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Posted on Techdirt - 1 March 2022 @ 12:01pm

What Happens When A Russian Invasion Takes Place In The Social Smartphone Era

Several days into Russia’s attack on Ukraine, we are already witnessing astonishing stories play out online. Social media platforms, after years of Techlash, are once again in the center of a historic event, as it unfolds.

Different tech issues are still evolving, but for now, here are the key themes.

Information overload

The combination of — smartphones, social media and high-speed data links — provides images that are almost certainly faster, more visual and more voluminous than in any previous major military conflict. What is coming out of Ukraine is simply impossible to produce on such a scale without citizens and soldiers throughout the country having easy access to cellphones, the internet, and, by extension, social media apps.

Social media is fueling a new type of ‘fog of war’

The ability to follow an escalating war is faster and easier than ever. But social media are also vulnerable to rapid-fire disinformation. So, social media are being blamed for fueling a new type of ‘fog of war’, in which information and disinformation are continuously entangled with each other — clarifying and confusing in almost equal measure.

Once again, the Internet is being used as a weapon

Past conflicts in places like Myanmar, India, and the Philippines show that tech giants are often caught off-guard by state-sponsored disinformation crises due to language barriers and a lack of cultural expertise. Now, Kremlin-backed falsehoods are putting the companies’ content policies to the test. It puts social media platforms in a precarious position, focusing global attention on their ability to moderate content ranging from graphic on-the-ground reports about the conflict to misinformation and propaganda.

How can they moderate disinformation without distorting the historical record?

Tech platforms face a difficult question: “How do you mitigate online harms that make war worse for civilians while preserving evidence of human rights abuses and war crimes potentially?”

What about the end-to-end encrypted messaging apps?

Social media platforms have been on high alert for Russian disinformation that would violate their policies. But they have less control over private messaging, where some propaganda efforts have moved to avoid detection.

According to the “Russia’s Propaganda & Disinformation Ecosystem — 2022 Update & New Disclosures” post and image, the Russian media environment, from overt state-run media to covert intelligence-backed outlets, is built on an infrastructure of influencers, anonymous Telegram channels (which have become a very serious, a very effective tool of the disinformation machine), and content creators with nebulous ties to the wider ecosystem.

The Russian government restricts access to online services

On Friday, Meta’s president of global affairs, Nick Clegg, updated that the company declined to comply with the Russian government’s requests to “stop fact-checking and labeling of content posted on Facebook by four Russian state-owned media organizations.” “As a result, they have announced they will be restricting the use of our services,” tweeted Clegg. In the heart of this issue there are ordinary Russians “using Meta’s apps to express themselves and organize for action.” As Eva Galperin (EFF) noted: “Facebook is where what remains of Russian civil society does its organizing. Cut off access to Facebook and you are cutting off independent journalism and anti-war protests.”

Then, on Saturday, Twitter, which had said it was pausing ads in Ukraine and Russia, said that its service was also being restricted for some people in Russia. We can only assume that it wouldn’t be the last restriction we’ll see as Russia continues to splinter the open internet.

Collective action & debunking falsehood in real-time

It’s become increasingly difficult for Russia to publish believable propaganda. People on the internet are using open-source intelligence tools that have proliferated in recent years to debunk Russia’s claims in real-time. Satellites and cameras gather information every moment of the day, much of it available to the public. And eyewitnesses can speak directly to the public via social media. So, now you have communities of people on the internet geolocating videos and verifying videos coming out of conflict zones.

The ubiquity of high-quality maps in people’s pockets, coupled with social media where anyone can stream videos or photos of what’s happening around them, has given civilians insight into what is happening on the ground in a way that only governments had before. See, for example, two interactive maps, which track the Russian military movements: The Russian Military Forces and the Russia-Ukraine Monitor Map (screenshot from February 27):

But big tech has a lot of complicated choices to make. Google Maps, for example, was applauded as a tool for visualizing the military action, helping researchers track troops and civilians seeking shelter. On Sunday, though, Google blocked two features (live traffic overlay & live busyness) in an effort to help keep Ukrainians safe and after consultations with local officials. It’s a constant balancing act and there’s no easy solution.

