Letter from the editor: For Big Tech, playing whack-a-mole is not good enough


I was reminded this week of a conversation that I had last year with a U.S. newspaper editor and mentor of mine. She pointed out that the sexual harassment stories that sparked the #MeToo movement—by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey in The New York Times, Ronan Farrow in The New Yorker and Bret Anderson in The Times-Picayune—were all independently reported and published within two weeks of one another.

As a former editor at a major daily newspaper, I can attest that it takes roughly eight months to assign, report, edit and ultimately publish a large investigation. So, tracing back, what happened eight months prior? In the case of #MeToo, it was the 2017 Women’s March, which was itself a response to President Donald Trump’s inauguration. My mentor argued that it was the reaction to these two events, along with the realization that they weren’t alone and had a responsibility to make things right, that so many brave women came forward.

In publishing any major investigation, you first need courageous sources: real people who come forward because they are exasperated enough, sure, but also because they feel that the wind and the arc of history is at their back. Then, you need time.

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I couldn’t help but make a similar connection this week when The Times published its sweeping investigation into Facebook, almost eight months to the day after the Cambridge Analytica scandal first broke. More than 50 sources spoke to The Times, including current and former Facebook employees, lawmakers and government officials, lobbyists and congressional staff members. That doesn’t happen by accident.

In the past few weeks, it’s clear that people are feeling brave enough to speak out about the ethics of Big Tech. CBS’ “60 Minutes”—the most-watched news program on television—and PBS’ “Frontline” have both produced stories critical of Facebook and Google’s handling of user privacy and data. Employees at Google staged an international walkout in protest of forced arbitration for alleged sexual harassment victims in their workplace, and Amazon has come under scrutiny for how it awarded its second and third headquarters to New York City and Northern Virginia.

If the Cambridge Analytica scandal was the spark for the techlash, recent events are the flamethrower.

Citizens are telling Facebook, and by extension Big Tech overall, that playing whack-a-mole—reacting to individual scandals by apologizing and tactically announcing new commitments or products to “fix” them—is not good enough. As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged on a call with reporters on Thursday, “Our job is to be ahead of new issues. That’s one of the areas where we’ve been the most behind.”

With the FAANGs’ (that’s Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google -representing parent company Alphabet) combined market cap exceeding the GDP of all but the top five nations on Earth, having self-awareness and a true understanding of what their products and cultures have created is critical—not just for their stock prices, but for the global implications of their work.

This week demonstrated that they still have a long way to go. Any time you can get The New York Times and The Wall Street Journals editorial boards to agree on something—in this case, what they considered Amazon’s brazenness in the process for selecting its second headquarters—you know you’ve accomplished a rare feat.

Big Tech should take a deep breath, step back and think strategically about how it approaches the next few months and years with lawmakers, lobbyists, journalists and citizens. And, if The Times’ investigation is anything to go by, that process needs to start internally, with their own boards, executives and staff.

Because that next courageous source is watching and waiting.