Monday, April 5, 2021

Innovation Files Podcast - How Pack Journalism and Predictable Crisis PR Responses Have Influenced the Techlash

Thank you, Robert Atkinson and Jackie Whisman, for having me on your "Innovation Files" podcast. I appreciate our discussion. Here are my quotes from the show, which tell the story of the Techlash research. The transcript was slightly edited for clarity. 
Innovation Files (ITIF) episode 33 Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Castbox
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ITIF Innovation Files podcast Techlash Book

"I needed to justify the need to even study the tech media. I don't need to do that anymore."
Prior to my academic journey, I worked in the industry in both tech journalism and tech PR. So first, I represented tech companies, pitched to media, then I switched sides to be a tech reporter, and later, a deputy editor. So, basically, I moved from being on the side that sends the press releases to be on the side that receives them and deletes most of them.
Around the time, I finished my master's degree in communication and political science. And when I looked for academic studies about my occupation, my passion, tech journalism, I found this depressing void. And I was like, 'why does nobody focus on studying this type of coverage?' I looked for examinations of the tech media agenda and found none. So, I decided to do it myself.

For five years of my Ph.D. in communication, I compare the tech coverage in traditional media to tech blogs' coverage. You asked about researching this field: a decade ago, it was tough. A comment that I got from one of the reviewers was, "who cares about tech news? They're not important." So, I needed to justify the need to even study the tech media. I don't need to do that anymore.
"My initial research fellowship at USC Annenberg was based on the criticism that the tech media is NOT tough enough."
My initial research fellowship at USC Annenberg was based on the criticism that the tech media is not tough enough. It was on the influence of corporate PR and the non-investigative nature of the tech coverage. That was the research proposal. But then, 2017 happens. So, like any good startup, I needed to pivot. The data forced me to.

So, I changed my study. And the past four years were a deeper dive into the evolving interplay between tech journalism and tech PR, focused on tech scandals, and expanded the analysis to crisis communications. So, I can talk not only about the roots of the change but also about the tech companies' crisis responses. And I must say that researching this niche wasn't studied enough; it's what made me more purpose-driven to fill the gap. And the upcoming book is the result of all this background story.
"Tech journalists are now looking for harm."
As you said, yes, the media set the narrative. Tech journalists are now looking for harm. And when they dug in and found those tech scandals and had like real impact on the world, more journalists joined the effort.

The theme of the book is pendulum swings because I'm talking about all the historical backgrounds that got us to the Techlash. We moved from one extreme to the other, more than once or twice. So, the book has three phases. I'm calling them the pre-Techlash, Techlash, and post-Techlash. I organized it that way in order to show how things have changed over time, but also, each phase has its own changes within.
"After the bubble burst and the companies failed, they all moved from being God to being a Dog."
The thing about the history is that we were mainly on the utopian side before we moved to the dystopian side. For decades, the tech companies were used to mainly flattering coverage. Think about the early 90s or late 90s, during the dot-com bubble, the innovators were like rock stars. But after the bubble burst and the companies failed, they all moved from being God to being a dog. So, already back then, the pendulum swung from one extreme to another. In the mid-2000s, the positive coverage returned a bit regarding the innovations coming out of the tech industry. And, you know, it was justified. I mean, we had groundbreaking things like the iPhone, so actual exciting things.
Innovation Journalism and Product Journalism
I'm looking at big data analytics. In a typical pre-Techlash year, the big tech companies' peaks of coverage, the biggest stories in their timeline, were product launches, either software or hardware, or business reporting, like IPOs, or M&As.

Journalists' role is to ask the tough questions and look for those harmful things. The thing is that, although we had those stories all the time, they were less visible; looking in the yearly timeline, I actually had to search for them because they drew considerably less coverage. So, every product launch got much more coverage. And this is why I call this type of coverage 'product journalism.' Most of the tech reporters, the tech bloggers, just focused on 'hands-on' review, 'we have new shiny and cool things.' Most of the coverage was cheerleading innovations. But, of course, that's not the case anymore.
Pack Journalism
I think we should mention pack journalism. For journalists, there's a drive to be in sync with the major outlets like the 'New York Times' and other prestigious newspapers, which sets 'what is news?' What can be counted as newsworthy? Most journalists just look over their shoulder, look at their colleagues, and cover the same story from the same perspective. Journalists told me that there is indeed this pack mentality, 'but it's not wrong. It's just happening. And often, where there's smoke, there's fire, so we need to investigate and report about it.' 

This copycat behavior, that everybody's writing about the same thing from the same framing, can snowball dramatically into 'media storms.' So now, that's the narrative.

