Wednesday, March 10, 2021

#TechlashBook on Podcasts - Techdirt


Techdirt podcast episode 273 SoundCloud / Apple Podcasts / Google Podcasts / Spotify / Stitcher


Thank you, Mike Masnick, for having me on your “Techdirt” podcast. I appreciate our discussion - it was fun!

Here are most of the quotes, slightly edited for clarity. Thank you, OtterAI, for the quick and accurate transcription.


Techdirt podcast How the Techlash happened

Mike: What made you decide to focus on the Techlash?

It wasn't my initial research proposal when I pitched USC. Actually, that wasn't the idea. The idea was to research the non-investigative nature of the coverage and the influence of corporate PR, and how promotive is the narrative; and actually, the idea was to criticize the tech media for not being tough enough, but that was before the Techlash. Then, the world changed. And like any good startup, I needed to pivot. So, I changed my research altogether, theory and methods and dived in the Techlash.


Mike: Why did the coverage change, and how?

My research goes back to the early 2000s when I’ve done my Ph.D. in communication. I studied the tech media, and back then, we were in what I call the product journalism or innovation journalism phase, where it was ‘the glorious days.’ I documented the rise of tech blogs and how it changed the tech coverage. We had the ‘cult of personality,’ and all the tech CEOs and founders are geniuses, and their innovations are good for society. And everything is new is exciting. And I documented that. On that basis, I pitched the new research. But then, 2017 happened.

I'm a big data analytics kind of girl, and I was looking at the big companies and their yearly timeline. So, I'm looking at the peaks of coverage, the big stories that got the most number of articles and posts. In regular (what I call) a pre-Techlash year, those peaks were mainly positive and product launches, we have a new product, or business reporting, like IPOs, and M&As. But in 2017, all of my peaks of coverage in the data were negative. They were tech scandals. So, the data forced me to expand my analysis to what's going on, how did we get here, the roots of the change, and also how the companies reacted. Then, I added to all of the big data analytics the content analysis of how the media is covering this narrative and how the companies react. On top of that, I've done all the interviews with tech experts like yourself, don't be modest, and then, I got the real ‘inside story’ of the Techlash, and 'how did we get here?'

And 'how did we get here?' is a great question because there's a short answer, and there is this long explanation. The short answer is Donald Trump's victory in November 2016. Right about then, we have the media, digging all the widespread misinformation, disinformation, fake news phenomenon, and of course, blaming the tech platforms for the widespread. We had the Brexit referendum before that, and there was this buildup. But I've been told again and again that I won't find a more pivotal moment than the post-presidential election reckoning in the tech industry by both the tech journalists and the tech workers, figuring out their influence and their power and how they may help that happen. That's the short answer.

The longer explanation is that it's much more complicated than that. We had various issues at once. It was the accumulation of very different things, like time bombs that detonated at once, that formed this Techlash. 2017 was this turning point, the year that we had so many scandals and so many issues that it ‘broke the camel's back’ and made everybody more critical of the tech industry.


Mike: What is the target audience for the book?

It's a great question. It's an academic book, but I've done my best to make it more simple in a way that both tech journalists, tech PR professionals, and tech workers in tech companies and tech geeks actually can read it and enjoy the story. Because I'm taking the reader through this journey from the 80s; we had computer magazines and glorious days there. And I'm showing the interplay between major groups of the tech journalist and the tech giants, how that evolved. It's actually an interesting story, not just for scholars. So, the book is academic for researchers and students. But yeah, it's a good story for anyone interested in how the tech industry is being covered by the media because the story is the media's narrative to the Techlash.


The overarching narrative

What I tried to do is put all versions of the story. On the one side, I have Kara Swisher, who is, of course, the listeners know, leading the Techlash, and she had her things to say in the book. On the other side, I put people like Jeff Jarvis saying, 'moral panic!'. So, I'm putting them one next to each other like this virtual panel where they're fighting and debating, which I hope makes the book interesting.

The book always moves from 'the media is overcorrecting the past and throwing the baby with the bathwater and went to the extreme; The pendulum swung too far in the negative direction' -versus- the ones who say, 'the ones who say that (claims) don't understand journalism at all, because that's journalism role - to hold power to account, speak truth to power. We're just doing our job. We have no patience for those accusations because we're just doing great journalism here.' So, throughout the book, it's the fight.

