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Leonid Bershidsky: ‘Techlash’ mostly in media's mind

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Leonid Bershidsky

Remember how, in late 2018, the Financial Times declared “techlash” — the backlash against the giant U.S. technology companies and all they represent — word of the year? It also made Oxford Languages’ word-of-the-year shortlist then, but lost to “toxic.”

Every year since at least 2018, Facebook Inc. has led the S&P 500 companies in the number of days it faced negative news sentiment (1), and Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Twitter Inc. have been in the top 10. Facebook averaged 255 negative news days in 2018 through 2020 and has had nearly 160 such days so far this year; Google and Twitter haven’t been far behind. But the ceaseless beating the companies have been taking in the news contrasts with the relentless rise in their stock prices. In 2018 and 2019, Facebook was the S&P 500 company with the most days when its stock price rose despite negative news sentiment. In 2020 and 2021, Google took over the top spot, with Facebook directly behind.

You could seemingly publish anything about these companies, their privacy-invading data-gathering practices, their promotion of pernicious political views and anti-vaccine propaganda, their monopoly power; you could even report on enormous fines imposed on the firms by regulators in Europe and the U.S., on lawsuits and antitrust proceedings — yet nothing would deter investors from buying. 

Arguably, the market has been reacting to the companies’ stellar financials — Google’s net income, for example, has grown by more than 30% a year during this time, and Facebook’s profit growth has averaged more than 40% — rather than to all the negative coverage. Ordinary users, meanwhile, have grown to regard the tech whales as evil. This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer showed the lowest-ever public confidence in technology companies, at 68% compared with 76% in 2017; in the U.S., trust in tech is even lower at 57%. Trust in social media as an information source is also at the lowest level ever.

When regulators take action against Big Tech, they understandably react to media reports — that barrage of negative news sentiment. The media, however, are Big Tech’s direct competitors in battles for audience attention and advertising dollars; I’d argue that we journalists are naturally motivated to consider Google, Facebook, even Twitter evil, no matter how objective we try to appear. 

Yet when it comes to ordinary users, the professional media are yet another increasingly unreliable source. We may gloat about the falling trust in the social media, but the same Edelman Trust Barometer shows the lowest confidence in traditional media since at least 2012 — 53% globally, down from 63% in 2018, at the beginning of “techlash”; 59% of respondents say that journalists intentionally mislead them and that they are more interested in pushing ideologies than in reporting facts. With majorities feeling that way, no wonder people don’t attach much importance to media attacks on tech.

Given the news climate and regulators’ behavior, tech companies are, of course, among the biggest lobbying spenders. According to OpenSecrets, Facebook spent $19.7 million last year and $9.6 million so far this year on lobbying. But these amounts are tiny given the scale of its operations. If techlash were real, they would be woefully insufficient to defend the social networking giant from popular anger. As it is, the media will keep chipping away at tech power, and regulators will bite, sometimes painfully. But they will not undo the highly questionable business models that sustain digital advertising leaders; users just don’t care enough for a tech counterrevolution to break out.

I’m in constant search of alternatives to the tech giants’ services. I’ve replaced them everywhere I could, and I’ll replace the services I’m still using as soon as comparable alternatives become available. Yet I have no illusions about people like me undermining Big Tech’s market power in any meaningful way. 

Leonid Bershidsky is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation team based in Berlin.

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