Podcast: How Pack Journalism and Predictable Crisis PR Responses Have Influenced the Techlash, With Nirit Weiss-Blatt

April 5, 2021

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The “techlash” is a story of extreme pendulum swings—from an era in which splashy product launches earned gushing media reviews to a relentless crisis narrative in which the tech industry is viewed with harsh suspicion. How has this happened? Is it a case of pack journalism run amok, or have tech companies contributed to the narrative with predictable formulas for handling a PR crisis? Rob and Jackie discuss all this with Nirit Weiss-Blatt, a former research fellow at the University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and author of the new book The Techlash and Tech Crisis Communications.

 

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Rob Atkinson: Welcome to Innovation Files. I’m Rob Atkinson, founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. We’re a DC based think tank that works on technology policy.

Jackie Whisman: And I’m Jackie Whisman. I handle outreach at ITIF which I’m proud to say is the world’s top ranked think tank for science and technology policy.

Rob Atkinson: And this podcast is about the kinds of issues we cover at ITIF from the broad economics of innovation to specific policy and regulatory questions about new technologies. Today, we’re exploring a new angle around the techlash, which is defined as a growing animus towards big tech companies and even a generalized opposition to technological innovation. And this opposition in our view in gender support for policies that are not good for tech.

Jackie Whisman: And we should probably start by making clear to anyone who might not know us well, that we talk and write a lot about the techlash at ITIF because we think it’s deeply problematic for future progress, prosperity and competitiveness.

Rob Atkinson: And our guest today has a unique perspective on this issue that will be great to explore.

Jackie Whisman: Nirit Weiss-Blatt was a research fellow at the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California, her new book, The Techlash and Tech Crisis Communications, will be out in March. Welcome.

Nirit Weiss-Blatt: Hi, glad to be here. Thank you for having me.

Rob Atkinson: Nirit, your book is about how tech journalism has influenced the techlash. Hard to read a story today about tech without techlash probably being in it. The way you described the relationship makes it impossible to ignore how coverage also influences public reaction, whether it’s just the average person on the street or policymakers. And you also talk about the series of pendulum swings, kind of pro-con. Can you say a little bit more about that? And also, why did you get focused on this?

Nirit Weiss-Blatt: Yeah, sure. So just a bit about me, prior to my academic journey, I worked in the industry, in both tech journalism and tech PR. So first I represented the companies, pitched the 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 deleting 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 these types of coverage? I looked for examinations of tech media agenda and found none. So I decided to do it myself. So for five years of my PhD in communication, I compared the tech coverage in traditional media to tech blogs coverage.

But you ask about research in this field, well, a decade ago, it was tough. Comment that I got from one of the reviewers was, “Who cares about tech news? They’re not important.” And so I needed to justify the need to even study tech media. I don’t need to do that anymore. My initial research fellowship with 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 happened. So like any good startup, I needed to pivot. The data forced me. So I changed my study and the past four years were a deeper dive into the evolving interplay between tech journalism and tech PR. I focused on tech scandals and expanded the analysis to crisis communications. So I can talk about not only about the roots of the change, but also the tech companies crisis responses.

And I must say that researching this niche, it wasn’t studied enough, what made me more purpose driven to fill the gap, and the upcoming book is the result of all this background story. And 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 real impact in the world, more journalists joined the effort.

You asked about the pendulum swing. So yes, the theme of the book is pendulum swings because I’m talking about all the historical background that got us to 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. And I organized it that way in order to show how things have changed over time, but also each phase has its own changes within. So if you think about the history is that we were mainly on the utopian side before we moved to the dystopian side.

So for decades, the tech companies were used to mainly flattering coverage. Think about 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 the other. In mid-2000s, the positive coverage returned a bit regarding the innovations coming out of the tech industry. And it was justified. We had groundbreaking things like the iPhone, so actual exciting things. So my studies are based, I’m looking at big data analytics. So in a typical pre-techlash year, the big tech companies' peaks of coverage, like their biggest stories in their timeline were product launches, either software or hardware or business reporting like IPO or M&As.