Global protests, donations, and empathy

Social media platforms are giving Russians who disagree with the Kremlin a way to make their voice heard. Videos from Russian protests are going viral on Facebook, Twitter, Telegram and other platforms, generating tens of millions of views. Global protests are also being viewed and shared extensively online, like this protest in Rome, shared by an Italian Facebook group. Many organizations post their volunteers’ actions to support Ukrainians, like this Israeli humanitarian mission, rescuing Jewish refugees. Donations are being collected all over the web, and on Saturday, Ukraine’s official Twitter account posted requests for cryptocurrency donations (in bitcoin, ether and USDT). On Sunday, crypto donations to Ukraine reached $20 million.

According to Jon Steinberg, all of these actions “are reminders of why we turn to social media at times like this.” For all their countless faults — including their vulnerabilities to government propaganda and misinformation — tech’s largest platforms can amplify powerful acts of resistance. They can promote truth-tellers over lies. And “they can reinforce our common humanity at even the bleakest of times.” 

“The role of misinformation/disinformation feels minor compared to what we might have expected,” Casey Newton noted. While tech companies need to “stay on alert for viral garbage,” social media is currently seen “as a force multiplier for Ukraine and pro-democracy efforts.”

Déjà vu to the onset of the pandemic

It reminds me a lot of March 2020, when Ben Smith praised that “Facebook, YouTube, and others can actually deliver on their old promise to democratize information and organize communities, and on their newer promise to drain the toxic information swamp.” Ina Fried added that if companies like Facebook and Google “are able to demonstrate they can be a force for good in a trying time, many inside the companies feel they could undo some of the Techlash’s ill will.” The article headline was: Tech’s moment to shine (or not).

On Feb 25, 2022, discussing the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Jon Stewart said social media “got to provide some measure of redemption for itself”: “There’s a part of me that truly hopes that this is where the social media algorithm will shine.”

All of the current online activities — taking advantage of the Social Smartphone Era — leave us with the hope the good can prevail over the bad and the ugly, but also with the fear it would not.

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

Posted on Techdirt - 11 February 2022 @ 12:13pm

Can We Compare Dot-Com Bubble To Today's Web3/Blockchain Craze?

Recently, I re-read through various discussions about the “dot-com bubble.” Surprisingly, it sounded all too familiar. I realized there are many similarities to today’s techno-optimism and techno-pessimism around Web3 and Blockchain. We have people hyping up the future promises, while others express concerns about the bubble.

The Dot-Com Outspoken Optimism

In the mid-1990s, the dot-com boom was starting to gather steam. The key players in the tech ecosystem had blind faith in the inherent good of computers. Their vision of the future represented the broader Silicon Valley culture and the claim that the digital revolution “would bring an era of transformative abundance and prosperity.” Leading tech commentators celebrated the potential for advancing democracy and empowering people.

Most tech reporting pitted the creative force of technological innovation against established powers trying to tame its disruptive inevitability. Tech companies, in this storyline, represented the young and irreverent, gleefully smashing old traditions and hierarchies. The narrative was around “the mystique of the founders,” recalled Rowan Benecke. It was about “the brashness, the arrogance, but also the brilliance of these executives who were daring to take on established industries to find a better way.”

David Karpf examined “25 years of WIRED predictions” and looked back at how both Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 imagined a future that upended traditional economics: “We were all going to be millionaires, all going to be creators, all going to be collaborators.” However, “The bright future of abundance has, time and again, been waylaid by the present realities of earnings reports, venture investments, and shareholder capitalism. On its way to the many, the new wealth has consistently been diverted up to the few.”

The Dot-Com Outspoken Pessimism

During the dot-com boom, the theme around its predicted burst was actually prominent. “At the time, there were still people who said, ‘Silicon Valley is a bubble; this is all about to burst. None of these apps have a workable business model,’” said Casey Newton. “There was a lot of really negative coverage focused on ‘These businesses are going to collapse.’”

Kara Swisher shared that in the 1990s, a lot of the coverage was, “Look at this new cool thing.” But also, “the initial coverage was ‘this is a Ponzi scheme,’ or ‘this is not going to happen.’ When the Internet came, there was a huge amount of doubt about its efficacy. Way before it was doubt about the economics, it was doubt about whether anyone was going to use it,” Then, “it became clear that there was a lot of money to be made; the ‘gold rush’ mentality was on.”

At the end of 1999, this gold rush was mocked by San Francisco Magazine. “The Greed Issue” featured the headline “Made your Million Yet?” and stated that “Three local renegades have made it easy for all of us to hit it big trading online. Yeah…right.” Soon after, came the dot-com implosion.

