Cancelling Trump was the wrong type of PR for Big Tech

Tech did the right thing for the wrong reasons after the Capitol riot, says comms advisor James Stranko.

 Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testifies remotely during a Senate Judiciary Committee last November.  (Photo by Hannah McKay-Pool/Getty Images)
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testifies remotely during a Senate Judiciary Committee last November. (Photo by Hannah McKay-Pool/Getty Images)

The headlines were triumphant, the bans unprecedented, and the challenge overwhelming. Tech companies from Facebook to Airbnb finally decided to use the power of their platforms to counter, well, the power of their platforms.

Apple and Google's app stores banned Parler downloads. Facebook and Twitter cut off Donald Trump's accounts. Amazon stopped selling QAnon merchandise. Even Airbnb took the unprecedented step of cancelling and banning all home rentals in the DC area during the inauguration.

Tech companies did the right thing. Nearly every large American tech company reacted to the Capitol riot with some sort of ban on the type of activity that enabled the organization of the insurrection.

But they did so for the wrong reasons.

Rather than drawing lines in the sand based on principle before things turned into a crisis, companies engaged in an unprecedented PR effort to fix a mess they largely created. As they struggle with an increasingly complex and demanding landscape of detractors growing in front of them, this PR-first strategy will haunt them for a long time.

By flexing their enormous power after, instead of before, these recent events they turned their biggest strength into their biggest liability.

Good PR is important, but not enough to manage the long-term effects of this crisis

Twitter's decision to announce its decision after trading hours was the first sign this decision was not driven just by principle. Whoever advised the company on the financial consequences was right: its stock dropped more than 7% (or $3 billion in market cap) between its close on Friday and the reopening after that weekend.

That's an expensive decision. But the timing suggests it was taken with more than the public interest in mind.

Picture as well, the preparation for Sheryl Sandberg's interview with The Recount where she declared that Facebook couldn't have been the catalyst for the riot because "these events were largely organized on platforms that don't have our abilities to stop hate, and don't have our standards, and don't have our transparency."

Sandberg is already laying out a triumphant (and slightly post-truth) commitment to content moderation that Facebook seemed to lack not too long ago (its share price also dropped significantly after their decision to "pause" the presidents' accounts.)

Unlike past incidents, when these companies could dodge long-term consequences for violent uses of their platform (think Facebook Live-streamed mass shootings or WhatsApp's role in tribal mob violence in India) the Capitol riot and the subsequent ban on far-right activity are likely to be seen as a watershed for public understanding of how much power the platforms have over their content.

The stale argument that these companies are just passive messengers, bolstered by the half-dead Section 230, looks increasingly untenable after the events of the last few weeks.

The three-front challenge tech PR teams should have addressed long ago

When America's largest tech companies were in their early growth phases, they were concerned primarily with winning over consumers and early investors. Nearly all tech companies are driven by, and rewarded by, massive user growth that is reinforced by larger and larger rounds of venture capital funding.

This is why getting customers to be allies and advocates, much in the way that Airbnb and Uber did by mobilizing customers as lobbyists against early skirmishes with regulators, was so important. Capture new users, and you dazzle new investors.

Consumers didn't ask questions because they were getting such whizzbang services. Investors didn't ask questions because they were holding out for the massive IPO payouts many have received over time. Governments didn't ask questions because they had no idea how to exercise their power over new business models.

Now that consumers know Twitter is willing to suspend one of its most important accounts at a moment's notice, they can and will start asking questions about other accounts that post questionable content they don't agree with.

Now that regulators know Airbnb can and will cancel reservations in an entire city for public safety reasons, they'll be much less anxious about the legal arguments Airbnb can bring against local ordinances.

And now that investors know tech companies will make PR decisions that run squarely against maximizing profit, they are much more likely to start pricing in the downsides rather than assuming only upside.

Most of all, consumers, investors, and government have seen over the past week a significant level of vulnerability and expendability from Big Tech after a lifetime of seeing only strength and inevitability.

If only these companies had led with principle early on rather than waiting for a crisis to strike, their position would be much stronger than it is today.

By exercising the right power at the wrong time, and for the wrong reasons, Big Tech is about to meet two enemies that are much more formidable than Donald Trump or Congress: mistrustful users and questioning investors.

James Stranko is a writer and communications advisor. He was on the founding team of Fuel, McKinsey's practice serving VC firms and pre-IPO tech leaders and McKinsey's Cyber Practice.

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