In conservative circles, the pitchforks have been out for tech since at least the 2016 election season, with far-right media organizations like Breitbart and Project Veritas accusing the industry and its leaders of silencing Republican voices, advocating for open borders, and bankrolling Democratic campaigns. And yet, a new survey suggests that the tech backlash festering on the far-right fringes has also escalated on the industry’s largely liberal home turf.
According to Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer survey of California, there has been a steep incline in the number of Californians and Bay Area residents calling for stricter regulation of the tech industry over the last year. While tech is still the most trusted industry in the state and around the globe, there is a growing feeling in California and the Bay Area that the tremendous success these companies have had is not helping the average citizen. The outlook is especially grim for social media companies, which Bay Area respondents viewed as the most untrustworthy industry of all, faring even worse than often vilified sectors like big pharma, telecommunications, and financial services.
“This idea in political campaigns that all politics is local couldn’t be any more relevant for the tech industry right now,” says Stacey Zolt Hara, managing director corporate and public affairs at Edelman Bay Area.
Whereas 62 percent of Californians surveyed expressed trust in tech, that figure dropped to just 37 percent when it comes to social media companies. In the Bay Area, it was only 35 percent. That disparity between tech and social media has a lot to do with more than three-quarters of respondents blaming social media companies for the spread of fake news.
These results also run counter to surveys taken last fall showing the majority of Americans still view social media giants like Facebook favorably. Since that time, though, Facebook, Twitter, and Google have all walked Congress through the gory details of how misinformation agents used and abused their platforms during the election. Edelman conducted its survey in January.
‘The class divide you see in the rest of the country is exacerbated in California.’
Stacey Zolt Hara, Edelman Bay Area
As tech companies work to fend off regulation in Washington, they’re unlikely to find many allies locally. More than two-thirds of Californians say the industry is under-regulated, a six point increase from the year before. Specifically, a whopping 87 percent of respondents, both Republican and Democrat, say tech companies ought to be financially liable for data breaches. That’s about the same as the number of people who said political ads on social media should be held to the same transparency and disclosure standards as television ads.
The list goes on. The majority of respondents support policies that would fine social media companies for publishing fake news, increase their taxes if they move manufacturing overseas, and reduce the number of skilled workers they can bring in from other countries, among other things.
Even as the industry bears the blame for global issues like the spread of fake news and propaganda, long simmering resentments between rich tech workers and the rest of the community persist. Just 38 percent of respondents in the Bay Area said they’d benefitted from the tech industry’s growth, a single point drop from the year before. More than three-quarters of Bay Area residents say tech companies need to address their outsized impact on traffic and housing costs. Meanwhile, the number of California respondents who said the tech industry further enriches the wealthy without helping the rest of the state rose five points to 64 percent.
This local eagerness to curtail tech’s unbridled growth makes sense. Despite its conservative pockets, California is a relatively blue state, one that trusts corporate America less, generally, than the US as a whole. And while cities like San Francisco have thrived amid the changing economic conditions that have threatened Rust Belt towns, the Bay Area citizens who have been priced out of their homes feel the sting of stratification just as acutely.
“The class divide you see in the rest of the country is exacerbated in California,” says Zolt Hara.
Since 2016, tech leaders like Mark Zuckerberg have worked on revamping the industry’s image beyond Silicon Valley. In 2017, Zuckerberg embarked on a year-long whistle stop tour of the US to recover whatever good will Facebook had lost during the election. He might have been better served by launching that campaign at home. The people of the Bay Area are the most likely to gain from the jobs and broad economic prosperity the industry could create if only it acted more responsibly and inclusively, but they’re currently among the most aggrieved.
That’s one reason why Zolt Hara says this report shouldn’t be viewed as more “doom and gloom” for the industry, but rather, a starting point. “We’re seeing an expectation that technology companies lead on societal issues,” she says. “The public is calling upon them to take that lead.”
If tech leaders can’t stop the runaway train of fake news in its tracks, in other words, at the very least they can try to be better neighbors.