This Dichotomous Debate Sucks
At the beginning of the pandemic, the tech platforms experienced a short period of appreciation: “COVID-19 reminds us why social media is not just good, but saving lives.” President Biden provided the opposite narrative on July 16, 2021, when he said social media platforms like Facebook are “killing people.”
Since a lot has already been written about this dramatic exchange between Biden/Facebook, I decided to offer a look through a different lens. Let me take you on a trip down memory lane — a walk through the Techlash’s shortest pause between mid-March 2020 and the end of April 2020. I call it the “Tech deserves a second honeymoon” phase. The fast fallout back to “tech giants are a threat” happened in May 2020.
Based on this background, the peak tension of the “killing people” weekend (16–18 July 2021) gets a new perspective. Our framing tends to move from one extreme to the other. But do we learn anything?
Tech Giants Are Our SAVIOURS
With people told to work from home and stay away from others, the pandemic has deepened the dependence on services from the technology industry’s biggest companies. Suddenly, the tech giants received vocal gratitude “for the technologies we’ve often taken for granted.”
Big Tech started to experience a new type of coverage with headlines such as “In this crisis, thank God for the net”; “COVID-19 reminds us: social media is good, actually,” stating that “People are starting to remember why the platforms we love to hate are important after all”; or “What Techlash? Virus could remake industry giants’ image.”
A New York Times piece asked on March 15, 2020: social media companies are delivering reliable information in the Coronavirus crisis. Why can’t they do that all the time? “After four years in which social media has been viewed as an antisocial force, the crisis is revealing something surprising and a bit retro.” The surprise was that “Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and others can actually deliver on their old promise to democratize information and organize communities, and on their newer promise to drain the toxic information swamp.”
Ben Smith asked Mark Zuckerberg, “Why it took a global health crisis for them to do so?” Zuckerberg said that the difference between good and bad information is clearer in a medical crisis than in the world of, say, politics. (Since then, the medical crisis was heavily politicized, and this statement didn’t age well).
Ina Fried wrote on Axios that thanks to the Coronavirus crisis, Big Tech, after battling criticism for the last several years, had an opportunity to show the upside of its scale and reach: “If companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon are able to demonstrate they can be a force for good in a trying time, many inside the companies feel they could undo some of the Techlash’s ill will.”
Casey Newton emphasized, “Since late 2016, we have been focused on the problems that emerge from the size of giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon; in the past several weeks, the benefits that come from that size have become more apparent.”
Moreover, a CNBC article said that Facebook wouldn’t be able to rebuild trust with the public overnight, but “when the company was presented with an opportunity to rebuild goodwill by being proactive and helpful during global health and financial crises, Facebook sprung to action and seized the moment.”
Increasingly, journalists were asking whether the Techlash, which has defined the tech coverage for the past years, might have come to an end, or at least on pause. Wired’s Steven Levy raised the question, “Has the Coronavirus killed the Techlash?” “While Big Tech’s misdeeds are still apparent, their actual deeds now matter more to us.”
The surveys reflected this new attitude toward tech. For example, according to a survey in April 2020, 38% of Americans said that their view of the tech industry has become more positive since the start of the outbreak. A different survey found that 88% of Americans have a better appreciation for technology and its positive impact on culture and society throughout this pandemic.
Since the infrastructure and services provided by the largest technology companies have helped to keep the economy afloat and society connected, a piece in Brookings (April 2020) asserted that it is hard “to envision policymakers cracking down aggressively on the industry their constituents most rely on to weather the storm.”
Kara Swisher, in an interview for my book (back in April 2020), addressed the regulatory issue. It was during the short “second honeymoon” phase, so she naturally asserted that “Coronavirus is the best thing to happen to Big Tech”: “They are going to benefit from this. Because the small companies and the competition will be washed out, and they will be in charge. Then, very few politicians are going to want to attack them on any level … No one is going to rush to break up Big Tech now.”
Then, Kara Swisher added, “If I can be certain of anything, there will be Techlash again. Because they cannot help themselves. This is a group of people who thinks they ‘hung the moon’ and therefore didn’t have any ability to self-reflect. They are like vampires, cannot see in the mirror, and they won’t see in the mirror. So, they will make the same stupid mistakes.”
Tech Giants Are a THREAT
Very soon after, there were cracks in the new idealism. The claim to get traction first was based on the realization that while most industries are suffering in the lockdown caused by the pandemic, the tech companies are blooming.
