Silicon Valley's "come to Satan" moment
Like everyone else on the planet, I’m still processing what happened last week.
Not so much how it happened -- that’s pretty clear. But rather what the implications are for all the groups that President Elect Trump threatened during his campaign, and for the worst of his supporters now emboldened in their hate, bigotry and anger. We’ve already seen the first hints of what’s to come -- a White Nationalist as a senior advisor in the White House, promises to begin deportation of immigrants, pally chats with Putin and of course a rash of hate crimes across the country.
And while many on the left are twisting themselves into pretzels to avoid being mean to the other side (how did we let this happen, how did we make him so angry so he did this to us. It must be our fault, how can we be better so this doesn’t happen again. Boo Hillary!), Trump and his cronies have made clear that they won’t stop until any meaningful opposition - from protesters, from the media, from anyone else - is silenced.
I have a lot more to say on all of the above, and I’m still trying to figure out what’s appropriate for Pando and what should probably be written elsewhere. But there's one question that defintely needs to be addressed on these pages: How much blame does the tech industry bear for all of this?
The answer is simple too: A ton.
Some of that blame is deserved directly. That is, some companies and individuals in Silicon Valley actively made decisions that helped boost Trump and silence other candidates, in particular Hillary Clinton.
Peter Thiel (a Pando investor, I’m eternally ashamed to say) is an obvious candidate for direct blame. Not only did he support and fund Trump but now he has joined a transition team headed by a Vice President Elect who is openly anti-gay, on behalf of a President Elect openly anti- everything that Silicon Valley is supposed to stand for. It’s shocking, but lest it surprise you too much, remember that Peter Thiel, like Mike Pence, believes in Creationism over evolution. And like Donald Trump, Peter Thiel has declared war on the First Amendment. Oh, and always remember that in Trump’s administration, every seat at the table has a little tent card with the word “asshole” written on it in neat calligraphy. There’s always going to be a place at that table for someone like Peter Thiel.
You can add to the list of direct blame folks like Palmer Luckey and, of course, online media outlets like Breitbart. You can also add Wikileaks which, we were all told, was about using radical transparency to keep Americans safe from government tyranny but in fact turned out to be about secretly backchanneling with Putin to deliver his brand of tyranny hot and fresh to American soil.
More interesting, and in some ways more disgusting, is the much broader category of people and companies in the Valley who didn’t directly support Trump - in fact often opposed him in their public statements -- but who deliberately failed to take very basic steps to halt his rise.
Chief amongst those culprits are Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey. People inside both companies have confirmed that early on in Trump’s campaign, a decision was made to exempt him from the usual standards and rules governing trolling. At both companies it was decided, right at the very top, that presidential candidates are a special case and that it serves the interests of democracy to allow them to say whatever the hell they want, any time, unfiltered. Hence we saw Trump use tweets and status updates to attack minorities, defame and abuse women, and ultimately lie, cheat and steal his way to the White House.
The policy was ludicrous. Presidential candidate or not, if Donald Trump marched into a branch of Wendy’s and began abusing other patrons and smearing ketchup on the windows, he would be asked to leave. Free speech is one thing, vandalism and abuse is quite another. But Dorsey and Zuckerberg decided they were fine giving special treatment to Trump, which in turn emboldened his supporters to use those same platforms to behave in those same ways. Some of those supporters were banned (often for much less dangerous comments than the candidate himself was making) but by that time Zuck and Jack were so cowed by the idea of offending Trump supporters and prompting a backlash that they failed (and indeed have still failed) to take the most basic steps to ensure deliberately false and inflammatory stories were not widely distributed on their platforms.
Here Mark Zuckerberg deserves a special medal for services to bullshit. Even now -- after Trump literally held an interview in which he credited Facebook and Twitter for helping him win -- Zuckerberg is denying that Facebook bears any responsibility for the outcome of the election. “We’re a technology company not a media company,” is his latest pathetic mantra.