Because we have all the nuances in the book, it seems to me that both tech critics and advocates can find their favorite quotes in the book.


The Techlash coverage

I've been through this journey myself, writing the book, that I was on the side that, again, we in academia were yelling at the tech media to be tougher and doing good journalism, which is investigative journalism. So, I was on the side that celebrated the Techlash, saying, ‘Oh, finally, that is happening. And that's great journalism.’ But doing all the content analysis for the book, and I went through 1,000s of articles, something shifted in my point of view, I may say, during the pandemic.

Writing the book in the pandemic really made it stronger because one occasion that I think that really blew my mind was 'the evil list.' Remember that? That was a cover story in Slate Magazine, January 2020. The magazine asked, ‘which tech companies are really doing the most harm?’ ranking the 30 most dangerous, harmful, evil companies in the world. In there, of course, Twitter and Facebook and Amazon and Apple and Microsoft, everybody. They were ranked in the top 10, but the number one evil company was Amazon. Two months after this article, while I was writing the book, millions of people relied on this ‘number one evil company’ to deliver essentials along nonessentials to their front door during this shitty pandemic.

So, that was one thing. The other thing is that, regarding Twitter, they needed to specify the reason why each company is so evil, so they chose Jack Dorsey’s idea to decentralized Twitter. I was like, ‘that's an odd choice.’ I mean, tech experts like yourself believe the opposite. That the non-commercial, open-source, open standards federation of real-time protocols - like 'protocols, not platforms' that our listeners know - it's actually good, the solution, not the problem. It's maybe the fixer. The article choosing that as the reason Jack Dorsey is evil was like, ‘okay, so we can't have a good conversation here if every suggestion is labeled as 'evil.'


Tech Crisis Communication

That brings us to their crisis communication, which I analyzed in-depth. What I've done is I looked at all their big scandals and how they reacted. It's their press releases and spokesperson statements to journalists. The interesting thing is that I had different crises and a variety of companies. And yet, the PR responses were very much alike. They all use the same playbook. In the book, I call it ‘The tech PR template for crises,’ that they were rolling again and again and again. And actually, it backlashed as well because they basically tried to reduce the responsibility in those crisis responses, which is what crisis communication does, like how you are supposed to do it.

So, they've done what their consultants told them to do: we've built something good, we had good intentions, we had previous good deeds, we had a great policy. So, they put all the information they have to write, and then, there's this victim-villain framing that ‘our product was manipulated/misused by bad malicious actors.’ And that makes sense, but when you look at the literature, it's scapegoating, blaming others, and it's the victimization, ‘we are a victim of the crisis.’ Those are things that, when it happens once or twice, you can use, but when it happens ten times a week  - that's a different story. So, the media received those messages and then said, ‘Okay, this is BS, we can’t receive those messages again and again and again.’ 

Of course, we also had their ‘apology tours,’ but I'm calling them in the book pseudo apologies. Many responses said that ‘we apologize,’ ‘deeply regret,’ ‘ask for forgiveness,’ but they were intertwined with all the other elements that I identified - that reduce the responsibility, all the excuses and victimization and scapegoating. If you're so suffering as an unfair victim, your 'asking for forgiveness' is not real.

Their messages were just repeating themselves. I've documented the copy-paste. One sentence is, ‘we need to do better.’ Tech reporters heard this combination like a million times by now: ‘While we've made steady progress, we have much more work to do. And we know we need to do better.’ It's the ending of every press release from the past four years, so I was putting it out there, as ‘we know that you're getting the same message again and again.’ It is something that I hoped to do in this book, showing the template.

When they were proactive, saying, ‘those are the steps we are doing to fix this. And looking forward, those are the steps for improvement, minimizing the chances that it will happen again,’ something you have to do in crisis communication - it also backlashed. Because all the critics said, 'it's not enough,' and you 'ignore the system.' It was just this never-ending cycle of criticism, no matter what they put out there as a response.


Mike: Is there's a better approach that they could have taken?

