How Silicon Valley controls the press

You don’t have to be Marshall McLuhan to see that technology has been a big factor in creating the fake news, conspiracy-filled world we live in today.

As platforms like Facebook and Google radically change the publishing ecosystem, they also upend received notions of authority and truthfulness.

Changes in how information is disseminated and consumed alters the very foundations of the relationships that are a necessary byproduct of this ecosystem. We saw it with the printing press, which overturned the power of the clergy and created new hierarchies between writers and readers, and now its happening again.

It’s not as straightforward as saying the internet has eroded these concepts. It’s more that it has added additional layers of complexity.

There are far more sources of information available than we had just a few decades ago, and almost everyone has the tools to push out their own ideas and opinions (thank you, Substack…). Of course, traditional media is hardly a beacon of transparency and verisimilitude, but at the very least sources were well-defined and controlled. The gatekeepers might have been pernicious and manipulative, but they were gatekeepers nonetheless.

Silicon Valley’s press tactics

Although Congressional hearings would suggest that the world’s largest tech companies are just naive about the impact and consequences of their products, a recent article on CJR (Columbia Journalism Review) by tech journalist Brian Merchant highlights that information control is central to how these organizations manage public relations.

Okay, sure, you’d expect huge multi-national corporations to have a slick PR operation. But what’s interesting about the tactics described by Merchant is that they mirror the way in which the internet - and more importantly its leading platforms - circulate information in a frictionless and fast manner that avoids getting stuck in the well of context.

“On background”

Silicon Valley press teams use something called ‘backgrounding’ to ensure that their message gets out without going on record, offering names and lines of accountability for particular decisions and interventions.

The article explains:

According to the Associated Press, an on background arrangement with a reporter means that “information can be published but only under conditions negotiated with the source. Generally, the sources do not want their names published but will agree to a description of their position.” 

The AP also recommends that its reporters “object vigorously when a source wants to brief a group of reporters on background” and that they “try to persuade the source to put the briefing on the record.” It laments that “these background briefings have become routine in many venues, especially with government officials.”

This approach allows tech companies to have their cake and eat it. They can perpetuate a narrative without ever leaving a paper trail. This means it can never be scrutinised or criticised. Ironically, they control their messages by refusing to ever actually take control and go on record.

It’s all Steve Jobs’ fault

Merchant offers a history of this strange relationship. It was initially, he writes “relatively open” with tech companies willing to court journalists in order to gain visibility. However, Merchant believes this changed with Steve Jobs returning to Apple in the nineties. Jobs came back and immediately made sure that information was tightly controlled.

From a PR and marketing perspective, this was pretty canny:

It created such a booming demand for this scarce information that a cottage knowledge industry sprang up, with reporters and bloggers competing to break news about items like product update announcements and leaked supply chain specs. Apple learned that it wouldn’t have to open its doors to critics to get its message out—most of the blogging was done by superfans, after all, and Silicon Valley was still enjoying a halo of public goodwill.

This tactic has become even more valuable in recent years as tech companies face new levels of scrutiny. There might be less public goodwill today, but they still have the strength to exert significant control over their respective narratives.

In essence, we’re seeing the platform v. publisher conversation play out in the tech industry’s relationship with the press. They know information is valuable and powerful - but the idea that it could have any material effects other than driving revenue is just bizarre to them.

It’ll take a concerted effort from tech journalists to change things. For now, all the rest of us can do is to remain vigilant readers and treat our digital overlords with a dose of scepticism.