“In 2000, the coverage became more critical,” explained Nick Wingfield. There was a sense that, “You do have to pay attention to profitability and to create sustainable businesses.” “There was this new economy, where you didn’t need to make profits, you just needed to get a product to market and to grow a market share and to grow eyeballs,” added Rowan Benecke. It was ultimately its downfall at the dot-com crash.”

The Blockchain is Partying Like It’s 1999

While VCs are aggressively promoting Web3 – Crypto, NFTs, decentralized finance (DeFi) platforms, and a bunch of other Blockchain stuff – they are also getting more pushback. See, for example, the latest Mark Andreesen Twitter fight with Jack Dorsey, or listen to Box CEO Aaron Levie’s conversation with Alex Kantrowitz. The reason the debate is heated is, in part, due to the amount of money being poured into it.

Web3 Outspoken Optimism

Andreessen Horowitz, for example, has just launched a new $2.2 billion cryptocurrency-focused fund. “The size of this fund speaks to the size of the opportunity before us: crypto is not only the future of finance but, as with the internet in the early days, is poised to transform all aspects of our lives,” a16z’s cryptocurrency group announced in a blog post. “We’re going all-in on the talented, visionary founders who are determined to be part of crypto’s next chapter.”

The vision of Web3’s believers is incredibly optimistic: “Developers, investors and early adopters imagine a future in which the technologies that enable Bitcoin and Ethereum will break up the concentrated power today’s tech giants wield and usher in a golden age of individual empowerment and entrepreneurial freedom.” It will disrupt concentrations of power in banks, companies and billionaires, and deliver better ways for creators to profit from their work.

Web3 Outspoken Pessimism

Critics of the Web3 movement argue that its technology is hard to use and prone to failure. “Neither venture capital investment nor easy access to risky, highly inflated assets predicts lasting success and impact for a particular company or technology” (Tim O’Reilly).

Other critics attack “the amount of utopian bullshit” and call it a “dangerous get-rich-quick scam” (Matt Stolle) or even “worse than a Ponzi scheme” (Robert McCauley). “At its core, Web3 is a vapid marketing campaign that attempts to reframe the public’s negative associations of crypto assets into a false narrative about disruption of legacy tech company hegemony” (Stephen Diehl). “But you can’t stop a gold rush,” wrote Moxie Marlinspike. Sounds familiar?

A “Big Bang of Decentralization” is NOT Coming

In his seminal “Protocols, Not Platforms,” Mike Masnick asserted that “if the token/cryptocurrency approach is shown to work as a method for supporting a successful protocol, it may even be more valuable to build these services as protocols, rather than as centralized, controlled platforms.” At the same time, he made it clear that even decentralized systems based on protocols will still likely end up with huge winners that control most of the market (like email and Google, for example. I recommend reading the whole piece if you haven’t already).

Currently, Web3 enthusiasts are hyping that a “Big Bang of decentralization” is coming. However, as the crypto market evolves, it is “becoming more centralized, with insiders retaining a greater share of the token” (Scott Galloway). As more people enter Web3, the more likely centralized services will become dominant. The power shift is already underway. See How OpenSea took over the NFT trade.

However, Mike Masnick also emphasized that decentralization keeps the large players in check. The distributed nature incentivizes the winners to act in the best interest of their users.

Are the new winners of Web3 going to act in their users’ best interests? If you watch Dan Olson’s “Line Goes Up – The Problem With NFTs” you will probably answer, “NO.”

From “Peak of Inflated Expectations” to “Trough of Disillusionment”

In Gartner’s Hype Cycle, it is expected that hyped technologies experience “correction” in the form of a crash: A “peak of inflated expectations” is followed by a “trough of disillusionment.” In this stage, the technology can still be promoted and developed, but at a slower pace. With regards to Web3, we might be reaching the apex of the “inflated expectations”. Unfortunately, there will be a few big winners and a “long tail” of losers in the upcoming “disillusionment.”

Previous evolutions of the web had this “power law distribution”. Blogs, for example, were marketed as a megaphone for anyone with a keyboard. It was amazing to have access to distribution and an audience. But when you have more blogs than stars in the sky, only a fraction of them can rise to power. Accordingly, only a few of Web3’s new empowering initiatives will ultimately succeed. Then, “on its way to the many,” the question remains “would the new wealth be diverted up to the few?” As per the history of the web, in a “winner-take-all” world, the next iteration wouldn’t be different. 

