‘Techlash’: The Phenomenon That Pitted Society Against Tech Giants

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'Big Tech Companies' by Huzaifa abedeen is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

The Web 2.0 era has seen a phenomenal growth in social media engagement, however, there have been consequences for both the users and the social media platforms since it became public that these platforms have not been entirely honest with their users. When society was made aware of this problem emotions began to stir up and henceforth the techlash emerged. Governments, civil organizations and technology companies themselves have attempted to regain the trust of platform users but additional measures still need to be implemented.

What do we mean when referring to the ‘techlash’?

Techlash is a term that was popularized in 2018 when The Economist published an article discussing the impact of the ever-growing phenomenon. They defined it as the growing discontent of society towards ‘Big Tech’. Other scholars such as Flew (2019) and West (2021) have similar interpretations of the concept. Respectively, they understood the techlash to be the negative attitudes of society towards leading technology companies and the societal backlash aimed at these companies that resulted in the exponential decline of public support for all things digital (see figure 1.1).

Figure 1.1: ‘Trust in the Tech Sector, 2012-2021’

Source: Darrell West, ‘Techlash continues to batter technology sector’, Brookings Institution, 2021.

Events that led to the techlash

Cambridge Analytica Scandal

Cambridge Analytica is a data analytics firm that was put under a spotlight after whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, revealed they were collecting personal data from millions of Facebook profiles in an attempt to predict the outcome of votes for the 2016 U.S Election and the Vote Leave Campaign in the Brexit Referendum (Cadwalladr & Graham-Harrison, 2018).

Figure 1.2: ‘Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data scandal, explained’ via YouTube

“7 in 10 Americans (70%) favor a major governmental role in addressing concerns related to the privacy of personal data online.” (Gallup, 2020, p.10)

The spreading of ‘fake news’ and misinformation during the 2016 U.S Election

During the 2016 U.S Election, Russia was suspected of creating numerous fake news websites in order to interfere with the information that was being spread in relation to Trump’s campaign (Flew, 2019; Marineau, 2020). They aimed to target individuals whose opinions aligned with the those of Trump in an attempt to sway as many people to vote for Trump as possible (Flew, 2019). They are also said to be responsible for the hacking and leaking of emails from the Hilary Clinton Campaign (see figure 1.3).

Figure 1.3: ‘The history of Russia’s 2016 election meddling in 4 minutes’ via YouTube

“Eighty percent say government should play a major role in addressing online interference with U.S. elections.”(Gallup, 2020, p.10)

WikiLeaks 2010

In 2010, Julian Assange, leaked a large number of confidential documents in an attempt to unnerve numerous governments around the world (Norman, 2010).

Edward Snowden 2013

In 2013, Edward Snowden leaked highly confidential information from within the walls of the National Security Agency, which resulted in him being named one of the most consequential whistleblowers in history (Greenwald, MacAskill & Poitras, 2013).

“I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest,” he said. “There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn’t turn over, because harming people isn’t my goal. Transparency is.” (Greenwald, MacAskill & Poitras, 2013)

Figure 1.4: NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden: ‘I don’t want to live in a society that does these sort of things’ via YouTube

Public Concern

Every time a new data breach became public knowledge, individuals in society were becoming more concerned with using the platforms of large technology companies (Tulane University).

When Pew Trust conducted a study, they found that 80% of individuals who were active on social media were concerned about having their personal data being accessed (Tulane University).

Addressing the criticism


While there have been policies successfully put into place to benefit the consumers of large technology companies, alternative proposals regarding the regulation of the technology industry have been put forward (Hemphill, 2019).

‘The time has come to seriously consider a responsible approach to innovation [in the tech industry]’ – Shelly Palmer (2018 as cited by Hemphill, 2019).

Palmer (2018 as cited by Hemphill, 2019) presented a proposal which consisted of three approaches to successfully regulate emerging technological innovations.

  1. Government regulation:
    • This is the traditional approach whereby government policy makers implement regulations to address privacy, public safety, and national security concerns (Palmer, 2018 as cited by Hemphill 2019). Palmer (2018, as cited by Hemphill, 2019) criticizes this approach due to the ever-changing nature of technology and a lack of understanding amongst policy makers when it concerns technological innovations.
  2. Self-Regulation
    • This regulatory approach asks that technology companies review their innovations and assess the potential impact before presenting it to the market (Palmer, 2018 as cited by Hemphill 2019). Again, this approach is not seen to be the most effective due to the fact that companies can only respond to the problem after it has occurred and this results in negative attention for the company (Palmer, 2018 as cited by Hemphill 2019).
  3. Self-Regulatory Organization:
    • This approach essentially refers to creating a government-like body within the technology industry, who are responsible for implementing and regulating necessary principles and Palmer (2018 as cited by Hemphill, 2019) believes this would be the most effective approach.

