If you skimmed my Twitter feed, which is populated by technology critics, policy wonks, and Silicon Valley insiders, you might think our largest tech companies are broadly understood to be fearsome entities, molding the world to their whims with impunity. Glancing at a list of the world’s most valuable companies might reinforce that impression: Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, and Microsoft are ranked one through four, and Facebook is in the top 10. The ominous rise of “big tech” has been a major narrative in mainstream media over the past year or two, and a hot topic in policy circles is how to rein in these companies’ increasingly unrivaled power.
But a new survey from the market-research firm Morning Consult suggests that skeptical stance toward Silicon Valley is not shared by the vast majority of Americans—at least, not yet.
The survey, conducted in late February, asked 2,201 U.S. adults which of four major industries holds the most power and influence in America: “Politics and government in Washington,” “tech in Silicon Valley,” “finance on Wall Street,” or “entertainment in Hollywood.” The tech industry placed a distant last, at just 5 percent.
This was not an isolated finding. A series of subsequent questions asked people to rate how serious a problem each industry has with “white-collar crime,” “corruption,” “racism,” “sexual harassment,” and “nepotism.” Fewer than 20 percent of respondents thought the technology industry had a “major problem” in any of those regards. Each of the other industries was viewed as more troubled than tech, in every way.
This is despite widespread reports of sexual harassment and racial disparities in Silicon Valley, and charges of “massive fraud” by Elizabeth Holmes, founder of the discredited blood-testing startup Theranos. (It’s fair to note that the SEC charges against Holmes came after this survey was conducted, though long after media reports had exposed wrongdoing at the company.)
Meanwhile, Morning Consult’s “Brand Intelligence” project reports that all five of the “big five” U.S. tech companies still enjoy high favorability ratings among consumers. Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are all at more than 80 percent, while Facebook and Apple check in just under 70 percent.
What’s going on here? Why are people still so unafraid of the world’s richest corporations, even as those corporations collect fine-grained data on almost every aspect of our lives and shape the way we work, communicate, and spend our free time?
One relatively obvious factor may be that the big tech companies make things that people love: iPhones, Gmail, Instagram, and other flagship products have hundreds of millions of loyal users. The warm feelings those devices and services engender may blind people to the industry’s darker undersides of mass surveillance, targeted advertising, and addictiveness. That said, Hollywood makes movies and TV shows that people love, too.
It’s fair to note that many tech companies really do care about their effects on the world, at least to some extent. And it would be silly to deny that the products they’ve made have improved a lot of people’s lives and made us smarter in many ways. But it’s also naïve to underestimate the power and influence that they wield, at least partly if not entirely in service of their own growth and profits.
Some experts that Morning Consult talked with suggested that it’s just a matter of time: The backlash against Silicon Valley is recent compared to the public’s longstanding disillusionment with Washington, Wall Street, and Hollywood, so it hasn’t yet filtered as pervasively throughout the populace.
There’s another potential reason we might worry less about sexism and racism in Silicon Valley than in Hollywood: Silicon Valley has so few women and people of color in the spotlight that the discrimination they face too often tends to stay out of the public eye.
That points to what might be the real key to Silicon Valley’s comparatively clean reputation: secrecy. Politicians are subject to public records laws, media scrutiny, and competitive elections that make their misdeeds and scandals far more vulnerable to public exposure. Movie stars are tracked ceaselessly by the paparazzi, and their personal dramas play out in tabloid headlines. So far, Silicon Valley’s largest companies appear to have mastered the art of seeming friendly and transparent while ruthlessly blocking public access to their inner workings.
Wall Street is similarly secretive, which might help explain how it managed to be viewed by many as glamorous in the 1980s, until the savings and loan crisis dragged its skeletons into the light. As late as 1988, surveys showed that 27 percent of Americans had “a great deal” of confidence in banks and financial institutions, while just 13 percent deeply mistrusted them. By 1991, those figures had reversed resoundingly: 12 percent of Americans had “a great deal” of confidence in banks, while 34 percent had “hardly any.”
Perhaps, then, Silicon Valley stands today in a position analogous to that of Wall Street in the mid-’80s. It’s making obscene piles of money, but it’s also getting credit for innovation and dynamism, and for driving economic growth. And so the average American hasn’t yet grown suspicious about exactly where that money is coming from, and what might be the hidden impacts on their lives of its products.
The tech backlash that’s brewing today—in the form of advocacy groups against phone addiction, congressional hearings on election interference, and growing antitrust chatter—might yet turn out to be Silicon Valley’s S&L moment. But the Morning Consult poll suggests the industry still has time to preserve its positive image. That’s good news if big tech companies use that leeway to commit themselves to greater transparency and accountability. If they use it to keep minting maximal money for a few more years without much regard to their products’ downsides, well, that’s not such good news—either for society or, in the long run, for Silicon Valley itself.