So the thing is that there were negative stories all the time in the tech media around failures, layoffs, investigations, privacy issues-

Jackie Whisman: Why do you think that was? Why the negative, especially in the tech press, why so negative on tech?

Nirit Weiss-Blatt: Because those were important stories to tell and they were interesting and they were impactful and journalist’s role is to ask the tough questions and looking for those harmful things. The thing is that, although we had those stories all the time, they were less visible. When I’m looking in the yearly time, I’d actually need to look 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. So most of the tech reporters, the tech bloggers, just focused on hands-on review. We have new shiny and cool things, and most of the coverage was cheerleading the innovations. But of course, that’s not the case anymore.

Rob Atkinson: I agree with you that it’s certainly not the case. And there are certainly some reasons why the tech media has sort of done this. You had some mistakes from some of the major tech companies, and you had other things, like different kinds of scandals and things. But, one of the things I’m struck by though is how consistently media, tech media kind of tell one side of the story only in some of these areas. A good example of that was facial recognition and the potential for bias, particularly against racial minorities and women. There was a study done by NIST and it evaluated all these, about a hundred different technologies, and it found that about 10 of them were actually had no bias, zero bias. They were just as good, if not better for dark skin people as light skin people, women and men, et cetera. But virtually every single story says, “Algorithms are biased. Facial recognition algorithms are biased because 90% of them were biased.”

The right way to write that story is, “Some algorithms are biased. Some are not. A lot of experts suggest that you only allow companies or the government to adopt unbiased algorithms.” But I guarantee you that is not what has been reported. And I’m just curious why you think, is it just sort of laziness, is it they don’t care or they know that a bad story is going to get more eyeballs than a balanced story? What’s going on there?

Nirit Weiss-Blatt: There are many factors at play here I think. So first, 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 set what is news, what can be counted as newsworthy. So most journalists just look over their shoulder, looks at their colleagues and cover the same story from the same perspective. And 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. And the thing is, I think that you are describing is that this copycat behavior that everybody’s writing about the same thing from the same framing, that it can snowball dramatically into media storms. So now that’s the narrative and that’s it.

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 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 bias and putting some safeguards or improvements, and for the journalists, it’s 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 example of the system working.

Rob Atkinson: I don’t agree with that. So imagine we have, in COVID for example, so we have a lot of medical science journalists writing about that and I’m sure there’s been a bunch of vaccines maybe that don’t work very well. And so they write a story about vaccines and they say, “Well, this vaccine actually only has a 20% rate. And this one only has a 30% rate. Man, these vaccines are terrible.” But they don’t mention that the other vaccines are super good. And to me, that is responsible journalism. You can’t just single out sort of and say, hey, there are things that are bad even though because the implication is no algorithm is unbiased. And that’s what those stories are really saying. And that’s just not true. It’s biased journalism. I just don’t understand that. That’s my question. I don’t understand. I don’t think it’s legitimate and I don’t think it’s... I don’t understand it.

Nirit Weiss-Blatt: Well, I think if the media has any bias is that it’s pro-conflict. Those are the stories that are interesting.

Rob Atkinson: Sure.

Jackie Whisman: That’s a good point.

Rob Atkinson: But on those stories they could have talked to us. They could have talked to other think tanks that are pro facial recognition, and we could have given them a nice quotable quote that said the other side is wrong. So even there.

Jackie Whisman: And instead, we deal with policy makers all the time that point to this study that we believe is flawed, and we think we’ve demonstrated is flawed. And they point to this study as they’re thinking about regulating this technology and it’s a huge problem that nobody really understands where we’re coming from because the ship has kind of sailed is sort of how I feel about it. And it’s really frustrating.

Nirit Weiss-Blatt: Yeah. You’re touching on a very crucial point is that all of the techlash coverage has real impact, not only on the company’s work or the consumer behavior and trust, but also the political field, like all the rising of tech regulation, all the pushback of investigations and everything. But I think what’s makes it complicated and interesting is that, on each topic that you’re going to talk about like inside the techlash, content moderation, disinformation, data rights, antitrust, monopoly power, they all include contradictory arguments on both the problems and the resolutions. I think you talk about it a lot.

