Friday, July 16, 2021

Provoke Media Podcast – The Role of Communications in Techlash

Thank you, Aarti Shah, for having me on your PRovoke Media podcast. I’m a fan and appreciate our discussion. 

The transcript below, via OtterAI, was slightly edited for clarity.  

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The PRovoke Media Podcast Dr Nirit Weiss-Blatt Techlash Transcript

Aarti:  Is the word “Techlash” - too niche or too cute, or does it still apply?


Nirit Weiss-Blatt:  I think that the definition of the Techlash still holds. In 2018, we started using the word Techlash to describe this widespread negative reaction to the big tech companies and around their growing influence in power. I think that the description is still accurate because of the backlash that you see today in the media and the political pushback around those dominant companies and specific sectors like social media; they are accusing them of a lot of corporate misdeeds and harms. So, it all evolved in this trend of the Techlash. And I think it is only getting stronger.

The actual definition, I mean, Oxford Dictionary (was 2018), but the actual use of the word, we started to use it at the end of 2016, mainly in 2017. But the real usage in the media, and I’m researching the media, was at the end of 2017, you saw more and more articles describe the backlash as the Techlash.


 Aarti:  I want to talk about the op-ed you wrote for NEWSWEEK. You point out that in 2008, Facebook’s community standards were one page long and not terribly specific. And today, it’s a document of about 50 pages printed. Can you tell us a little bit about that evolution?


Nirit Weiss-Blatt:  Well, the internet got bigger, and so did the content moderation challenges. I mean, we had a simpler world back then. When I looked, for example, at the companies’ peaks of coverage in 2012, in the pre-Techlash years, it was about their product launches that were exciting. It was business reporting. It was not the tons of scandals that we have today. And the reason that we have tons of scandals today is because we have the Techlash issues, such as content moderation, misinformation, disinformation, all the hate speech, all those wars about speech online.

When that evolved, the companies evolved as well. Their messaging over the years of the Techlash is that “we were good. We had good intentions and previous good deeds, and we had strict policies. But our platform was misused by bad malicious actors. And as the bad actors evolve, we need to evolve as well.” So, what they are basically saying, again and again, is that “we have a lot more work to do. We know we need to do better.” But they also say that there have “strict policies that are consistent and can be enforced in a consistent way.” But they are revisited at any time, and they are changing due to new realities. So, they cannot be enforced consistently.

As we said, the criticism is clearly bipartisan, so both sides blame the companies, but for totally different reasons. So, I think that when the companies try to mitigate all the criticism, they’re doing their experiments with new enforcement protocols, new policies and see if that can somehow help them.

The thing is that if you look at what the Oversight Board published last month, it says, “Facebook cannot make up the rules as it goes.” What I saw, and speaking to tech executives, they were like, “but this is the opposite of what we are supposed to do because of everything that is happening. We didn’t have Donald Trump before; we didn’t have COVID-19 before. So, our policies years ago could not predict those things that we need to handle today.”

“And even the issues that we need to handle today, we have the opposite arguments about what we are supposed to do.” So, basically, they are saying, “we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t, but we’re trying something.” And they are getting backlash from both sides, no matter what they are doing, anyway.


-          Aarti:  In the same Newsweek piece, you also mentioned how Google’s privacy policies have evolved from 600 words to today, where it’s more than 4,000 words. You point out that in The Atlantic, there is a piece in which I’ll just read the quote directly; it’s very good: “The policies are always changing and can be revisited at any time, yet these inconsistent rules will be enforced consistently. It’s a mess.” Are you seeing any consistency around how these policies are being created?


Nirit Weiss-Blatt:  The only consistency I’m saying is in the press releases and corporate blogs. There, you will find a real copy-paste. Because the text from 2017 and 2018, and I’m analyzing all of their press releases, it is basically the same messages again and again and again.

This is why I wrote at the end that “those of us who chronicle the companies’ responses, live in a tech response Groundhog Day,’” because it’s like, “But we saw this message, like two scandals ago and nothing changed,” right?

Basically, what they’re saying is, “we have the bad actors who don’t comply with our policies. And we immediately remove the wrongdoing and do our best, but we have more work to do.” Then, another thing has happened. And then, you go back and find more horrible things. And then, you’re saying, “but you should have fought this issue like years ago, when you said, ‘we know we need to do better and a lot of work to do.’” But we are years after that, still dealing with the same thing.

This is why Mark Zuckerberg called it an arms race.” So, there’s always this battle. And when you look at how the media is covering, and then how they respond and how the media is covering their response, it’s like this never-ending, challenging, and criticism cycle that is just… I don’t see a way out for them.


Aarti:  In addition to your book, there’s a book coming out called “An Ugly Truth.” On the book’s jacket, they have quotes from Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg kind of saying the same thing again and again, about “we need to do better” and apologies for missteps. This is the strategy, isn’t it?


Nirit Weiss-Blatt:  Yeah. Regarding the “apology tours” that Facebook is most famous for, I call them pseudo-apologies in the book because when I looked at the Crisis Communication literature: It’s not enough to say, “we’re sorry; we deeply apologize for wrongdoing,” if the rest of the messaging is trying to avoid responsibility with victimization, “it was us versus the bad actors. We are suffering from the malicious actors, and we’re the good guys here,” and scapegoating - blaming others, and given all of the excuses, then, it’s not a real apology, right? This is why it was perceived as not a true apology, anyway.


Aarti:  Banning Donald Trump from the platforms – is it seen as a turning point?


Nirit Weiss-Blatt:  When I’m looking at turning points, I think the first turning point was the election of Donald Trump. It is what caused the Techlash anyway. Then, they needed to handle a lot of mounting criticism regarding issues they didn’t need to be dealt with beforehand.

