo called the accusations “misleading” and some of the scrutiny “unfair.” Zuckerberg’s Facebook post argued that the heart of the accusations (that Facebook prioritizes profit over safety) is “just not true.”

On Twitter, Facebook’s VP of Communications referred to the embargo on the consortium of news organizations as an “orchestrated ‘gotcha’ campaign.” During Facebook’s third-quarter earnings call, Mark Zuckerberg reiterated that “what we are seeing is a coordinated effort to selectively use leaked documents to create a false picture about our company.”

Moreover, Facebook attacked the media for competing on publishing those false accusations: “This is beneath the Washington Post, which during the last five years competed ferociously with the New York Times over the number of corroborating sources its reporters could find for single anecdotes in deeply reported, intricate stories,” said a Facebook spokeswoman. “It sets a dangerous precedent to hang an entire story on a single source making a wide range of claims without any apparent corroboration.”

Facebook’s overall crisis response strategies revealed the rise of VADER:

  • Victimage - we’re a victim of the crisis
  • Attack the accuser - confronting the person/group claiming something is wrong
  • Denial - contradicting the accusations
  • Excuse - denying intent to do harm
  • Reminder - reminding the past good works of the company.

The media critics describe the current backlash as overblown, full of hysteria, and based on arguments that don’t stand up to the research. More aggressively, a Facebook employee told me: “If in this storyline, we are Vader, then the media is BORGBogus, Overreaching, Reckless, and Grossly exaggerated.” Leaving aside the crime of mixing “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” we can draw a broader generalization:

Both the tech coverage and the companies’ crisis responses have evolved in the past few weeks. We moved from a peaceful time (pre-TECHLASH) to a Cold War (TECHLASH 1.0) and now “all Hell breaks loose” (TECHLASH 2.0).

“Product Journalism” still exists around new devices/services, but the recent “firestorm” teaches us a valuable lesson. The Next-Gen of TECHLASH is bigger, stronger and faster – just like the tech companies it’s fighting against.

* In another move from the playbook, Facebook was rebranded as Meta. Since Meta means Dead in Hebrew (to the world’s amusement), I will refer to Facebook as Facebook for the time being.

Dr. Nirit Weiss-Blatt is the author of The Techlash and Tech Crisis Communication

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