Looking out from within the tech industry, it can seem as though the conversation about technology is dominated by negativity. Every day seems to bring new headlines about tech’s role in spreading fake news and disinformation, polarising our political debate, enabling cyberbullying or automating away our jobs.
This “techlash”, as it’s been called, started in 2016 when the tech industry came under scrutiny for its role in the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump. Since then this sceptical narrative has only grown stronger.
But how have years of negative news stories affected opinion among business audiences? Have they really turned decision-makers against the big tech companies they increasingly rely on to talk to their staff and suppliers, advertise to their customers and run their businesses?
In our latest quarterly Harvard Pulse survey of 100 UK business decision-makers, we set out to discover what business leaders think about the tech sector and its responsibilities.
Still a good thing?
The good news is that things aren’t quite as bleak as the daily news cycle might lead you to believe.
Indeed, in many ways, the tech sector has a stronger public image than most other industries out there. For 67% of our respondents, technology companies are more socially responsible than those in other sectors.
And the majority of business leaders think technology is still a good thing: 55% of them said “I think technology companies overall have made a positive impact on our society.”
But attitudes towards the tech sector have undeniably taken a steep nose-dive in recent years. A hefty 45% of our respondents said they feel tech companies have damaged democracy in recent years.
And, perhaps most worryingly, 40% feel less positively about tech companies than they did five years ago, before the political shocks on both sides of the Atlantic. That’s a pretty incredible collapse in sentiment for the tech sector.
Technology’s comms challenge
So what are tech firms to do? We think there’s a genuine comms job to do here, and it all starts with embracing responsibility.
Tech can no longer claim to be a neutral, benign force: it has clear effects, both positive and negative, on the real world.
The sector also needs to accept that its global impact and critical role in everything from the security of our national infrastructure, to the operation of our political discourse, requires independent or democratic oversight of some description.
(The likes of Microsoft’s president Brad Smith and Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg have already called for more regulation, reflecting the awareness of this reality at the highest levels of the industry.)
Having acknowledged and embraced its responsibilities to wider society beyond its shareholders or investors, tech next needs to demonstrate its responsible credentials.
This means developing viewpoints on ethics, sustainability, diversity and inclusion – and making them heard.
Our research shows that business customers are demanding real, meaningful change – and the time will come when responsibility will determine whether or not they will choose you as their tech partner.