From a “Bubble” to a “Balloon”

Going through the dot-com description, and then, the current Web3 debate – feels like déjà vu. Nonetheless, as I argue that the tech coverage should not be in either Techlash (“tech is a threat”) or Techlust (“tech is our savior”) but rather Tech Realism – I also argue the Web3 debate should be neither “bubble burst” nor “golden age,” but rather in the middle.

A useful description of this middle was recently offered by M.G. Siegler, who said the tech bubble is not a bubble but a balloon. Following his line of thought, instead of a bubble, Web3 can be viewed as a “deflating balloons ecosystem”: The overhyped parts of Web3 might burst, and affect the whole ecosystem, but most evaluations and promises will just return closer to earth.

That’s where they should be in the first place.

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

Posted on Techdirt - 19 November 2021 @ 10:44am

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

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:

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

Posted on Techdirt - 1 October 2021 @ 03:15am

Facebook: Amplifying The Good Or The Bad? It's Getting Ugly

When the New York Times reported Facebook’s plan to improve its reputation, the fact that the initiative was called “Project Amplify” wasn’t a surprise. “Amplification” is at the core of the Facebook brand, and “amplify the good” is a central concept in its PR playbook.

Amplify the good

Mark Zuckerberg initiated this talking point in 2018. “I think that we have a clear responsibility to make sure that the good is amplified and to do everything we can to mitigate the bad,” he said after the Russian election meddling and the killings in Myanmar.

Then, other Facebook executives adopted this notion regardless of the issue at hand. The best example is Adam Mosseri, Head of Instagram.

In July 2019, addressing online bullying, Mosseri said: “Technology isn’t inherently good or bad in the first place …. And social media, as a type of technology, is often an amplifier. It’s on us to make sure we’re amplifying the good and not amplifying the bad.”

In January 2021, After January 6 Capitol attack, Mosseri said: “Social media isn’t good or bad, like any technology, it just is. But social media is specifically a great amplifier. It can amplify good and bad. It’s our responsibility to make sure that we amplify more good and less bad.”

In September 2021, after a week of exposés about Facebook by the WSJ, The Facebook Files, Mosseri was assigned to defend the company once again. “When you connect people, whether it’s online or offline, good things can happen and bad things can happen,” he said in his opening statement. “I think that what is important is that the industry as a whole tries to understand both those positive and negative outcomes, and do all they can to magnify the positive and to identify and address the negative outcomes.”

Mosseri clearly uses the same messaging document, but Facebook’s PR template contains more talking points. Facebook also asserts that there have always been bad people or behaviors, and the current connectivity simply makes them more visible.

A mirror for the ugly

According to the “visibility” narrative, tech platforms simply reflect the beauty and ugliness in the world. Thus, social media is sometimes a cesspool because humanity is sometimes a cesspool.

Mark Zuckerberg addresses this issue several times, with the main message that it is just human nature. Nick Clegg, VP of Global Affairs and Communications, repeatedly shared the same mindset. “When society is divided and tensions run high, those divisions play out on social media. Platforms like Facebook hold up a mirror to society,” he wrote in 2020. “With more than 3 billion people using Facebook’s apps every month, everything that is good, bad misogynist and ugly in our societies will find expression on our platform.”

“Social media broadly, and messaging apps and technology, are a reflection of humanity,” Adam Mosseri repeated. “We communicated offline, and all of a sudden, now we’re also communicating online. Because we’re communicating online, we can see some of the ugly things we missed before. Some of the great and wonderful things, too.”

This “mirror of society” statement is being criticized for being intentionally uncomplicated. Because the ability to shape, not merely reflect, people’s preferences and behavior is also how Facebook makes money. Therefore, despite Facebook’s recurring statements, it is accused of not reflecting but increasing the bad and ugly.

Amplify the bad

“These platforms aren’t simply pointing out the existence of these dark corners of humanity,” John Paczkowski from BuzzFeed News, told me. “They are amplifying them and broadcasting them. That is different.”

After an accumulation of deadly events, such as the Christchurch shooting, Kara Swisher wrote about amplified hate and “murderous intent that leaps off the screen and into real life.” She argued that “While this kind of hate has indeed littered the annals of human history since its beginnings, technology has amplified it in a way that has been truly destructive.”