There are governments, such as that of Mainland China, that have taken a harsher approach and simply banned certain platforms to eliminate the potential risks that are involved for users (BBC, 2012).

Figure 1.5: “Social-Media-ban-800×442” by Prachatai is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Civil Society Organizations

In 2016, the European Union introduced the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to appease the concern of the public regarding online privacy (Nadeau, 2020). All member states of the EU are required to comply with the newly refined policy, however, the wording of the policy has been criticized for being slightly ambiguous (Nadeau, 2020). Companies within the technology industry are required to “provide a reasonable level of protection for personal data” (Nadeau, 2020), but specifications were not given as to what constitutes reasonable.

Figure 1.6: ‘GDPR: What Is It and How Might It Affect You?’ via YouTube

Technology Companies

Technology companies have implemented measures in an attempt to regain the trust of their platform users but the success of these measures are yet to be deemed successful.

Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, publicly apologized following the events of the Cambridge Analytica Scandal, in which whistleblower Christopher Wylie told users their personal data was being harvested for third party use (Newton, 2018; Cadwalladr & Graham-Harrison, 2018).

“This was a major breach of trust, and I’m really sorry this happened. Our responsibility now is to make sure this doesn’t happen again.” Zuckerberg said in an interview with CNN (Newton, 2018).

Despite Zuckerberg’s attempt to regain the trust of his consumers it seems he will have additional matters to attend to as new information has recently come to light as whistleblower, Frances Haugen, has revealed Facebook’s algorithmic processes are dangerous and manipulative (Menczer, 2021).


BBC News. (2012). Social Media in China: What you need to know. BBC NEWS. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-china-19399773

Cadwalladr, C., & Graham-Harrison, E. (2018). Revealed: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/17/cambridge-analytica-facebook-influence-us-election

Flew, T. (2019). Guarding the gatekeepers: Trust, truth and digital platform. Griffith Review. https://www.griffithreview.com/articles/guarding-gatekeepers-trust-truth-digital-platforms/

Flew, T., Suzor, N., & Martin, F. (2019). Internet regulation as media policy: Rethinking the question of digital communication platform governance. International Journal of Digital Television, 10(1), 33-50, DOI: 10.1386/jdtv.10.1.33_1

Gallup. (2020). Techlash? Americas Growing Concern With Major Technology Companies. Knight Foundation. Retrieved from https://knightfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Gallup-Knight-Report-Techlash-Americas-Growing-Concern-with-Major-Tech-Companies-Final.pdf

Greenwald, G., MacAskill, E., & Poitras, L. (2013). Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/09/edward-snowden-nsa-whistleblower-surveillance

Hemphill, T. A. (2019). ‘Techlash’, responsible innovation, and the self-regulatory organization. Journal of responsible Innovation. 6(2), 240-247, DOI: 10.1080/23299460.2019.1602817

Marineau, S. (2020). Fact check US: What is the impact of Russian interference in the US presidential election?. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/fact-check-us-what-is-the-impact-of-russian-interference-in-the-us-presidential-election-146711

Menczer, F. (2021). Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified that the company’s algorithms are dangerous – here’s how they can manipulate you. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/facebook-whistleblower-frances-haugen-testified-that-the-companys-algorithms-are-dangerous-heres-how-they-can-manipulate-you-169420

Nadeau, N. (2020). General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR): What you need to know to stay compliant. CSO Australia. Retrieved from https://www.csoonline.com/article/3202771/general-data-protection-regulation-gdpr-requirements-deadlines-and-facts.html

Newton, C. (2018). Mark Zuckerberg apologizes for the Cambridge Analytica Scandal. The Verge. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2018/3/21/17150158/mark-zuckerberg-cnn-interview-cambridge-analytica

Norman, J. (2010). How WikiLeaks Enlightened Us in 2010. CBS NEWS. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-wikileaks-enlightened-us-in-2010/

Smith, E. (2018). 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

Tulane University. Key Social Media Privacy Issues for 2020. Retrieved from https://sopa.tulane.edu/blog/key-social-media-privacy-issues-2020

West, D. (2021). Techlash continues to batter technology sector. Brookings Institution. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/techtank/2021/04/02/techlash-continues-to-batter-technology-sector/


‘Techlash’: The Phenomenon That Pitted Society Against Tech Giants by Aerin Gordon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License

About Aerin 1 Article
I am a second year student at the University of Sydney majoring in psychology and digital cultures.