One thing that I think we should mention is a sentence that you said in your interview that ‘well, of course, it's their messaging because they're being asked to stop big, difficult societal problems. And that's an impossible request.’ So, on their side, maybe you don't need to play the victim here, but just specify, explain and educate the nuances, the complexity of the problems because people would appreciate this knowledge. But they're viewed as black boxes producing black boxes; we don't know anything about what's happened there inside. Then, it's easy to depict it as evil. But if you open up and say, those are the trade-offs of why we're doing what we're doing, and really explain it; I think that would be very helpful for them.


Mike: I can see why the reality of how people will respond to that makes that really difficult as well.

The thing is that, again, putting Kara Swisher as the spokesperson for the Techlash, she will tell you, as all Spider-Man fans know, ‘with great power comes great responsibility.’ So, every time they try, even just a little bit, in the tech journalists’ minds, to reduce their responsibility, of course, you're going to get criticism for that. And then, PR can't fix it.


Mike: When the companies put out these responses, do you think that they are doing that mainly as a crisis communications response, or are there cases where they legitimately internally believe that they need to fix things and do better, or it's a combination of the two?

I have several examples of both. I think that a good example of how the system is working is Uber. Because 2017 has been a scandalous year for Uber. I had in my database several tech scandals a month to analyze (in the data). There was a peak, and I needed to specify which one of the ten scandals this month is the one that caused this peak. In February, for example, we had Susan Fowler and her allegations about sexual harassment and discrimination. It was then snowballed to other things in Silicon Valley and the tech industry as a whole. It was before the #MeToo movement. And you know what? Uber fixed its culture. It's done a lot of work, fired people, changed the CEO. And things have changed in the long run; they had long work there, of 'we know we need to do better,' and they've done better.

Travis was portrayed as this douchebag. I’m pretty certain that this guy created the culture, right? But you bring this more adult, responsible person, who speaks about fixing things and actually fix them, then you gain respect, and the brand's reputation was improved.


The media side

In the debate, the PR people will tell them how to do their job better, which is to consider if this scandal is a true scandal, and if the harm is real harm if the concerns are real concerns, and maybe you're exaggerating. And when you're exaggerating, people can be tone-deaf and just say, it's wolf-wolf-wolf, and I'm not listening. So, maybe narrow down a bit. On the PR side, there's a lot of criticism of how tech companies operate. So, I think everybody can learn from what I'm documenting there.

One of the things that I've been through in this process of writing the book is that the theme is pendulum swings. I'm showing how throughout history, we went from one extreme to the other. What I got to realize is that we are drawn to those extremes, but the reality is somewhere in the middle. But we don't get this middle ground, and we won't because we are in the extreme. So, my last paragraph in the book is just hoping for a future middle ground. 

You see throughout history, and again, going through all the rise of computer magazines and the 'cult of personality,' all those geniuses and Marc Andreessen as ‘the golden geek’ on the cover on the throne, they were gods. And now, we don't want them on the throne, and we don't want them to decide anything. And neither is accurate.


Mike: It's funny because you mentioned Marc Andreessen on the cover sitting on the throne. Now, there's been a couple of articles about how he's blocking journalists. Journalists built him up, and now he's upset that they've been pushing back. I find it interesting to see that contrast and how the tech world itself feels about the media coverage.

I think that one thing that plays a role here is the bigness. Because when they were small startups, and they didn't have the impact they have today on the world, it wasn't such a big deal. The stories we have today, the big societal problems, are because of how big (they are) and their scale. You couldn't anticipate the unintended consequences that all the companies are dealing with now, as it came to bite them now. But also, if you ask the journalists, they will tell you, ‘it's a profound lack of foresight. They were blind, with all their optimism. We, the journalists, were raising the alarm, we were alarmists, we said, those are problems that you need to deal with, and they didn't. So, it’s the companies' fault for not listening to us.’


Mike: There are all these examples of basically government failures, failures around social safety nets, or mental health or criminal justice, that are now playing out on social media, and then the tech companies are getting blamed for it.

It always comes down to the humanity versus technology debate, which is more philosophical. I think what the companies are trying to say is, ‘this is humanity, people doing bad and good things. Mark Zuckerberg says that a lot; I'm calling it the ‘amplification narrative’: ‘we want to amplify the good and mitigate the bad.’ Also, Sundar Pichai had a great quote in the book saying, ‘we are over-reliant on technology as a way to solve everything in humanity. And at this moment, over-indexing on technology as the source of all human problems, too.’