It is believed that bad behavior (e.g., disinformation) is induced by the way that tech platforms are designed to maximize engagement. Thus, Facebook’s victim-centric approach refuses to acknowledge that perhaps bad actors don’t misuse its platform but rather use it as intended (“machine for virality”).

Ev Williams, the co-founder of Blogger, Twitter, and Medium, said he now believes that he had failed to appreciate the risks of putting such powerful tools in users’ hands with minimal oversight. “One of the things we’ve seen in the past few years is that technology doesn’t just accelerate and amplify human behavior,” he wrote. “It creates feedback loops that can fundamentally change the nature of how people interact and societies move (in ways that probably none of us predicted).”

So, things had turned toxic in ways that tech founders didn’t predict. Should they have foreseen them? According to Mark Zuckerberg, an era of tech optimism led to unintended consequences. “For the first decade, we really focused on all the good that connecting people brings … But it’s clear now that we didn’t do enough,” he said After the Cambridge Analytica scandal. He admitted they didn’t think through “how people could use these tools to do harm as well.” Several years after the Techlash coverage began, there’s a consensus that they needed to “do more” to purposefully deny the ability to abuse them.

One of the reasons it was (and still is) a challenging task is their scale. According to this theme, the growth-at-all-cost “blinded” them, and they turned so big to be successfully managed at all. Due to their bigness, they are always in a game of cat-and-mouse with bad actors. “When you have hundreds of millions of users, it is impossible to keep track of all the ways they are using and abusing your systems,” Casey Newton, from the Platformer newsletter, explained in an interview. “They are always playing catch-up with their own messes.”

Due to the unprecedented scale at which Facebook operates, it is dependent on algorithms. Then, it claims that any perceived errors result from “algorithms that need tweaking” or “artificial intelligence that needs more training data.” But is it just an automation issue? It depends on who you ask.

The algorithms’ fault vs. the people who build them or use them

Critics say that machines are only as good as the rules built into them. “Google, Twitter, and Facebook have all regularly shifted the blame to algorithms, but companies write the algorithms, making them responsible for what they churn out.”

But platforms tend to avoid this responsibility. When ProPublica revealed that Facebook’s algorithms allowed advertisers to target users interested in “How to burn Jews” or “History of why Jews ruin the world,” Facebook’s response was: The anti-Semitic categories were created by an algorithm rather than by people.

At the same time, Facebook‘s Nick Clegg argued that human agency should not be removed from the equation. In a post titled “You and the Algorithm: It takes two to Tango,” he criticized the dystopian depictions of their algorithms, in which “people are portrayed as powerless victims, robbed of their free will.” As if “Humans have become the playthings of manipulative algorithmic systems.”

“Consider, for example, the presence of bad and polarizing content on private messaging apps – iMessage, Signal, Telegram, WhatsApp – used by billions of people around the world. None of those apps deploy content or ranking algorithms. It’s just humans talking to humans without any machine getting in the way,” Clegg wrote. “In many respects, it would be easier to blame everything on algorithms, but there are deeper and more complex societal forces at play. We need to look at ourselves in the mirror and not wrap ourselves in the false comfort that we have simply been manipulated by machines all along.”

Fixing the machine vs. the underlying societal problems

Nonetheless, there are various attempts to fix the “broken machine,” and some potential fixes are discussed more often. One of the loudest calls is for tougher regulation – legislation should be passed to implement reforms. Yet, many remain pessimistic about the prospects for policy rules and oversight because regulators tend not to keep pace with tech developments. Also, there’s no silver-bullet solution, and most of the recent proposals are overly simplistic.

“Fixing Silicon Valley’s problems requires a scalpel, not an axe,” said Dylan Byers. However, tech platforms are faced with a new ecosystem of opposition, including Democrats and Republicans, antitrust theorists, privacy advocates, and European regulators. They all carry axes.

For instance, there are many new proposals to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. But, as Casey Newton noted, “it won’t fix our politics, or our broken media, or our online discourse, and it’s disingenuous for politicians to suggest that it would.”

When self-regulation is proposed, there is an inherent commercial conflict since platforms are in the business of making money for their shareholders. Facebook only acted after problems escalated and caused real damage. For example, only after the mob violence in India (another problem that existed before WhatsApp, and may have been amplified by the app) the company instituted rules to limit WhatsApp’s ‘virality.’” Other algorithms have been altered in order to eliminate conspiracy theories and their groups from being highly recommended.

