from the 2016-election-was-the-tipping-point dept
InOctober 2016, I pitched USC a research proposal about the techcoverages non-investigative nature and the influence ofcorporate PR. I thought that at the end of this project, Idhave indictive documentation of how the tech media is too promotionaland not tough enough. When I sat down to analyze a full year of techcoverage, the data presented quite the opposite. 2017 wassuddenlyfull of tech scandals and mounting scrutiny. The flatteringstories about consumer products evolved into investigative pieces onbusiness practices, which caught the tech companies and theircommunications teams off guard.
Likeany good startup, I needed to pivot. I changed my research entirelyand focused on this new type of backlash against Big Tech. Theresearch was based on an AI-media monitoring tool (by MIT andHarvard), content analysis, and in-depth interviews. I had amazinginterviewees: senior tech PR executives and leading tech journalistsfrom BuzzFeedNews,CNET,Recode,ReutersNews,TechCrunch,Techdirt,TheAtlantic,TheInformation,TheNew York Times,TheVerge,and Wiredmagazine. Together, they illuminated the powerdynamics between the media and the tech giants it covers. Hereare some ofthe conclusions regarding the roots of the shift in coverage and thetech companies crisis responses.
Theelection of Donald Trump
Afterthe U.K.s Brexit referendum in June 2016, and specifically,after Donald Trump became the president at the end of 2016, the mediablamed the tech platforms for widespread misinformation anddisinformation. The most influential article, from November 2016, wasBuzzFeedspiece entitled, Thisanalysis shows how viral fake election news stories outperformed realnews on Facebook.It was the firstdomino to topple.
WhenI asked what was the story that formed the Techlash, allthe interviewees answered, in one way or the other, that it was theelection of Donald Trump. Even though it wasnt thestory that people wrote about the most, it was the underlying theme.Then, new revelations regarding the Russian interference with theU.S. election evolved into a bigger story. On November 1, 2017,Facebook, Google, and Twitter, testified in front of the U.S.Congress. Thealarming effect was from combining the threetestimonies together.
Inthe tech sector, theres a sentence that you hear a lot:change happens gradually then suddenly. There wereyears and years of build-up for the flip, but the flipitself was in the pivotal moment of Donald Trumps victory andthe post-presidential election reckoning that followed it. The maindiscussion was the role of social media in helping him win theelection.
IfHillary Clinton had been elected in November 2016, the Techlash mighthave been much smaller. We would not have seen the amount ofnegative coverage. It is not just because almost every techjournalist is reflectively anti-Donald Trump; it is that almost everytech person is anti-Donald Trump. As a result, Silicon Valleybegan to regret the foundational elements of its own success. Themost dire warnings started to come from inside the industry asmore sources spoke up and exposed misdeeds.
Then,in 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal unlockedlarger concerns about social medias influence and the carelessapproach toward user privacy.It also shed light on the fact that technology is progressing fasterthan consumers ability to process it and faster than thegovernments ability to regulate it.
Thecompanies bigness and scandals around fake news, databreaches, and sexual harassment
Therewere more factors at play here. It was also the tech companiesscale and bigness, being too big to fail. All the tech giants are ata place where they are getting scrutiny, if nothing else, because ofhow big and powerful they are. On the one hand, growth-at-all-cost isa mandate. On the other, there are unforeseen consequences of thatsame growth.
Accordingto the tech journalists, those unintended consequences are due to thecompanies profound lack of foresight. They were blind, andthis blindness came back to bite them. Thus, its thecompanies fault for not listening to the journalistsconcerns.
However,the big data analytics and content analysis showed that focusing onlyon the post-election reckoning or the tech platforms growingpower wont fully explain the Techlash. A large number ofevents in a variety of issues shaped it. Their combination led to theIts enough feeling, the mounting calls fortougher regulation, and the #BreakUpBigTech proposition.
Wehad cases of extremist content and hate speech, andmisinformation/disinformation, like the fake news after the Las Vegasshooting; privacyand data security issues, following major cyber-attacks, likeWannaCry or data breaches, like Equifax, but also atFacebook, Uber, and Yahoo, which raised the alarm about data privacyand data protection challenges; and also allegations of ananti-diversity, sexual harassment, and discrimination culture. It wasin February 2017 that Susan Fowler published her revelations againstUber (prior to the #MeToo movement). It symbolized the toxicity inSilicon Valley. All of those time-bombs started to detonate at once.
