Monday, March 21, 2022

Emerald Podcast Series – Understanding the Techlash Era


Thank you, Iram Satti, for having me on your podcast.

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


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Understanding the Techlash Era Dr. Nirit Weiss-Blatt Emerald Podcast Series

Iram: We're going to talk about your book, called "The Techlash and Tech Crisis Communication," which is due to be published as a paperback this March 2022.

What led you to research the tech field and (then to) write a book about it?


Nirit: I've been working in the tech field since 2005, 17 years ago, so before my academic journey, I was in the tech industry. I worked in both tech journalism and tech public relations. So for years, I made a lot of tech-savvy pieces, enjoyed covering the cutting-edge innovation coming from Israel.

When I was a deputy editor and finished my Master's degree in Communication and Political Science, I looked for academic examinations of my field - the tech coverage – and found none. A significant gap in the literature -a lack of both theoretical and empirical work on the interplay between my worlds - tech journalism and tech PR. So, with my background in both, I decided to investigate it myself.

For five years of my Ph.D. in communication, I analyzed the tech media agenda. One of the judges of this dissertation actually wrote, "who cares about tech news?" He was so into political communication and only political news that I needed to explain why tech journalism is actually important. Today, I don't need to do it anymore, right? But the beginning was tough, I must say.

In the additional five years after that, as a research fellow at USC Annenberg, I focused on the emerging Techlash, the tech-backlash. The thing is that when I started this research project in 2016, the tech media was not tough - at all. So, my criticism, back then, was about the cheerleading writing style, the non-investigative nature of the coverage, and the immense influence of corporate PR.

But in the course of my study, we moved from Big Tech being "our saviors" to "our threats" or from "it's so cool" (everything) to "it's so evil." So, a lot has changed.

The research that I've done explains this massive shift, reveals the underlying causes of the backlash and the strategies the companies used to defend themselves from all the growing scrutiny. I had so much data about it that it turned into a whole book that I gladly published with you.


Iram: The book's storyline is organized chronologically. You've broken it down to Pre-Techlash, Techlash, Post-Techlash. That's a clear, consistent way for any reader to understand the work. Can you walk us through why and what you have learned about those eras? What are the defining milestones that mark the end and then the beginning of a new era?


Nirit: Sure, Yeah. I organized the story in this chronological order because the historical background is crucial here to understand the magnitude of the change.

But each phase had several changes within, and it's not that dichotomic. But one of the book's points is that we are currently on the dystopian side because we spent a great deal of time on the utopian side.

So, the "Pre-Techlash Era" section depicts that for decades, the tech companies were used to -mainly flattering coverage. We had plenty of computer magazines that pushed a "fanboy" culture. And all the tech CEOs wished to be on their covers. Kara Swisher, who was interviewed for the book, called it the "celebrification" of the tech founders; they were like celebrities, like rock stars.

One of the things that were crucial in the past is how tech companies took advantage of the hunger for information, and people wanted to be close to those rock stars. In this power dynamic, many conversations were "on background," meaning the journalist cannot use and share any of the info gathered. So, there was always this tight control with secrecy and limited access. This power imbalance (it's one of the points in my book) heavily contributes to the tension between the media and Big Tech.

The roots are in the past. And this is why the "Pre-Techlash era" section set the stage and helped explain the current tech journalists' revolt (we can say). I mean, they had enough (they just had enough).

But, of course, real-life events shifted the tech coverage, and they all appear in the main section of the book, it's the Techlash era, which starts at the end of 2016, but focuses on 2017 (and I an explain why).

The last chapter, the "Post-Techlash," is about the growing criticism of Big Tech moving forward. So, predictions.


Iram: Your study reveals the roots of the change in tech journalism. What are the main contributing factors that caused this shift?


Nirit: We, in academia, were yelling at the tech journalists that they have to be tougher on everybody, specifically Big Tech. In 2017 (as I said), tech journalists indeed began to get tougher.

So, what I've done is I used an AI-powered media monitoring tool (by Harvard), and I retrieved more than a quarter-million articles from the tech coverage.

In a typical Pre-Techlash year, the big tech companies' peaks of coverage, in their yearly timeline, were just like the product launches and business reporting. Those were the main stories. We had negative stories all the time - failures, investigations, fines, privacy issues - we had them all. But they drew considerably less coverage compared to (what I called) "Product Journalism."

What I saw when I analyzed 2017 was that the big stories in the coverage were totally different and very negative, with a lot of tech scandals. So, that was a big shift that the data showed me.

