Why are we so shocked?

So, in the news last week, it turns out Facebook behaved like many other large and not particularly ethical companies. Sheryl Sandberg is implicated in the hiring of a right-wing PR firm known for it’s “black ops” style engagement. This firm created messages suggesting that anti-Facebook activists had ties to George Soros (a known Republic dog whistle tactic). It has also been suggested that Sandberg wanted to suppress information about Russian election meddling (even the information which originated from Facebook’s own security people. All this and more is detailed in a recent New York Times article that commentators are saying shocked, and I mean, SHOCKED! the world.

Gasp!

A picture of a warning sign indicating danger of electric shocks
“Shocking” by Sooo0 is licensed under CC by-nc-sa 2.

Or maybe, on second thought, it’s not so shocking after all. In fact, I would ask why, after all of the countless apologies made by Zuckerberg over the years (see here, here and here, for just a few examples), why we are shocked by this? Furthermore, I would ask us to consider similarly why we’re so shocked when Amazon mistreats employees, or when Google is implicated in government censorship in other countries.

If these companies were their terrestrial equivalents: JPMorgan, Standard Oil, Shell, Comcast… etc., I hazard a guess that we’d be less shocked. Mad? Sure. Resigned? Maybe. Grumpy? Certainly. Shocked? Probably not. The fact is, the stories of scandals or corruption at these companies hardly even make the news any more. And when they do, they disappear almost immediately.

What then is so special about big tech, that they have a halo around them even as they begin to dominate the world, and in dominating it, exploit it?

I think that the discourses or stories we tell about big tech are important here. Tech is portrayed as something that will save us from ourselves. In contrast to the giant corporations that we’re accustomed to being angry with, tech is seen as young, hip, fun. It’s like your friend – it’s not going to betray you, it’s here to HELP you!

In part tech companies have deliberately nurtured this image. My 2013 research showed the ways they construct a story of being helpful, friendly and approachable, and we totally bought it. To the point where we’re almost surprised when they act that the huge corporate giants that they are.

Maybe it’s good that we’re waking up to the reality of the situation now, but I’m not sure that much will change. Likely, like our reactions to JP Morgan, Standard Oil, or Comcast, in the future we’ll just be angry, resigned, and grumpy while the bad behavior continues another day. This has already happened with Facebook, and will only continue as Zuckerberg keeps apologizing.

Why are we so shocked?

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