I guess that what Sundar said touches the point of the book, saying, ‘yes, there are real concerns, real problems, real harm, and damaging things the companies have done. Period. It's factual. But blaming them for the bigger societal problems and hoping they will fix them is naive because they can't; We want them to fix everything's bad about humanity because they're so big, so maybe they can, but they cannot. We have other social entities that need to be in play here, the political field, we in academia, and all the other entities should figure out solutions together.


Mike: But many of these companies launched and grew with the theme and marketing that they were there to solve societal problems. So, maybe it is a little rich for them to go back and say, ‘well, we're wiping our hands; this is a societal problem.’

On the one hand, yeah, 'we want to make the world a better place,' and 'we are your savior.' Then, in the Techlash, there are our threats. And the journalists say, 'the problems are of their own making. They brought billions of people to being connected online, and now you see what happened. They are amplifying those dark corners of humanity. So, it's on them.’ But it's difficult. It's more nuanced than that.


Mike: I certainly appreciate that in the book, you highlight all these different viewpoints and all these different sides.

It's what I hoped to do in this very long debate in the book. But we have contradictory arguments about everything, about the problems and the resolutions. So, I didn't make it up; it's just there.

Even looking at content moderation (you're dealing with that a lot on your show and blog), handling speech, we can't even agree on what the ‘right thing’ is or how it looks like. And when you can’t agree on the solutions, it's complicated. This is why I'm glad it's my research project, not a boring day, and everything is like a roller coaster; everybody's pushing in other directions.


Mike: Was there anything that you expected to include in the book and didn't or that you didn't expect to include in the book did at the end, but that took you by surprise?

The pandemic took all of us by surprise. I wrote most of the analysis, and the interviews were prior to the pandemic. I interviewed you and all the others mainly in February, so really close to when the outbreak started. Looking back at those quotes in the pandemic was this huge reckoning for me. Then I added, just before it went to production, this chapter, 'the Techlash's shortest pause - COVID-19 and tech deserves a second honeymoon phase.'

I'm describing this very, very, very short period of a few weeks of real gratitude for big tech companies and how their inventions help us. But then, it was way better and way worse at the same time: we all were glad we could use the products, and we're very thankful for their existence, but at the same time, we realized their immense power. Then, all the other Techlash issues resurfaced very quickly. So, the Coronavirus did not kill the Techlash. The narrative survived the virus, and it’s here to stay. It was interesting to see another small pendulum swing during the pandemic while I wrote the book. We went back from 'saviors' to 'threats,' and those swings always end up in the 'threat to society' section.


Mike: Is there a point at which the pendulum might swing back in the other direction?

No. Because, when you do investigative journalism, you find harm, and you have a real impact in the world that does ‘make the world a better place’ because you highlight those things. And the companies do spend more time thinking about the unintended consequences and putting safeguards. So, for journalists, it's the system working: ‘we're actually doing what we should.’ So, they're not going back to being cheerleaders. Of course not. That's not coming back. And that's good. We need the media to do that.

The only thing is that if the 'tech is ruining everything' narrative is here to stay, and the exaggeration is backlashed in the industry, it's not really helpful. You should do your investigative work, of course. But saying, 'Jack Dorsey is evil because he's thinking about decentralized internet,' that's like, 'too much.'


Mike: There's always going to be some sort of backlash against the biggest companies. I can't think of a big company that is universally loved; most are generally hated in part because of their bigness.

Yes, the big tech companies are the most backlashed. Social media is the sector that is getting the most backlash. And of course, Facebook is the most backlashed company; we can agree on that. I think that if you're a cool new startup, something new that sounds not harmful at the start, you will be covered as good. We still have those ‘look at this new cool thing’ when those are things coming from small companies. Because you want to encourage innovation, you do not want to stop all innovation. It's those big companies that are under fire because of their bigness. That's one thing.

The other thing is that everything became so politicized. I think those companies are dealing with political issues that are not going to leave them alone. But if you're doing an autonomous car, at first, we're going to say that it could be cool, then, we'll say it's scary, and it can kill people, of course, it goes through those cycles. But then, it will be this new thing that we want to explore because it's new. So, you still have those specific things that are dealt with differently in the media. We still have product launches and ‘hands-on’ reviews about the new iPhone. What I'm saying is the balance of the topics, and the framing is different from the past.

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