In addition to the media monitoring and content analyses, I conducted interviews with actors in the tech industry: tech PR executives from global PR agencies and leading tech journalists. They came from leading places - Reuters, TechCrunch, The New York Times, WIRED magazine, and so on. Together, with all their testimonies, they actually illuminated the "inside story" of the Techlash.

They were really open and honest, and they said "on the record" that what formed the tech backlash was the election of Donald Trump. They were blaming social media for the U.K.'s Brexit referendum before that. But their pivotal moment was the post-presidential election and the role of social media in helping Donald Trump.

Then, new revelations regarding the Russian interference with the U.S. election evolved into a bigger story. And micro-targeting advertising became this force of evil.

The other thing that came from the interviews is that, you know, it's the tech companies' scale and bigness, being too big to fail. Generally, if people feel that companies have gotten too powerful, too big, too rich, that in itself creates a backlash, right? The realization of the power of Big Tech just sank in, and people started to question it a lot more.

I mean, they all started as startups; now they are the establishment, the biggest companies in the world. So, if you look at the Techlash today, it is mostly focused on them, right? Those few dominant companies that we can mention.

On top of that, the data also showed me that focusing only on the political campaigns, such as Brexit or Donald Trump, or the companies' bigness - won't do justice to the Techlash.

We had various cases of extremist content and hate speech; major cyberattacks or data breaches, which raised the alarm about privacy violations and data protection; we had a wave of allegations of an anti-diversity, sexual harassment, and discrimination culture in Silicon Valley and beyond. So, I basically documented the accumulation of various issues at once that 'broke the camel's back.'


Iram: Your study also analyzed the Tech PR responses and introduced the concept of "Tech Crisis Communication." What can we learn from the tech companies' strategies?


Nirit: Sure. The Techlash caused a reputational decline of an entire industry, right? So, I decided to ask: How do the companies defend themselves from this growing scrutiny? So, I conducted a comprehensive content analysis of the tech companies' press releases and spokespersons' statements to journalists.

Despite having different companies and different stories (as I mentioned), the responses were very much alike. The companies rolled out the same playbook, over and over again. So, I created an explanation of this playbook (in the book); it's called the "Tech PR Template for Crises." It was pretty clear that Big Tech was not ready to give real answers to tough questions.

So, I broke it into three main stages.

One strategy was The Victim-Villain framing. It goes along this line: "We've built something good, with good intentions, and we have previous good deeds, and we have strict policies, but our platform was manipulated/misused by bad/malicious actors" - blaming those outsiders.

The second was Pseudo-apologies, if you remember all the "apology tours" of Mark Zuckerberg after Cambridge Analytica (and everything). Many of the responses included messages of "we apologize," "deeply regret," and "ask for forgiveness."

Those messages were usually intertwined with "we need to do better." Do you know this sentence? Tech companies use it a lot. It usually 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." It's like the ending of every press release, "we know we need to do better." Every tech reporter has heard this specific combination a million times by now.

I've mentioned that they said sorry, sorry, and sorry – so, why pseudo-apologies? Well, because when you look at the literature, they used all the possibilities of reducing their responsibility. All the elements that I mentioned in the previous stage- the reminder strategy = mentioning the past good work; the excuse strategy = "we have good intentions"; the victimization = "We are the victim of the crisis"; and, of course, scapegoating = blaming others.

So, if you combine all of those, you're not really saying sorry, right? So, this is why I summarized this as: "Big Tech – Big Scandals – Little Responsibility."

The third thing that all the companies, of course, had to do, is to state that they are proactive. This is "Crisis Communication 101," you have to state that you are proactive. The common sentence is: "We are 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." But, of course, it happened again, and again, and again.

Then, they added, "But our work will never be done." This is not "Crisis Communication 101." I think I was shocked to see it again and again. Those seven words, "But our work will never be done," it's not something you do in a crisis cause you were to say, "I'm going to take care of it, and it's going to be done." But it's like Big Tech's ultimate confession that the problems - of their own making - are too big to fix. So, that was really interesting.

Now, one way to look at all of this PR template is to say: "Well, of course, that this is their messaging. They are being asked to stop big, difficult societal problems, so it's an impossible request." But in reality, all of those responses were backlashed heavily in the media.

So, the way the "Tech Crisis Communication" chapter is organized in the book, there's a type of crisis response and how it backlashed in the media. Another type of response and how it is too backlashed, and so on. So, I'm emphasizing this cycle of never-ending criticism, which eventually escalated to the tech policy debate we have today.


