It is a truth universally acknowledged in Silicon Valley that when one tech platform takes a stand against some injustice, others are quick to follow. Big tech companies—like many corporations—wait for the first mover and follow in droves.
And so it was this week, when Meta, Alphabet, Apple, Netflix, Reddit and many more blocked or curbed the distribution of Russian propaganda as Russia began its devastating war on Ukraine. Others who sold products there—from chipmakers to telecom companies—halted sales too.
While there has been some griping about why tech companies didn’t take action sooner, the moves have generally been well received. Add to that Elon Musk rushing to supply internet access to Ukraine via Starlink, and Microsoft’s impressive efforts to help Ukraine mount a cyber defense, and it almost feels as if tech is, for once, showing the world its full utility.
It made me wonder: Could this be the moment that has eluded big tech companies for years—the chance to quiet the techlash and make good on their “good for the world” ethos?
We have been here before—recently. Two years ago, to the month, we at The Information speculated that the pandemic could “remake industry giants’ image.” We weren’t talking about Big Tech’s reputation with consumers, which has long seemed impervious to even the worst self-inflicted scandals. We were referring to a potential turning point for the industry’s reputation with regulators, who were ramping up their investigations, and with employees, who were clamoring for changes in boardroom diversity, pay equity, climate policy and more.
As Covid-19 lockdowns ensued and consumers flocked to technology platforms like Zoom, Slack and Asana to stay productive and connect with loved ones, it seemed possible that tech companies would benefit from a halo effect in public perception. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter marshaled resources to communicate important public health information while Google and Apple raced to help with contact tracing. “Their efforts, along with enormous cash stockpiles that insulate them from the economy’s nosedive, have the potential to transform their standing in the industry, making them more appealing to top talent, more dominant in business and, some believe, less threatening to regulators,” we wrote at the time.
We were right about the dominance part, as the tech giants’ stock prices and revenues steadily climbed throughout the crisis. But the other things we predicted haven’t quite played out that way.
Tech helped humanity slog through the pandemic, yes. But Covid-19 also exacerbated some of the very problems that the industry had been struggling with prior to the pandemic. It put the big platforms’ inability—or unwillingness—to moderate misinformation front and center; it pushed people’s work lives further into their home lives, leading to an epidemic of burnout, a tidal wave of resignations and an ongoing recruitment crisis; and it gave us all more time to doom-scroll ad infinitum.
The scandals—like the revelations about what Meta Platforms and others know about the potential adverse effects of their products on teens, as well as data about the platforms’ role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots—continued. Recruiting has remained challenging. And regulators (and the president of the U.S.) are still chomping at the bit to curb big tech’s power.
A Moment to Seize
Yet I cannot help but wonder whether Russia’s war against Ukraine does in fact offer big tech the chance to change its image.
Just as tech was linked to the pandemic in ways good and bad, so, too, has the industry played a multifaceted role in the war so far. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been masterful at using social media to rally the Western world to his country’s defense. So too has Mykhailo Fedorov, one of his deputy prime ministers, who has goaded (and shamed) tech companies into pausing business with Russia, and even launched an effort to sell non-fungible tokens to raise money.
And the tech companies are exercising their power in a way they have been reluctant to before. It turns out that Vladimir Putin is a clear common enemy whose atrocities cut across party lines. And so the tech companies have become far more aggressive about blocking Russian propaganda (albeit selectively, in certain regions) and cutting off ties to the country.
Of course, every time tech giants put their thumb on the scale, they demonstrate the very superpower they’ve long tried to conceal—showing the world how easy it is for them to put their thumb on the scale. In the end, taking such actions only reinforces their power and deepens their unease about it.
But I hope tech executives lean into the unease—and learn from it. This is a time when their lobbyists and leadership could be earning some goodwill with U.S. and European governments, showing they are quick to act in support of democracy, even when it hurts their business interests. Google on Thursday said it was halting all advertising in Russia. That’s a highly unusual step for a company that has fought for years to grow its business in the region.
Will pushing back against Putin end the tech companies’ political problems? No. But it may leave their critics with a more balanced view of their power. And it will make their leaders stronger, reminding those who have been hellbent on not “taking a side” that there is no valor in neutrality when it comes to right and wrong.