It does not take a lot of thinking to make a reasonable guess what possibly could the word ‘techlash’ mean. Certainly, it is similar to a backlash, but in the tech world, and for the purposes of this paper, a backlash against digital technology companies. In an article[i] written in the form of a letter and published in The Economist, Eve Smith, a member of ‘Invisible Hand Strategies’ which is a PR company, explains the simmering pressure and backlash against Google, Facebook and Amazon from almost all sectors. In the detailed article, Smith elaborates on the multitudes of crises being faced by the mentioned companies that could potentially lead to undermining their dominance in the market and compromising their position as technology leaders. He provides examples such as Google being fined US $ 2.7bn by the European Commission in 2017, accusation by Germany’s Federal Cartel Office on Facebook for tracking internet users, and France’s threat to Facebook of levying fine for sharing data across various apps. It must be analyzed why companies such as Google which were once viewed as ‘Libertarian Internet’ as they were not only developed outside the established governmental norms but were also free of government regulations. They signified freedom and liberty. However, the very same companies and technologies are today being increasingly scrutinized.
The current state of digital technology companies is perhaps best reflected in a survey conducted by Pew Research Center[ii]. The survey consisted of a non-random sample and is nonscientific, however, it successfully displays the imaginations of the leaders of digital technology. It highlighted that a whopping 49% of the respondents believe that digital technology will “mostly weaken core aspects of democracy and democratic representation in the next decade”. The worries of the technology experts revolve around the potential of misuse of social media, privacy concerns, manipulation of masses, filter bubbles, deepfake, revenge pornography, fake news and much more.
In a much more detailed and scientific survey- Edelman Trust Barometer, conducted by Edelman[iii], a Communications firm, across 28 countries and with more than 33,000 respondents reported that there is an “epidemic of misinformation” and “widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world”. While the survey by the Pew Research showed reservations of tech experts, the one conducted by Edelman shows the extent of not only reservations but mistrust among the common public. It reported that trust across all news sources has fallen drastically throughout the globe with Social Media and Owned Media being the least trusted of all. The cause behind this fall according to the survey report is “infodemic” which has led to or is leading to in some cases to a state of “information bankruptcy”.
This deep mistrust by both the leaders of digital technologies and by the common public has led to backlash against digital firms in the form of legal cases, change of laws, and protests, all of which aim to dismantle or rather strictly regulate the digital ecosystem. This is perhaps what can be called as “Techlash”.
There are various reasons as to what fueled this techlash, and they are certainly not without merit. In fact, number of U.S. citizens concerned about invasion of privacy has increased from 58% in 1998 to a whopping 91% in 2018. This essentially means that almost every individual who has access to internet is concerned about their privacy. Privacy concerns are in tandem with data collection and manipulation, and the surveillance of citizens (or consumers) by the government (or the tech companies) using data which is often dubbed as “Dataveillance”. This aspect is also highlighted by Professor Jose van Dijck[iv] who explains that metadata and data have essentially become a currency for citizens in exchange of which they receive access to free internet, and this phenomenon is so successful that it has made the masses comfortable with corporates managing their data. This trust is further extended to public institutions such as academic research and law enforcement. Van Dijck cautions against this interlocking of government, business and academia in this scenario.
A very important problem of high urgency is the rapid spread and rise of fake news in form of both misinformation and disinformation. While misinformation is still relatively less harmful as it has no malicious intent or any intent whatsoever, but the increase in disinformation has proven to be detrimental to the society at large. The Covid-19 pandemic opened the eyes of internet users to the extent of problems disinformation can cause. It has led to people being unwilling for vaccination. With pandemic, conspiracy theories such as microchips being planted under the cover of vaccination, the Coronavirus’s creation in a laboratory, or the entire pandemic being a big pharma conspiracy to make money. All of it may sound impractical and illogical to many, but it has also led to direct deaths due to misinformation about Covid-19.
The misinformation and the speed of social media has also caused trust issues with noble journalism. When misinformation was raging (it still is) across the globe, it was on the journalists to not only report correct and verified news and information but to also build trust with their audience. Unfortunately, as highlighted at the start of this paper, the level of trust for news sources from traditional media and social media has drastically fallen. This only makes the workings of a journalist more difficult. In times when any and every one can potentially be reporter by posting about events online, it is of utmost importance for journalists to engage in rigorous fact-checking and having faith among their audience.
There are various other concerns that has led to the present Techlash and is causing its spread even now. However, as Mark Zuckerberg said, or rather accepted, “the real question, as the internet becomes more important in people’s lives, is what is the right regulation not whether there should be or not”. It is not as if countries across the world have not tried to regulate the social media and the digital ecosystem. There have been successes and failures. Germany enacted the Netz DG law that aims to curb hate speech and spread of extremism. It requires mandatory takedown of content if ordered by the concerned law authority. The European Union has come up with General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR to regulate the collection, storage, and analysis of personal data of the consumers. This has forced digital technology companies to authorize their users with greater liberty and rights regarding their personal data. However, much work remains to be done in this field as while constant surveillance and curbs on freedom of expression and liberty is dystopian, so are echo chambers, extremism, terrorist ideologies and other forms of hate speeches.
[i] Smith, E. (2018, January 20). The Techlash Against Amazon, Facebook and Google– and what they can do. The Economist. https://www.economist.com/briefing/2018/01/20/the-techlash-against-amazon-facebook-and-google-and-what-they-can-do
[ii] Anderson, J. Rainie L. (2020, February 21). Many Tech Experts Say Digital Disruption Will Hurt Democracy. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2020/02/21/many-tech-experts-say-digital-disruption-will-hurt-democracy/
[iii] Edelman. (2021, January 13). 2021 EDELMAN TRUST BAROMETER. https://www.edelman.com/trust/2021-trust-barometer
[iv] Dijck, J. (2014, May 9). Datafication, Dataism and Dataveillance: Big Data between scientific paradigm and ideology. Surveillance and Society. https://doi.org/10.24908/ss.v12i2.4776