Iram: Whenever any of us is going to see an apology now, from a big tech company, we're going to recall which type of an apology is it. Ultimately, it's a lack of responsibility and maybe accountability as well. Every time I'll see something, I'll think of you. Their secrets are out.


Nirit: That was the purpose of my book, to people have more of a critical eye to what they read.


Iram: You recently claimed that the Techlash is getting stronger. What are the reasons for this? Is it because we have become more critical as users?


Nirit: I don't think the users are the issue here. It's more like media and politicians; they are the ones doing most of the backlash.

I mean, clearly, everything became politicized. We're now witnessing more and more political pushback and investigations around the core issues of the Techlash - content moderation, disinformation, antitrust, and monopoly power – they are the main ones.

I think three main factors drive the Techlash today:

The first one, is, of course, COVID-19. While most businesses are playing defense, Big Tech is playing offense. They are worth trillions of dollars now. It was unheard of when I wrote the book at the beginning of the pandemic, trillions of dollars were unheard of. So, people are more reliant on those companies and, at the same time, notice their impact on their lives.

The second thing is the political issue I've mentioned. We had major political events—congressional hearings grilling the tech CEOs over antitrust concerns and misinformation and disinformation. And, I think, above all, here in the U.S., the civil unrest on January 6 was this seminal moment for the Techlash. A big one.

The third point that I'm thinking of is the overall framing of the tech industry. Specifically, Big Tech now is like the villain. And in this framing: if the tech companies are the ultimate villains, those who oppose them are the ultimate heroes.

When you look at all of those things together – the pandemic, the political pushback, and the framing in the media – it all resulted in frustrated tech employees and a growing trend of in-house activism. The most known example from a few months ago is Facebook's whistleblower Frances Haugen.  


She made this huge noise all over the world with the "Facebook Files" and then the "Facebook Papers," and it brought us to (what I call) the "Next-Gen Techlash." If "Techlash 1.0" was a "cold war," "Techlash 2.0" is "all hell breaks loose." The backlash was bigger and stronger – just like the company it's fighting against. It all escalated.

And Facebook, being grilled by the media and politicians, changed its crisis response strategy. It moved from its famous "apology tours" (that we've mentioned) to the current "no more apologies." Now, it's just counterattacks. It engaged in a full-blown battle over the narrative, attacked the accuser, denied and contradicted Frances' accusations.

Two fascinating things happen after that.

The first is what I call "Facebook Fatigue." Although the revelations were overwhelming, in the test of time, people became numb. Think about it: Can you remember all of the scandals that were in the Facebook Papers/Facebook Files? People are like: "Facebook did what? Responded how? Oh, well. Next". We have such a short attention span that people just moved on. I think it's quite remarkable that even with the strength of the Techlash, it's still, like, it passes us through.   


The second thing is the escalated promotion of Web3 as the solution to all our current problems. People are sick of the dystopian web and fantasizing about a utopian one, and many find it in the Blockchain. This is the new optimism now; this is how we're going to fight tech titans like Facebook with decentralization.

But I think we had the same "hype cycles" around web 1.0 and web 2.0. The vision of the future was always that the web revolution would bring an era of transformative abundance and prosperity. But on its way to the many, the new wealth has consistently been diverted up to the few.

So, now, when you have VCs aggressively pushing Web3 - I can explain it for our listeners, it's like crypto, NFTs, decentralized finance platforms, like a bunch of Blockchain stuff - they are also getting more pushback, with people calling it "a utopian BS," "a dangerous get-rich-quick scam" or even "a Ponzi scheme."

So, I think the lesson here is that every new technology will be looked at with a critical eye now. And I call it the "Techlash filter." Like Instagram filters that you put on pictures and change the look & feel, it's the "Techlash filter." It adds these criticism layers on top of anything on the tech coverage. And it's here to stay and, as I said, only getting stronger.  


Iram: What is the future of Techlash? And what are your future plans in this space?


Nirit: The Techlash is a gift that keeps on giving. So, I keep collecting tons of data about the shifts in the tech coverage, like just now, when we talked about the changes in crisis response, right? It's another shift within. So, not a boring day; it's always interesting. And I publish my own articles about it, opinion pieces in the media, the next one is about Web3, this is why I'm talking about it now.

But what I would love to do next is to utilize my tech expertise – back in a newsroom, to contribute to the tech discourse from within. Where? I don't know yet, but I'm starting to pursue this path.


Iram: That would be amazing. It would be so incredibly insightful to be on the inside again. Thank you for your time and insight.


Nirit: My pleasure. It was fun.

Understanding the Techlash Era Dr. Nirit Weiss-Blatt Emerald Podcast Series

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