A Washington Post article by Elizabeth Dwoskin stated that “Tech giants are profiting — and getting more powerful — even as the global economy tanks.” Scott Galloway from NYU said, “There are really two Americas right now. There is Big Tech, and there is everyone else. They can do what very few companies can do, which is play offense in the middle of a pandemic.”
Then, the criticism of the tech platforms focused on a viral disinformation movie, “Plandemic,” which spread at the beginning of May 2020. It reminded the threat of conspiracy theories in the middle of a pandemic and how difficult content moderation at scale can be. According to an analysis by CrowdTangle, just over a week after “Plandemic” was released, it had been viewed more than 8 million times on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. It generated countless other posts, shared in highly active groups devoted to QAnon, anti-vaccine misinformation, and conspiracy theories in general.
The fact that harmful health misinformation about the Coronavirus became a blockbuster changed the perception of the platforms’ role in making sure its users are well-informed during the pandemic.
The #BlackLivesMatter protests after the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota brought the hate content issue to the forefront. Donald Trumps’ post/tweet about “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” created a massive debate about inciting violence, racism, divisiveness, and the content moderation’s limitations.
Facebook’s decision to leave it as it is (unlike Twitter) put the company in the “hot chair” again — in the mainstream media, in-house (as some employees stage a “virtual walkout” over this decision), and even with advertisers (as it experienced an ad boycott under the #StopHateForProfit campaign).
Facebook’s response? “When society is divided, and tensions run high, those divisions play out on social media.” The company is just holding up “a mirror to society,” and thus, “everything that is good, bad, and ugly in our societies will find expression on our platform.”
Then, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Sundar Pichai of Google, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and Tim Cook of Apple were called to testify before Congress to defend their businesses in front of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust. A political analyst was quoted in the New York Times, saying that “Even having this collective hearing creates a sense of quasi-guilt just because of who else has gotten called in like this — Big Pharma, Big Tobacco, Big Banks. That’s not a crowd they want to be associated with.” The headline claimed the companies prepare for their “Big Tobacco Moment.”
Thus, to answer Steven Levy’s question, “Has the Coronavirus killed the Techlash?” the answer is: no. It did not. And fast forward to the current “killing people” conversation: The pandemic actually intensified the Techlash.
The “Killing/Saving” Debate Over The Weekend
President Biden’s “They’re killing people” remark caused a media storm over the weekend. As everyone assumed he was referring to Facebook, the focus was on how significant this claim is: “It’s one thing for the White House to criticize Facebook. It’s another for the US President to bluntly accuse a private business of ‘killing’ people in the country.”
Biden later (on Monday) clarified his statement to “Facebook isn’t killing people.” He cited the 12 people a recent study said were spreading 65 percent of coronavirus vaccine misinformation on Facebook. Although Biden walked back his comment, the damage had been done.
During the media storm, and before the correction, there were numerous pieces about whether “Facebook is killing people” or rather “saving people” (as Facebook’s pushback included the sentence “Facebook is helping save lives. Period”). I think this is not the right conversation to have. And, yet, we had it in full steam.
The best take (in this line of thought) was given by Charlie Warzel (Galaxy Brain newsletter): “This back and forth between Facebook and the White House — conducted through the press — is a good example of an unproductive, false binary of a conversation on a complex topic that deserves far more nuance.”
This nuanced problem “was pretty swiftly decontextualized by all kinds of interested parties”: Tech platforms playing the victim / free speech maximalists falsely decrying censorship / the press and the White House seizing especially on Facebook’s role.
He concluded that the “killing/saving binary is an unhelpful frame” and the whole “it is either doing both, or it is doing neither” is part of the problem. I couldn’t agree more.
The last two paragraphs in my book summarized my closing thought after years of researching the tech coverage and the evolving Techlash:
“The book demonstrated that from the glorious days and the dot-com bubble to today’s Techlash, there were two pendulum swings; the first between ‘It’s cool’ and ‘It’s evil,’ the second between ‘saviors’ and ‘threats.’ Moving forward, I would suggest to drop them altogether.
The reality is not those extremes, but somewhere in the middle: Tech is not an evil threat, nor our ultimate savior. It is a powerful tool, being built by people and used (and misused) by people. And it should be treated as such, in a more realistic narrative.”
This is why the dichotomous “killing/saving” debate sucks on many levels. The world is much more complex and nuanced. We deserve a better conversation that would reflect that world.