Thetech companies responses didnt help
WhenI analyzed the tech companies crisis responses, I haddifferent companies and a variety of negative stories, and yet theresponses were very much alike. It created what I call TheTech PR Template for Crises. The companies rolled out the sameplaybook, over and over again. It was clear; bigtech got used to resting on their laurels and was not ready to givereal answers to tough questions. Instead, they published theresponses they kept under open in case of emergency.
Onestrategy was The Victim-Villain framing: Wevebuilt something good, with good intentions/ previous good deeds andgreat policies -but- our product/ platform was manipulated/ misusedby bad/malicious actors.
Thesecond was pseudo-apologies: Many responses included messages of weapologize, deeply regret, and ask forforgiveness. They were usually intertwined with we needto do better. This message typically comes in this order:Whileweve made steady progress we have much more work todo, and we know we need to do better. Every techreporter heard this specific combination a million times by now.
Theysaid, sorry, so why pseudo-apologies? Well, becausethey repeatedly tried to reduce their responsibility, with all theelements identified in number one: reminder strategy (past goodwork), excuse strategy (good intention), victimization (basicallysaying, We are the victim of the crisis), scapegoating(blamingothers). They emphasized their suffering since they were anunfair victim of some malicious, outside entity.
Thethird thing was to state that they are proactive: We arecurrently working on those immediate actions to fix this. Lookingforward, we are working on those steps for improvements, minimizingthe chances that it will happen again. Its CrisisCommunication 101. But then, they added, But our work willnever be done. I think those seven words encapsulateeverything. Istheworknever done because, by now, the problems are too big to fix?
Itis the art of avoiding responsibility
Oneway to look at the companies PR template is to say: Well,of course, that this is their messaging. They are being asked to stopbig, difficult societal problems, and that is animpossiblerequest.
Inreality, all of those Techlash responses backlashed. Tech companiesshould know (as Spider-Man fans already know) that with greatpower comes great responsibility. Since they tried to reducetheir responsibility, the critics claimed that tech companies need tostop taking the role of the victim and stop blaming others. Theapology tours received comments such as dont ask forforgiveness, ask for permission. The critics also said thatactions should follow words. Even after the companiesspecified their corrective actions, the critics claimed the companiesignore the system because they have no incentive fordramatic changes, like their business models. In such cases, wherethe media push for fundamental changes, PR cant fix it.
TheTechlash coverage is deterministic
Onthe one hand, theres the theme of: We are at a pointwhere the baby is being thrown out with the bathwater. There was aperhaps ridiculous utopianism. But it has become just as ridiculous -if not more so - on the flip side now, of being dystopian. Thependulum has swung too far (EvilListarticles, for example). On the other hand, theres the theme ofJournalisms role is to hold power to account. We arejust doing our job, speak truth to power, revealwrongdoing, and put a stop to it.Whoever is saying that the media is over-correcting doesntunderstand journalism at all.
WhileI articulated both themes in the book, one of the concepts thathelped me organize my thoughts was technological determinism.In a nutshell, some argue that technology is deterministic: the stateof technological advancement is the determining factor of society.Others dispute that view, claiming the opposite: social forces shapeand design technology, and thus, it is the society that affectstechnology. I realized that we could describe the Techlash coverageas deterministic: technology drives society in bad directions.Period.
Then,perhaps what the few tech advocates are pointing out is that thisnarrative doesnt consider the social context or human agency.A good example was the SocialDilemma.The tech critics targeted the scare tactics used to enrage people ina documentary filled with scare tactics used to enrage people. Andthey didnt even notice the irony. Sadly, since theyexaggerated and the arguments were too simplistic, they made iteasier to dismiss the claims, even though they were extremelyimportant. My fear here is that the exaggerations overshadow the realconcerns, and the companies become even more tone-deaf. So, perhaps,we deserve a more nuanced discussion.
Itscool -- its evil saviors -- threats
Fromthe glorious days and the dot-com bubble to todays Techlash,there were two pendulum swings; the first between Itscool and Its evil, the second betweensaviors and threats. Moving forward, Iwould suggest dropping them altogether. Tech is not an evil threat,nor our ultimate savior. The reality is not those extremes, butsomewhere in the middle.
Dr. Nirit Weiss-Blatt is the author of The Techlash and Tech Crisis Communication
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Filed Under: donald trump, journalism, narrative, techlash
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