Who’s Really Behind That “Death of the Techlash” Narrative?
One of my least favorite kinds of journalism is the easy win. It’s the kind of story that just lands in your lap. It feels contrarian, yet of the moment, it’s often predicated by the appearance of a primary source dangling easy data, and unlike most stories, it simply writes itself. The easy win is the kind of editorial sin most often committed by columnists facing immutable deadlines, and a perfect example can be found in the storied Wall St. Journal “Personal Tech” column last week. “OK, Fine, Let’s All Get Back on Facebook,” the headline read. The subhead explains further: “All it took was a pandemic to make Facebook’s privacy-challenged products seem highly appealing.”
Couched as a review of Facebook products helpful in our current era of mandated social distancing and work from home, the column may well mark a turning point in what was once knows as the “techlash.” Has the coronavirus pandemic earned the world’s most powerful purveyors of surveillance capitalism a collective pass from the press?
It certainly seems that way. A rash of articles over the past few days have picked up the narrative – and the comms teams at Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon are more than happy to stoke it. They’d be fired for malpractice if they didn’t – no point in wasting a good crisis, after all.
But as the Journal columnist noted later in her piece, the reasons underlying society’s broad misgivings around Big Tech haven’t gone away. With that prophylactic caveat duly administered, the columnist then profiled her own usage of Facebook’s services – then declared them a trend. Before COVID, the company’s many privacy missteps had led her to back away. But now that everyone she knew was stuck inside, she found herself once again checking her feeds, monitoring her neighborhood Facebook groups, and even pointing a Portal camera at her son (the much maligned Portals, by the way, are now sold out – and Facebook was happy to provide comment on that happy news).
As the Portal story demonstrates, the death of the techlash narrative isn’t making it into the press unaided. Facebook’s been quite public about the fact that people just like our columnist are in fact flocking to its products. “Facebook Is ‘Just Trying to Keep the Lights On’ as Traffic Soars in Pandemic” crows a recent Times piece. That headline quote comes from Facebook’s famously media-trained CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who hasn’t exactly made a practice of calling the press and offering offhand observations these past few years.
It’s always instructive to note when the company actively participates in stories, and when it declines comment. Lately, there’s been plenty of open lines of communication. The Times further wonders if “Big Tech Could Emerge From Coronavirus Crisis Stronger Than Ever.” And somehow (I can’t imagine how), an “internal report” from Facebook made its way into yet another Times reporter’s hands, leading to this chef kiss of a headline: ‘The Coronavirus Revives Facebook as a News Powerhouse.” Over at Wired, Facebook author Steven Levy asks “Has the Coronavirus Killed the Techlash?” He explains: “Facebook has gotten rare kudos for its responses to the pandemic, and perhaps even more significantly, more people are using it for the kinds of meaningful interactions that Zuckerberg has been promoting for a long time. Could this be a turning point?”
Well, yes, but I certainly hope it’s not the kind implied by present day reporting. Again, the issues our industry struggled with Before COVID won’t disappear After COVID simply because the public is thankful for services (and business models) to which we’ve already become addicted. A global crisis rightly draws our collective focus from just about every other problem, but once it abates, all those problems will still be here, waiting to be addressed. No amount of Instagram dance parties will change that fact.