Big tech companies will conquer the world... or maybe they already have.
Technological advancement is the 21st century’s norm, and tech companies make up the "invisible hand" that governs underlying dynamics.
The multi-million-dollar industry that sprung up in Silicon Valley a few decades ago – and that we have watched with amazement, optimism, admiration, and sometimes even idolized – manages many of the services we use and the products we consume, delivered to our doorstep by one of the e-economy giants. However, there has subsequently been a change of pace – or rather, a "backlash" – that has led us to look more critically at what are now the most powerful companies on the planet. This is not to be taken lightly, as the capitalization of the "magnificent seven" (Amazon, Microsoft, Alphabet, Facebook, Tesla, and Netflix) now exceeds the GDP of Germany, Italy, and Spain combined, as documented by HDblog.it.
Dr. Nirit Weiss-Blatt, a researcher at the University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, describes this shift from tech-utopianism to tech-dystopianism.
In her book The Techlash and Tech Crisis Communication, she explores how – and through which means – tech companies have responded to the spreading negative sentiments about them and summarizes valuable lessons. Her arguments are backed up by evidence she found while doing research on specialized news coverage of these large companies (data taken from the IMT cloud), tech companies' responses to crises (in their official press releases), and interviews with people involved on either side of the debate – tech journalists and public relations professionals.
Media's attention to technology has grown at the same rate as the industry itself, and there has been a shift from articles in trade magazines and blogs – which mostly included news and new product advertisements – to massive coverage through all sorts of media.
In this scenario, not only have general media, magazines, and industry blogs played a key role, but also tech companies themselves who have relied on public relations agencies to promote their products, increase their audience, and consequently attract investors.
So, on the one hand, we have the media that has become ever more interested in new innovative startups and their near-mythological young CEOs – iconic figures whose profiles attract the public. On the other hand, we have the quickly-growing tech startups which have been open in sharing their stories, seek to be visible, have a certain notoriety, and are backed by investors – all of which would allow them to grow and experience the future which was being created through the very products and services they were creating.
Back in 1964, Umberto Eco spoke of “Apocalypse Postponed” by analyzing the theme of mass culture and the media. He defined intellectuals who have a critical attitude towards modern mass culture "apocalyptic," while he defined those who have a naively optimistic view of it as being "integrated." Nirit’s research has had a similar narrative and inferences the “techlash” and the sentiment toward Big Tech’s overwhelming power.
From Techno-Utopianism to Techno-Dystopianism
There was an initial phase of optimism in which media coverage of tech industry innovation was painted as being positive and avant-garde. It was followed by backlash in 2017 when the public began to closely scrutinize these companies.
The controversies surrounding the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which led to Trump's victory, represent the tipping point which caused a boiling pot of suspicion, criticism, and distrust of tech giants to finally spill over.
Recent major “technology scandals” include:
- Allegations of election interference by the Russians (primarily involving Facebook and Twitter), which is still unclear.
- The Cambridge Analytica scandal: In 2018, Facebook sold the personal data of 87 million users without their knowledge to third parties for political propaganda purposes.
- Cases of misinformation/disinformation, extremist content, hate speech, and fake news (e.g., that which followed the Las Vegas shooting).
- Allegations of a culture against diversity, sexual harassment, and discrimination (e.g., Susan Fowler's allegations against Uber in February 2017).
Flattering stories about consumer products have evolved into investigative pieces about business practices, which catch tech companies and their communications teams off guard. We are living in the time of the “Techlash” – a time in which the focus has shifted from new products on the market to corporate offences.
Big Tech has since come under the critical eye of the media and public opinion, which no longer perceive them as "saviors" but rather as potential "threats."
However, this book’s research highlights how the relationship between technology giants and the media isn’t stable, but rather "a roller coaster ride;" you can be on top of the world only to find yourself hurtling toward the ground moments later.
Corporate PR agencies simply lacked strategies and methods to deal with these issues when they arose, exacerbating the feeling of discontent.
The post-techlash phase, however, has experienced a setback due to the covid-19 pandemic which, after all, hasn’t badly harmed many economic and social activities, thanks to the support of services and products provided by big tech companies. Just think of Amazon or Microsoft! They’ve provided us with products that have made it possible to overcome, or rather to find ways around “social distancing.”
But this time of setbacks was short-lived; in fact, very quickly, the “techlash” problems resurfaced, touching on topics like content moderation, ad transparency, misinformation, algorithmic accountability, data rights, and antitrust.
Nirit Weiss-Blatt's book is based in the United States; but, in a world so globalized and almost totally connected, it is important to take situations in other countries and regions into account when analyzing this phenomenon.
Just like with the 2016 U.S. elections, the Brexit referendum was also strongly influenced by the political propaganda on social networks. Some surveys, such as the one published by the British newspaper The Guardian, analyzed about 7.5 million tweets which showed that in the 23 days leading up to the referendum, “leave activism” was higher than “remain activism.” This demonstrates how the British people were overexposed to pro-Brexit messages in the days leading up to the signing of the referendum.
In the “techlash years,” moreover, the European Union has kept a keen and watchful eye on Big Tech and is attempting to curb their overwhelming power¾establishing EU regulations on data protection and coming up with high penalties and fines to prevent unfair competition.
The referendum for the Colombia peace agreement (2016) was another flop by mainstream journalism and polling institutions which certainly involved social networks, though it’s not exactly clear how and to what extent.
Despite all this, we cannot ignore the benefits that technology has brought to our lives. Thanks to technology, we have been able to continue our work or our studies from the safety of our own homes during the pandemic. We mustn’t forget that the best technological innovations have created helpful tools and improved the lives of many people with physical or motor disabilities. These are just a few of the many benefits!
Technology, the internet, and social media are windows into the world. The accessibility that technology offers to so many people around the world every day is something worth appreciating. While manipulation will always be a part of this world, the internet offers access to so much information and the ability to express yourself as you like. New technology and means of communication represent a revolution for humanity that we cannot do without.
What we must keep in mind, however, is that: "When you build things, you are responsible for the people who use them. You have to think about what could go wrong instead of assuming that everything will be fine."