Thursday, February 22 2024


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.

Other examples

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.

Conclusions

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.”

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