Rob Atkinson: Absolutely. And look, don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect, nor would I want, the media to be just sort of reporting on press releases, “Hey, this is great.” That’s not what the free and independent media should be doing, but when there’s a consistent one side to that... Another example of that for example, is the effect of tech on jobs. You constantly see that, that AI is going to be destroying jobs. And again, there are some legitimate scholars who’ve done work on one side and there are legitimate scholars who’ve done work on the other side. And there are think tanks on one side and we are on the side of it’s not. But again, I just see most of the stories on this, have already accepted that as the narrative and they don’t push back on it all that much. They don’t question it.

Nirit Weiss-Blatt: Well, I think the way I’m looking at all the techlash coverage is that there’s this concept of technological determinism. So I think we can look at the techlash as deterministic. So technology is like the determined force which ruins society, period. 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, so you can still report about it, but it’s not like the main story.

Jackie Whisman: In your view, what have the tech companies done that is good and appropriate here and where could they have done better to help the narrative? I guess maybe kind of closing on what should they do going forward?

Nirit Weiss-Blatt: Yeah. So when I analyzed their crisis responses, I found that I had different companies, different scandals, and yet their responses were very much alike. So it’s like every company is rolling out the same playbook over and over again. I’ll summarize it quickly. And then I’ll say why it was bad.

So the first strategy was a victim/villain framing. So, “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, their messages were, we apologize, deeply regret, 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.” So every tech reporter heard this specific combination 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 their 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 this unfair victim of some malicious outside entity.

And the third thing is that all companies of course stated that they are proactive, “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.” It’s like Crisis Communication 101. And then they added, “But our work will never be done.” And I think those seven words encapsulate everything. But our work will never be done. Think about it. It’s an acknowledgement that perhaps the problems are too big to fix.

So now, one way to look at this template is to say, well, of course, that this is their messaging. They are being asked to stop big, difficult societal problems. And that is an impossible request. But in reality, all of those techlash responses backlashed. The critics claim 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 the job full time. So the media didn’t receive those messages and just said, “Yes.” The critics said “your actions should follow your words.” And even after the company 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.

Rob Atkinson: There’s a bunch of different points. One of them is, did they do anything wrong? And I think in some cases, the answer is pretty clearly no. Like one case was a while ago was Google Street View. So this was where, I don’t know if you followed that case, but Google had these cameras on cars and they’d go down. So you can go on Google Street View and you can see a picture of a street. Pretty cool, actually. All around the world. When you think about a company who’s been able to do this, it’s mind blowing and it’s free. And there was some issue there where people who just say, we’re not astute enough to have a password on their wifi. You kind of want to do that if you’re going to have wifi that this actually, it accidentally picked up some packets or something like that. And Google never used them. They never did anything. There was no problem.

And yet they got pilloried in the media for stealing people’s privacy. To me, it was just ridiculous. If I had been Google, I would have said, “No way. We’re doing something that’s great for the world. It’s free. And if somebody can’t figure it out that they should have a password on their wifi, that’s kind of their problem. Oh, by the way, we didn’t do anything with the data.” In your sense, do you see companies that do that or do they all sort of immediately fall into the, “We’re sorry, we’re sorry. We’re not going to do it again.” I mean really defend themselves and say, “No, we’re right. You’re wrong.”

Nirit Weiss-Blatt: I think it’s shifting. So when I analyze 2017, I saw this template repeating itself in ‘18 and ‘19 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,” and things like that. They are pushing back a little bit more. But I think that reflexively, if you ask the PR spokesperson, it’s easier to just roll out the playbook.