Restoring more human control requires different remedies: from decentralization projects, which seek to shift the ownership of personal data away from Big Tech and back toward users, to media literacy, which seek to formally educate people of all ages about the way tech systems function, as well as encourage appropriate, healthy uses.

The proposed solutions could certainly be helpful, and they all should be pursued. Unfortunately, they are unlikely to be adequate. We will probably have an easier time fixing algorithms, or the design of our technology than we will have fixing society, and humanity has to deal with humanity’s problems.

Techdirt’s Mike Masnick recently addressed the underlying societal problems that need fixing. “What we see – what Facebook and other social media have exposed – is often the consequences of huge societal failings.” He mentioned various problems with education, social safety nets, healthcare (especially mental healthcare), income inequality and corruption. Masnick concluded we should be trying to come up with better solutions for those issues rather than “insisting that Facebook can make it all go away if only they had a better algorithm or better employees.”

We saw that with COVID-19 disinformation. After President Joe Biden blamed Facebook for “killing people,” and Facebook responded by saying they are “helping save lives,” I argued that this dichotomous debate sucks. Charlie Warzel called it (on his Galaxy Brian newsletter) “an unproductive, false binary of a conversation,” and he is absolutely right. Complex issues deserve far more nuance.

I can’t think of a more complex issue than tech platforms’ impact on society, in general, and Facebook’s impact in particular. However, we seem to be stuck between the storylines discussed above, of “amplifying the good vs. the bad.” It is as if you can only think favorably or negatively about “the machine,” and you must pick a side and adhere to its intensified narrative.

Keeping to a single narrative can escalate rhetoric and create an insufficient discussion, as evidenced by a recent Mother Jones article. The “Why Facebook won’t stop pushing propaganda” piece describes how a woman tried to become Montevallo’s first black mayor and lost. Montevallo is a very small town in Alabama (7,000 people), whose population is two-thirds white. Her race loss was blamed on Facebook: The rampart of misinformation and rumors about her affected the voting.

While we can’t know what got people to vote one way or another, we should consider that racism was prevalent in places like Alabama for a long time. Facebook was the candidate’s primary tool for her campaign, highlighting the good things about her historic nomination. Then, racism was amplified in Facebook’s local groups. In the article, the fault was centered on the algorithm amplification, on Facebook’s “amplification of the bad.” Facebook’s argument that it only “reflects the ugly” does not hold true here if it makes it more robust. Yet, the root cause in this case remains the same, racism. Facebook “doing better” and amending its algorithms will not be enough unless we also address the source of the problem. WE can and should “do better,” as well.

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

Posted on Techdirt - 18 August 2021 @ 12:04pm

There's a Growing Backlash Against Tech's Infamous Secrecy. Why Now?

How Silicon Valley’s Tech Giants Use NDAs to Create a Culture of Silence,” stated a Business Insider piece on July 27, 2021. “To understand how Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) have come to form the backbone of Silicon Valley’s culture of secrecy,” explained Matt Drange, “Insider reviewed 36 agreements shared by tech workers.” It showed how management mistakes and misconduct hide in the silence of those NDAs. “The secrecy is by design … leaving the true extent of wrongdoing in the workplace a mystery.”

“The use of NDAs, including in trivial or routine circumstances like visiting a tech office, is ironic in an industry that praises openness and transparency,” elaborated Shira Ovide in her New York Times newsletter. She called it an unnecessary “exercise of power.”

Yael Eisenstat, a former Facebook employee, criticized this power in a Washington Post OpEd on August 3, 2021. “A handful of technology companies have unprecedented – and unchecked – power over our daily interactions and lives. Their ability to silence employees exacerbates that problem, depriving the public and regulators of a means to analyze actions that affect our public health, our public square, and our democracy.”

This recent backlash against tech’s infamous secrecy is long overdue. It became possible as a result of a broader uprising against Big Tech, AKA the Techlash (tech-backlash). But for decades, it wasn’t the case. In the power relations between the tech giants and the media, journalists’ access to sources within those companies was tightly controlled, and “access has always been a bargaining chip.”