The thing is that the journalists that I spoke with will tell you, 'that's our job, to highlight, even if it's a small percentage of bad things, to highlight those bad things so that the companies could fix it.' So, it's their way 'to make the world a better place.' Because the companies do spend more time anticipating how their products can be misused or be biased and putting some safeguards or improvements. For the journalists, it is just like saying, 'it's because of us! We were criticizing them for not doing it for so long. And you see, now it's better.' So, it's an example of the system - working.
"Contradictory arguments on both the problems and their resolutions."
The Techlash coverage has a real impact not only on the companies' work or the consumer behavior and trust but also on the political field, like all the rise of tech regulation, the pushback of the investigations, and everything. But I think what makes it complicated and interesting is that each topic that you are going to talk about, inside the Techlash: content moderation, disinformation, data rights, antitrust, monopoly power, they all include contradictory arguments on both the problems and their resolutions.
"We can look at the Techlash as deterministic."
The way I'm looking at all the Techlash coverage is that there's this concept of technological determinism. I think we can look at the Techlash as deterministic. Technology is the determining force that ruins society. Periods. And then, you don't have room for all the nuances of human agency, social context, how social impacts the design or use of technology, or how technology is affecting and doing positive things in society. So, you just leave out this frame because it's not the main one. You can still report about it, but it's not the main story.
"Every company's rolling out the same playbook over and over again."
When I analyzed their crisis responses, I found that I had different companies, different scandals, and yet their responses were very much alike. It's like every company's rolling out the same playbook over and over again.

The first strategy was their victim-villain framing: We've built something good, with good intentions and previous good deeds. But our product platform was manipulated /misused by bad malicious actors.

The second is pseudo apologies. So, many companies use their messages where 'we apologize,' 'deeply regrets,' '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 has heard this specific combination like a million times by now.

I mentioned they said sorry, so why pseudo apologies? Because of all the elements, I identified in number one. They repeatedly tried to reduce the responsibility with past good works, good intentions, victimization, basically saying 'we are the victim of the crisis,' scapegoating - blaming others. They emphasized their suffering since they are like this unfair victim of some malicious outside entity.

And the third thing is that all companies, of course, stated that they are proactive: 'We're 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 like 'crisis communication 101.'

Then, they added, 'but our work will never be done.' I think those seven words encapsulate everything, right? 'But our work will never be done.' Think about it. It's an acknowledgment that perhaps the problems are too big to fix.

Now, one way to look at this template is to say, 'well, of course, that this is their messaging. They're being asked to stop big, difficult societal problems. And that is an impossible request.'
"All of those Techlash responses - backlashed."
But in reality, all of those Techlash responses - backlashed. The critics claimed that the tech companies need to stop taking the role of the victim, stop blaming others. The apology tours received comments such as, 'don't ask for forgiveness, ask for permission.' One journalist suggested that Facebook would hire a CAO - Chief Apology Officer, to do you the job full-time.

The critics said, 'your actions should follow your words.' And even after the companies specified their corrective actions, the critics claimed the companies now 'ignore the system' because they have no incentive for dramatic changes, like their business models that are under attack. In such cases, where the media push for fundamental changes, PR can't fix it. So, the cycle of this never-ending criticism becomes 'the new normal.'

When I analyzed 2017, I saw this template repeating itself in 2018, 2019, and 2020. But I think that now, at least they try to educate more, or at least explain the complexity and the nuances and saying, Yeah, maybe we collected, but we haven't done anything with it. They are pushing back a little bit more. But I think that reflectively if you ask their PR spokesperson, it's easier to just roll out the playbook.

One thing about the bad actors' part that I mentioned in template number one is that you put the safeguards and change your policy, do things, and then the bad actors evolve, and then you need to evolve accordingly. So, it becomes this arms race where they change, and you change. And so, it's always adapting and evolving. And this is why they say those sentences, saying, 'okay, we have a few solutions now, but they won't be relevant later.' Because the world is changing, so, yeah, they have to say that.

ITIF Innovation Files podcast Techlash Book Coronavirus quote

"We are at a point where the pendulum will not swing back."
We have these pendulum swings all the time from one extreme to the other. The thing is that the media is drawn to the one extreme. Now that you're looking for a balance thing or a middle ground, you won't find it. I think we are at a point where the pendulum will not swing back to the positive extreme; it won't happen. You won't find now tech journalists writing enthusiastically and positively only about specifically big tech, of course, and specifically social media and things that are the most backlashed issues.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Steven Levy from 'Wired' asked, 'Has the Coronavirus killed the Techlash?' Of course, it didn't. All of the Techlash issues resurface very quickly. So, I think the Techlash survived the virus, and he's here to stay. It's not going to change in the near future.

Robert Atkinson: Well, I don't need, or even want, to get back to the other side of the pendulum. I just want it and need it to go back in the middleNirit: Good luck with that. Robert: I can hope. One could dream.

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