Rob Atkinson: Yeah. That’s my sense that it’s just do that. And don’t really kind of get into the more fundamental argument about, did we do anything wrong? The other thing you mentioned, Nirit, is work will never be done. I can see, maybe that’s an excuse, but on the other hand, if you think about any industry that’s constantly evolving and I’m happy to believe that sort of the dry cleaning industry can say, we figured out dry cleaning safety and our work is done. There’s very little innovation in the dry cleaning industry. But in a tech industry, like what autos is right now, their work is just beginning again. So their work had been done for a long time, but now they’re moving into electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles. Their work won’t be done for 30, 40 years. So I understand your point about you don’t want to use that as an excuse, but there are always going to be, as these companies deal with new technological challenges and new business offerings, it seems like they’re always going to be issues that they have to cope with.

Nirit Weiss-Blatt: Sure. So one thing about the bad actors parts that I mentioned in template number one, is that you put the safeguards and change your policy and do things, and then the bad actors evolve and then you need to evolve accordingly. So it becomes this arm race that they change and you change. So it’s always adapting and evolving, and this is why they say those sentences saying, okay, we have few solution now. They won’t be relevant later, because world is changing. So yeah, they have to say that.

Rob Atkinson: Right. There’s always new adversaries. There’s always new kinds of uses. Yeah. And it’s hard to keep up with that. Do you think we’ve crossed the Rubicon as they say, that we’re not going back to kind of more balanced... And you talked about pendulum, you think we’re sort of stuck in this repeating record of tech’s bad, tech’s bad, tech is bad, both companies and the technology, or do you think it might moderate a little bit? I think you wrote in your book a little bit about how you thought it might and did moderate for a tad during COVID when, hey boy, it’s fantastic. We can use Teams, Microsoft Teams and other things like that. Aren’t the tech companies really making our lives better, but maybe that has a short shelf life.

Nirit Weiss-Blatt: Yeah, exactly. As I mentioned, we have this pendulum swing all the time for one extreme to the other. And I think the media is drawn to the one extreme. Now, that you are 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 experience, it won’t happen. You won’t find now tech journalists writing enthusiastically and positively, only that about specifically big tech of course, and specifically social media and things that are the most backlashes issues. And I think, at the beginning of the pandemic, Stephen Levy from Wired asked, “Has the coronavirus killed the techlash?” Of course it didn’t. All of the techlash issues resurfaced very quickly. So I think the techlash survived the virus and is here to stay and it’s not going to change.

Rob Atkinson: Yeah. Well, I don’t need or even want it to go back to the other side of the pendulum. I just want it and need it to go back to the middle.

Nirit Weiss-Blatt: Good luck with that.

Rob Atkinson: I can hope. One can wish, one can dream.

Jackie Whisman: Well, it keeps us employed, Rob.

Rob Atkinson: I know. It does, as I’m using all sorts of wonderful technology here. Anyway, well, Nirit, thank you. This was great. Thank you so much for being here. And I encourage all our listeners to pick up the book. I wouldn’t order it online because that’s bad technology. See if you can find a physical bookstore and just read a paper copy because you don’t want to use technology.

Jackie Whisman: He’s kidding. So why don’t you tell our listeners where they can find you on social media and otherwise?

Nirit Weiss-Blatt: Yeah. Recently I rejoined Twitter after a long break and my new account there is @DrTechlash.

Jackie Whisman: That’s awesome. I meant to tell Rob that you stole his preferred handle.

Nirit Weiss-Blatt: Lucky me.

Jackie Whisman: Awesome.

Nirit Weiss-Blatt: And you can also find me on LinkedIn, Facebook, it’s Nirit Weiss-Blatt PhD and of course, techlashbook.com.

Jackie Whisman: Great. And we will link to all of that in our show notes.

Jackie Whisman: That is it for this week. If you liked it, please be sure to rate us and subscribe. Feel free to email show ideas or questions to [email protected]. You can find the show notes and sign up for our weekly email newsletter on our website, itif.org, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn @ITIFdc.

Rob Atkinson: And you can follow me at my new Twitter handle, which is Dr. Tech Pro. We have more episodes and great guests lined up. New episodes drop every other Monday, so we hope you’ll continue to tune in.

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Podcast: How Pack Journalism and Predictable Crisis PR Responses Have Influenced the Techlash, With Nirit Weiss-Blatt