Technological innovation today often generates a public debate about its positive or negative impact on society. Gone are the days in which tech — particularly consumer tech — was generally regarded as benign. Consider the public’s changing perception over the past decade about some of the world’s most recognizable tech brands: Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. What began as seemingly innocent social media platforms have morphed into vectors for the spread of misinformation with real-life social and political consequences. The companies and employees that develop these platforms face growing pushback.
There are also many indirect examples of worrisome consequences of tech, for example fears that TikTok’s data storage policies mean the Chinese government could access the private data of U.S. citizens. As new innovations are introduced, they may create fear, leading to sometimes bizarre theories, such as the idea that cellphones cause cancer, that 5G wireless technology can cause Covid-19 or that RFID chips are used for clandestine surveillance (and even get implanted into people). But if new products and services stumble or fail because a hostile public is swayed by conspiracy theories, innovation and social progress suffers.
Some conspiracy theories are blaming tech for Covid-19
This problem is even more apparent amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. For example: Bill Gates, one of the world’s biggest philanthropists, is now also one of the world’s biggest targets of online conspiracy theories. Attacks even trickle down to medical professionals whose lifesaving work gets dismissed as “fake news”, “crisis acting”, or worse. While the ideas within conspiracy theories are often ridiculous, we needto take them seriously. When they erode trust in institutions or science, they damage society. This is one of our most urgent crises. For example, when a safe and successful vaccine for Covid-19 is developed, I like millions of others will jump in line to get a shot. Unfortunately, there are concerns that other millions of people will not, because of their fears, often created by conspiracy theories. If and when that happens, the spread and devastation of the virus will be prolonged.
Another popular Covid-19-related conspiracy theory, that 5G frequencies mutated or exacerbated the virus, has already caused real world damage. Cell transmission towers have been burned down in Europe. This irrational and unsubstantiated belief might metastasize into organized opposition in the US against the installation of new towers and the expansion of this next generation of technology. That could cause significant harm to a society otherwise moving now towards more mobile, remote, and cloud-based operations. Such infrastructure will prove particularly beneficial for those in underserved communities and geographies.
There’s been much written about the business value of 5G deployments. However the inverse is also true. Losing out on 5G deployments will mean: fewer services telecoms can offer, less-reliable communications, less-effective edge computing for AR/VR, AI, and the internet of things, and delays in widespread adoption of next-gen technologies like remote surgery and commercial drone usage. Not to mention the risk that the U.S. will fall behind in the international competitiveness and efficiency of our economy.
Tech companies need to prevent conspiracy theories — not react to them
Companies are increasingly expected to be responsible actors in society and take a stance on social issues such as inequality, discrimination, and pollution. Fighting conspiracy theories should be added to the list. Tech companies have strived to remove misinformation about COVID-19 from their platforms and help with medical relief efforts. However, their behavior during the pandemic is still regarded with distrust. Palantir, for example, has drawn a great deal of scrutiny over its secret partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services. Beyond the pandemic, Kara Swisher pointed out how allowing conspiracies and polarizing content to spread has damaged the reputation of Facebook and Twitter, even as they’ve worked to fix it.
One way to help stem the tide against tech companies is for them to open up their processes around innovation, making them more transparent to the public. In this time of confusion and misinformation, businesses have an opportunity to lead in fighting conspiratorial thinking, not by simply denying accusations or attacking the people spreading them, but by building goodwill with the greater public and turning them into advocates for innovation. John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky’s “The Conspiracy Theory Handbook” is a useful guide to how such pernicious ideas begin to circulate, and helps explain how citizens can push back against conspiracy theories. But innovators should seek to avoid being reactive.
Tech companies should strive to be proactive and address the underlying concerns that lead to conspiracy theories around innovation. Company founders and leaders need to ensure that they’re viewed as trustworthy, both before and during the development of their products and services. An ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure.
Tech companies have traditionally been resistant to transparency. Given the large amount of investment often necessary for innovation, it’s natural to fear that trade secrets may get stolen. Some companies even go so far as to try and put restrictions on where former employees can work. On the other hand, if information about a new technology isn’t readily available, that may lead to confusion or skepticism. No one who created 5G could have predicted it might be blamed for a global pandemic. However, the tech and telecom industries could have anticipated that the lay public would have difficulty understanding how it works, and that if this were not addressed it could leave room for bad actors to invent outrageous claims, like that 5G radio waves can cause mutations.
Instead, innovation must be more transparent. When building next-generation technologies, companies need to ensure open communication around what they’re developing and be honest about its potential impacts. They should also develop guidelines and principles to articulate how they will avoid the risks that their technology might be used for harm.
A good recent example of this approach is Google and Apple’s new contact tracing capability for Covid-19 infection. They’ve taken the right steps by declaring they will keep the public’s data anonymous, and have outlined the specific technologies (bluetooth, app permissions, data anonymization, etc.) that go into developing this platform. By contrast, the UK’s NHS ignored this process and created a contact tracing app that was widely criticized. It was seen as not only invasive but ineffective.
The US has always been a hotbed of conspiracy theories, but Covid-19 has accelerated their spread. People are desperate for answers to make sense of a seemingly endless crisis. While trust in institutions has been steadily declining over the years, the technology industry is an increasingly central institution in our society. Tech companies can help repair this damage, help fight conspiracies, and restore the public’s trust by adopting a proactive policy of consistent transparency and openness.