The Roots of Tech’s Secrecy Culture

In the mid-1990s, when the dot-com boom started to gather steam, Silicon Valley went from semiconductor fab plants in South San Jose to an industry of hot technologies. The tech coverage focused on the brilliance of the tech CEOs who were daring to take on established industries and old hierarchies. The consumers wanted a ‘backstage pass’ to those rock stars. It was also all that the tech reporters wanted, access.

But the common experience for tech journalists was that if their coverage were critical or hard on the companies, their level of access would either go on hiatus or disappear altogether. Many of them complied with this tradeoff.

The most secretive company was always Apple. Tim Cook once said, “One of the great things about Apple is: We probably have more secrecy here than the CIA.”

By keeping the communication channels closed, the companies had leverage over those to whom they give access. “If you want access to Apple, you can’t upset them,” a Gizmodo reporter described. “Apple and Google are masters of grooming reporters to do what they want and provide access only to folks they think will make them look good,” the freelancer journalist Rose Eveleth explained.

The companies also increased their tendency to brief reporters “on background.” In this method, the tech PR teams and companies’ employees agree to talk, but the reporter cannot quote anything said in the conversation. Thus, the information cannot be transmitted to the readers. The experience can be infuriating, as Adrienne LaFrance from The Atlantic described: “I got through an entire interview with a product manager at Apple, only to be told, after the fact, that it was presumed to be ‘on background.’ ‘Everyone knows this is how we do things,’ a spokesman explained apologetically.”

Tech journalists and bloggers acknowledged getting used to “not having an oppositional journalistic culture.” Those who were asking the tough questions had to walk a tight rope when the combination of access and unfavorable coverage was quite rare.

The Intensifying Revolt During the Techlash

The turning point in tech journalism followed Donald Trump’s victory in November 2016. According to research about the emerging tech-backlash, the pivotal year was 2017 as a result of various tech scandals, including foreign election meddling; disinformation wars; extremist content, and hate speech; privacy violations; allegations of an anti-diversity, sexual harassment, and discrimination culture. The accumulation of those issues created a profound sense of concern around content moderation, algorithmic accountability, and monopoly power. The companies’ secrecy became a means of evading responsibility.

“Corporations such as Apple, Google, and Uber have become infamous for their secrecy and unwillingness to comment on most matters on-the-record. Tech reporters, myself very much included, have not done enough to push them to do otherwise,” claimed Brian Merchant from Vice. He called his fellow journalists to push back against these ossified norms: “I am no longer going to listen to a public relations representative try to change my mind ‘on background’ with unquotable statements attributable to no one. No reporter should, not when the stakes are as high as they are.”

His article, from July 2019, generated a ‘call to arms’ by leading journalists, unwilling to propagate it any longer. It reflected a more profound change in the power dynamics between Big Tech and the journalists, who had enough. Later on, the Covid-19 pandemic acted as an accelerator, and the Tech vs. Journalism battle intensified into a full-blown “cold war.” The stakes were even higher than before.

In June 2021, a Mother Jones piece took the allegations against the PR tactics to the next level. It focused on Amazon and described how it “bullies, manipulated and lies to reporters.” Amazon’s press team was accused of engaging in deceitful behavior. The tech reporters also pointed out that “Amazon has recently begun providing more access before a story is published,” but complained it is done “in limited and often unhelpful or unrelated ways, by offering things like off-the-record or background interviews with the press team or approved employees.”

It is often the case that the more important stories are coming from “un-approved” employees. This is how Casey Newton revealed Facebook’s content moderators’ working conditions in The Trauma Floor or Bodies in Seats exposés. The workers openly described how they developed severe anxiety while still in training and struggled with trauma symptoms long after they left.

Other tech employees, who experienced a reckoning around their companies’ role in society, also started approaching the reporters with allegations of corporate misdeeds. Some of them didn’t speak anonymously but instead put their name on it, agreeing to full exposure. The fact that whistleblowers experienced legal risks, retaliation, and emotional scars did not stop additional workers from joining their colleagues. Breaking their NDAs or handing them to a reporter are parts of this growing trend of employee activism.

“You can’t have it both ways,” Scott Thurm from Wired explained in an interview. “If you don’t give us access, then, of course, we are going to rely on other people to tell the story.” The current story is not the one the tech companies want the media to tell. However, in the Techlash, it is precisely what the media is doing.

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

Posted on Techdirt - 14 April 2021 @ 12:05pm

Donald Trump Caused The Techlash

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

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