Guess what, Mark? You’re both -- just like Rupert Murdoch’s company (before the big split, at least) was at once a news company (Wall Street Journal, Fox News et al), an entertainment company (20th Century Fox, Fox News et al) and a technology company (MySpace, a big chunk of Hulu etc etc). Imagine how ridiculous Rupert Murdoch would sound if 1% of all stories in the Wall Street Journal were shown to be deliberately false and Murdoch simply pointed to his movie holdings and said “but we’re an entertainment company!”
You don’t get to just tell people what you are in order to dodge your moral and legal responsibilities. You are what you do, and what people use you for. And what people used Facebook for during this past election was to decide who to trust with their vote.
And by the way. By the fucking way. The fact that Zuckerberg has still refused to fire Peter Thiel despite Thiel now being a formal part of Trump’s transition team is so far past shameful and embarrassing that we might need to coin some new words. Perhaps he thinks keeping one of Trump’s lieutenants on staff will keep Facebook safe when the Purge comes. In which case, his self-delusion is even greater than I thought.
My hope, during the next few months, is that companies like Facebook and Twitter will be forced to take meaningful action to get their houses in order -- to ensure that the rise of hate crimes in America is not represented on their platforms, and to take basic steps to alert users when media organizations are deliberately lying to them. Perhaps they’ll take the problem seriously when they realize just how angry their users are. Or when it dawns on them that, while they’re pussyfooting around not wanting to offend Trump voters, the new president is busy thinking up laws that will give him unprecedented control over speech and unprecedented access to our data. We shall see.
Sadly we’ll also likely see a lot more dipshittery like Shervin Pishevar (another Pando investor, God help us) and his dreams of lopping off California as its own separate country. Smarter folks than I have pointed out all the reason why his plan is even more loopy than the hyperloop, so I’ll simply add this: If Pishevar fills the leadership positions of his brave new world with the same type of people he’s promoted in his Valley career, then he’s describing a world run by Uber bros, dictators, and a guy who left a noose on his business partner’s chair.
The tech industry faces what its own luminaries might call a “come to Jesus moment”. A time to decide whether it plans to make those meaningful concrete steps to slow the rise of tyranny in America (remember when that kind of rhetoric seemed like hyperbole?) or to remain cowering in inaction until the jackboots come marching down the hallways of One Hacker Way.
Meanwhile, we should keep an eye out for a third category of Valley mogul. Those who stayed quiet, or even opposed Trump, during the election campaign, but now see business opportunity in his victory. We’ve started to see the rhetoric already in Washington: Of course I opposed fascism and tyranny when Trump was running for office, but now he’s been elected (albeit without winning the popular vote), it’s my patriotic duty to offer the new president any help I can in carrying out his policy proposals. In politics, there’s some justification for that kind of pivot: The opposite being gridlock where everyone suffers.
But seeing Valley folks offer their services to the new administration treads an incredibly fine line between patriotism and profiteering. And as for actually building tools to profit from Trump’s brand of hate, well...
Just this morning as I was writing this piece, a friend sent me a tweet from David Byttow, who you’ll likely remember as the disgraced founder of Secret. That is, the teen bullying app that was shuttered in 2015 after a blizzard of press (including here on Pando) about how Byttow was willfully and enthusiastically profiting off teenagers being driven to consider suicide.
Byttow promised he was getting out of the slander space and instead launching an enterprise company.
Well guess what? Now that America is run by the ultimate online bully, Byttow has decided to bring Secret back…
Secret V2 is coming. It's too important for it to not exist.— David Byttow (@davidbyttow) November 13, 2016
And, just in case you were inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt that Secret II will be used by Trump’s targets and victims to ensure free speech, a follow up tweet made clear who the service will be positioned to:
The more "deplorable" Trump was labeled, the less likely a growing group of people were willing to openly/honestly discuss their support.— David Byttow (@davidbyttow) November 14, 2016
Yep, poor Trump supporters who are too scared to make their views known under their real name. A bullying and hate speech app for the age of Trump!
Let’s call the this a “come to Satan" moment. With so much money and so few standards of decency available under the Trump administration, I suspect it won’t be the last one we see from Silicon Valley.