Now, if we look at the 2020 election, there was this fear of how the tech platforms will allow misinformation and disinformation. But I think it blew up in the civil unrest on January 6. I think it is where the tech platforms were like “the villain” again if you look at the framing. They were, again, the ones to blame.

And when you have Biden and his administrations going after them with all those investigations and hearings and the new Antitrust bills, it feels like it’s really now just getting stronger because you have the democrats fighting the fight, a different fight against big tech than the Republicans.


Aarti:  What’s the motivation for communications folks to kind of up the “anti” and say, “Hey, we need to be more sincere, or we need to have some more actions to back some of these statements”?


Nirit Weiss-Blatt:  Well, I think that the way I’m looking at it is: I’m looking at the crisis responses and how they backlashed, and I’m analyzing that. So, the thing that didn’t work and backlashed heavily in the media is, as I said, the victimization as scapegoating, etc. What I think is missing in their messages are a few basic things.

One thing that I think created the tension between tech journalists and the tech PR people is the secrecy and the limited access. I think the main call here is for more transparency. You’re a private company; you don’t have to reveal everything. But we need to know more in order to regain more of the trust that got lost.

But I think if COVID showed us something is, yeah, the users, as you said, heavily rely on, it saved their work and other things. But I think we have two narratives here.

The first is, “yes, they saved us. They are the builders of the future. They’re innovative, and they are important for the economy and for our lives.” This is one.

The other narrative is, of course, the Techlash narrative, which is “they are evil, the villains, Mark Zuckerberg on the cover is the bad guy, and they harm society.”

I think both narratives are at the extremes. None of them is correct. The reality is somewhere in the middle. And we need a more realistic narrative.

PR professionals need to push this more realistic (narrative): “Yeah, we’re not all good/everything is perfect. And also, not all bad. We have nuances. We have trade-offs. And we need to discuss the trade-offs and educate the people about the trade-offs.” I think people would appreciate that.


Aarti:  Traditionally, it’s been about secrecy, right? Like that’s how tech PR has operated. You could argue that Apple and Facebook kind of led the way around that. There was a piece in Mother Jones recently about Amazon and how they are relentlessly asking for corrections as sort of their tactic in terms of bullying people away from covering some of the darker sides of the company. What practices are you seeing right now are most prevalent? Is it still the secrecy?


Nirit Weiss-Blatt:  Yes, definitely. I think historically, the tech companies had in this power relation the power to take advantage of the need for tech information. So, they had restricted their access only to reporters they liked, and most visits to their campuses diminished due to NDAs (non-disclosure agreements). I think many conversations were on background because it’s convenient. So, the journalist cannot share or use any of the info gathered. And it is pretty much still common practice today.

But the roots are in the historical power relations between the two groups. I think “Access Journalism” is an untold factor in the Cold War between the tech journalists and tech PR professionals. I mean, “if you don’t let us in, don’t be surprised that other voices, critical ones, are the ones featured in the coverage. 


Aarti:  What are the narratives that are dominating the tech media right now?


Nirit Weiss-Blatt: I think two narratives that are fighting now is if you look on one side, you have, let’s say, the New York Times tech journalists, they would continue to produce their criticism, and they’ll talk about how everything is evil and a threat, then – there’s a lot to fix.

On the more PR flattering piece/side of it, let’s say, you see how the tech industry is society’s savior, so – there’s a lot to build. This is a different narrative. So, I think it depends on who you ask.

Aarti:  What do you think the implications are for Techlash, then, as those two narratives take hold?


Nirit Weiss-Blatt:  Well, I think we’re going to see more and more of the media being obsessed about the negative because it’s clearly its job. And people who call for it, “you are over-correcting to past, and you should be more balanced,” it won’t happen. The balance would come from having, as I said, them focusing on the wrongdoing, which is okay, literally their job. And the users, as you said, and the companies appreciate (maybe) the innovation more, but they have this criticism in mind.

I think having those things together in this play is actually necessary, even though I’m against the extreme ends of it. I think, if you look at the ecosystem as a whole, it doesn’t allow stagnation. Because then you have to move, which is, as I said, for either “to fix” -or- “to build.”


Aarti:  I think about the role that the tech sector is going to play as we reimagine the workplace. How do you think that’s going to play into the Techlash narrative, as the rest of the country looks to technology companies to lead the way around what the workplace of the future might look like?


Nirit Weiss-Blatt:  Sure. I mentioned So, one of the first articles there, by Marc Andreessen, was about how tech is saving us and the workplace and making it available for people who are living in suburbia be part of a big tech company. I live in Cupertino. My view here is Apple’s spaceship that was built for like $4 billion. What we had a few weeks ago is that some employees said, “No, we don’t want to go back. Because we live far away, it’s cheaper. We don’t want the traffic.” Then, some of the backlashes were, “how dare you? You have this glorious place in here to go to work.”

But I think deeper than that is that, yes, technology enables them, and others that don’t live in the expensive Bay Area, to be part of the tech ecosystem. And then, you have more diversity and your workforce more inclusive. I think this is a huge plus for the tech companies to say, “yeah, we promote exactly that. It’s part of our value proposition. It’s the thing that we believe in.”


Aarti:  Can you comment a little bit on this apolitical workplace culture versus having a point of view on some social issues?


Nirit Weiss-Blatt:  Yeah, I think one of the things I’m emphasizing in the book that really changed throughout the year is in-house tech workers’ activism. Through the Techlash years, we have more and more employees feeling that they can and should speak up about things they don’t like and issues they didn’t speak about before, specifically, not with their name attached. You have much more whistleblowers now, even though they face retaliation and they feel harmed by going up and open. But other workers see the impact in the real world and join the trend.

So, you’re going to see more and more employees raising their voices about things that they don’t like because they have more and more power to do so.


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