What is Techlash and what does it mean for the digital industry?

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Techlash is a term coined by The Economist to describe a new phenomenon: growing hostility towards the tech giants. The Oxford English Dictionary defined the word as “A strong and widespread negative reaction to the growing power and influence of large technology companies, particularly those based in Silicon Valley.”

Simply put, the era of blindly trusting the big 5 tech companies – Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta and Microsoft – is over.

In recent years, techlash has been steadily causing a shift that can be felt throughout the digital industry. Techlash stems from both the consumers who are losing trust in the tech giants, and from governments who are waking up to the increasing power that these companies possess.

What Factors Are Causing Techlash?

1. A Growing Tech Monopoly

The algorithms on the websites we use dictate the kind of things that we read, listen to and watch.

Think about this: if you want to find something out, chances are, you’ll do a quick Google. But have you considered the implications of one search engine acting as a barrier between you and all content on the internet?

Even on social media, there is a growing centralisation of power. While we like to think we have a choice of lots of different social media platforms, in reality, this field has been narrowing for years. Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp – three of the most widely used social media apps, are all owned by Meta, a single company who control a vast amount of data.

It’s easy to forget that these platforms are not public forums, but businesses, and this is what drives the decisions that they make.

With only a few huge corporations dominating the market for search engines, social media and online shopping, a growing number of users are becoming uncomfortable with this imbalance.

2. Misinformation & Disinformation

A side effect of the freedom that the internet provides is the rapid spread of “fake news”. This becomes a big problem when articles, tweets, and memes based on “alternative facts” can influence public opinion.

In the last decade, we have seen misinformation and fake news become a widespread problem, accelerated by the social media algorithms that reward engagement with reach.

Misinformation has been associated with everything from spreading conspiracy theories to threatening democratic processes, undermining public health messaging, and even fuelling genocide in Myanmar.

That’s why pressure is being placed on social media sites that host news stories to monitor and police the content that is shared on their platforms.

In 2019, Facebook deployed a new fact-checker to help it cope with the spread of misinformation. However, without external regulation, social media companies are marking their own homework – how do they decide what kind of content to remove, and what to allow? How do they balance inaccuracy with freedom of speech? And finally, how do these sites manage misinformation in other languages and countries?

3. Data Processing & Security

Concerns about data security have been brought into the public eye thanks to major breaches of trust such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Regulations such as the GDPR in Europe and the Data Protection Act in the UK were intended to ensure personal data is safeguarded, and tech companies are now expected to explain to consumers what data they collect, process and store about them.

Consumers are starting to ask more questions about who owns their information, and more importantly, what they plan to do with it. But practically, black-box algorithms mean it’s impossible to reveal exactly what tech companies do with our data, and the average person’s digital footprint is so vast, it can be hard for individuals to keep track.

4. Effects on Mental Health

Another thing that is starting to turn people against the tech giants is the negative effect on users’ mental health.

Unfortunately, impressionable young people on the internet can be exposed to cyber bullying, hate speech and extremist content. Not to mention the addictive qualities of smartphones and social media, which we’re only just beginning to see the full scope of.

In 2020, Netflix premiered “The Social Dilemma” documentary, exploring the psychological techniques that social media organisations deliberately employ to keep our attention and increase their ad revenue. While in 2021, whistleblowers released documents showing that Instagram were clearly aware of the harmful effects their app was having on teenage girls’ mental health.

The backlash against these revelations takes many forms – Individuals looking to reduce their screentime may respond by deleting apps, applying screentime limits, or swapping their smart device for a simpler one.

As an alternative, some people seek to use technology as a solution to the problems technology has caused. Mindfulness and mediation apps are more popular than ever, and are frequently used to help people improve their concentration and manage their mental health.

How Can the Digital Industry Respond to Techlash?

Digital technology can be a force for good. Tech connects us, entertains us, educates us, and introduces us to new ideas and more convenient services.

Techlash can be overcome through ethical business practices: being more transparent about how data is handled; putting the welfare of customers at the centre of decision making; being proactive when problems emerge; and employing a diverse workforce that represents our society.

In the tech industry, representation really matters.

Apprenticeships can play an important role here, broadening access to the tech industry, removing traditional barriers to entry, and creating entry-level roles with built-in training and qualifications. A diverse workforce brings in broader life experiences, ideas, and perspectives to a team, which in turn helps organisations become more inclusive, reach a wider audience, and resolve problems more effectively.

While we don’t expect to see large numbers of people ditching their smartphones and deleting their social media profiles, it’s clear that tech companies of all sizes need to reconsider the impact they are making on society, to make our digital world better for everyone.