Silicon Valley has enjoyed years of popularity and growing markets.
But 2018 has been rocky for the industry.
Data breaches, controversies over offensive speech and misinformation — as well as reports of foreign operatives’ use of their services — have left many people skeptical about the benefits of social media, experts say.
Worries about social media in Congress meant tech executives had to testify before committees several times this year.
“2018 has been a challenging year for tech companies and consumers alike,” said Pantas Sutardja, chief executive of LatticeWork Inc., a data storage firm. “Company CEOs being called to Congress for hearings and promising profusely to fix the problems of data breach but still cannot do it.”
WATCH: Social Media’s Year of Falling From Grace
An apology tour
Facebook drew the most scrutiny. The social networking giant endured criticism after revelations that its lax oversight allowed a political consulting firm to exploit millions of its users’ data.
In the spring, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, went on what was dubbed “an apology tour” to tell users that the company would do a better job of protecting their data.
The California firm faced other problems when data breaches at the site compromised user information. Other sharp criticism hit Facebook when false reports on its site sparked violence in places like Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
Using social media to sow division
“Are America’s technology companies serving as instruments of freedom?” asked Kevin McCarthy, R-California and the House Majority Leader during a congressional hearing. “Or are they serving as instruments of manipulation used by powerful interests and foreign governments to rob the people of their power, agency, and dignity?”
Adding to concerns, the year saw new revelations of foreign operatives using social media to secretly spread divisive and often bogus messages in the U.S. and worldwide.
“It doesn’t matter to whose benefit they were operating,” said Walt Mossberg, a former tech columnist with the Wall Street Journal. “What bothers people here is that a foreign country, using our social networks, digital products and services that we have come to feel comfortable in … has come in and used that against us.”
Tech workers stand up
In addition to data privacy and misinformation, online speech became a big issue this year. Under pressure, social media companies like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook’s Instagram tightened restrictions on the kinds of speech they tolerate on their sites.
Tech workers pressed managers about their company’s government contracts, and Google workers staged a worldwide walkout over the treatment of female colleagues.
The issue of user data has led some companies such as LatticeWork, a data storage firm, to create new ways for users to protect their data and themselves. Playing off people’s concerns about data, LatticeWorks markets its products as a way to “bring your data home.”
What’s unclear however is whether concerns about personal data and tech company decisions will spur users to leave these services. Facebook revelations prompted some like Mossberg to give up Facebook and its other services such as Instagram. He wants federal law to limit U.S. internet firms collection and use of user data.
“Governments and citizens of countries around the world need the right to regulate them without closing down free speech,” he said. “And that’s tricky.”
Some congressional members have vowed to pass a federal data privacy bill in the coming year, something that tech firms say they support.
But whether new regulations build trust in digital services remains to be seen.