Silicon Valley Cynicism in the Age of Trump and Zuckerberg
The new reality is all too clear and corrosive: The world is a ceaseless battle for dominance in which you take advantage of anyone foolish enough to trust you.
Elizabeth Warren had Facebook in her sights this week, using Twitter to ask a provocative question many of us were thinking to ourselves: “Trump and Zuckerberg met at the White House two weeks ago. What did they talk about?” In the process, she shined a light on the cynicism and culture of mistrust that’s rampant in Silicon Valley and Washington.
The question from Warren, who is steadily rising in the polls among Democratic voters, didn’t exactly come out of the blue; she had two recent developments to triangulate with. First, Mark Zuckerberg was recorded on tape describing to Facebook employees his view that the election of Warren represented an “existential” threat to the company, something “you go to the mat and you fight.” Unstated but implied is that the current president does not represent an existential threat to Facebook—nor does climate change, for that matter.
Second, Facebook just reversed its policies on trying to keep demonstrable lies from its platform in a way that protects President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. “Even if the substance of that claim has been debunked elsewhere,” a Facebook executive explained about the new policy, “if the claim is made directly by a politician on their page, in an ad, or on their website, it is considered direct speech and ineligible for our third-party fact checking program.” Thus, we all learned about the conveniently valuable “politician exemption” to rules against manipulating the public on Facebook.
In her tweetstorm, Warren first noted that Facebook helped elect Trump in 2016 by being “asleep at the wheel” while Russia worked for his election. She then moved to today, concluding that “this time they’re going further by taking deliberate steps to help one candidate intentionally mislead the American people, while painting the candidacy of others (specifically: mine) as an ‘existential’ threat. This is a serious concern for our democratic process.”
This brings us back to that unannounced White House meeting between Zuckerberg and Trump, which was attended by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his digital media strategist Dan Scavino Jr. Facebook’s readout on the meeting was terse: “Mark is in Washington, DC, meeting with policymakers to hear their concerns and talk about future internet regulation. He also had a good, constructive meeting with President Trump at the White House today.” Once news broke of the White House visit, Trump released a picture of the two shaking hands after a “nice meeting.” Good luck keeping this visit under the radar, Mark!ADVERTISEMENT
Did Facebook hand the president a “deliverable,” as Warren is suggesting, like giving his campaign carte blanche to lie and distort on Facebook, to the tune of $1 million a week in ads? Did Trump offer something in return? We’ve lately been privy to how fiercely Trump pursues his personal interests in high-level meetings like the one with Zuckerberg.
An outside observer might reasonably conclude there was some transaction made during that meeting, if only because Facebook, and Silicon Valley more broadly, sees the world as Trump does—a ceaseless battle for dominance in which you take advantage of anyone foolish enough to trust you. To Trump and Facebook alike, any attempt to push back, whether from politicians or the press, is treated as an existential threat. I’m sure they shared a word or two on Warren and The New York Times.
For if you concede that Warren is simply trying to get a handle on out-of-control tech monopolies, you would propose discussion and deliberation, not warfare. Likewise, if you recognize that the press has exposed serious flaws in the design and execution of Silicon Valley platforms, you would be open to a vision of social networks that are much smaller in scale and prevented from exploiting personal data. But if your real goals are money and power (as opposed to say, making the world a better place), you’re more apt to see your opponents as a threat to your very existence, as rapacious and cynical as you are.
The other day there was a rather trivial tweet from a Facebook vice president, Rob Leathern, about a planned merger of Taboola and Outbrain, two companies responsible for those repulsive clickbait ads at the bottom of web articles: “My old theory (which I expressed publicly 5 years ago) was that media seldom* wrote about these companies and advertisers b/c they were conflicted. Who knows?” The asterisk led to a link to a 2016 article—the exception that proved the rule.
What is that supposed rule, exactly? That traditional news organizations deploy coverage (or lack thereof) to help their bottom lines. Of course they do, the cynical thinking goes, that’s what we do with our power. Back in August, a couple of Bay Area reporters wrote on Twitter that they were disturbed by how prevalent this view was. Sheera Frankel of the Times wrote: “Find this increasingly coming up in interviews too, as tech execs question why a story is being written and ascribe motivations to our journalism. It’s worrying.”ADVERTISEMENT
Those exposés of bad behavior by Facebook or YouTube or Amazon you read in the media (including on WIRED) are seen as war by other means against the businesses that threaten the media companies’ existence. (Media companies compete with Facebook for advertising revenue, and they are losing on a grand scale.) Mike Masnick, a tech CEO and the editor of TechDirt, was explicit: “Both things can be true: SV is bad at dealing with the press and… Some significant element of major media operations have it in for big internet companies and are way too quick to publish utter nonsense that makes companies look bad, even when they’re misrepresenting stuff.”
Ben Thompson, publisher of the Stratechery newsletter beloved in Silicon Valley, sees the traditional media as longtime manipulators of the public, only now being displaced as powerful gatekeepers by the big tech platforms. The old guard profited from being what Thompson calls “integrators”—that is, organizations “controlling distribution and integrating editorial content and ads.” To see journalism as dedicated to holding the powerful to account is to be hopelessly naïve.
He made this case, oddly, in a piece prompted by The New York Times’ reporting on Harvey Weinstein’s alleged abuses of women that went on for decades. Thompson argued that the stories only could be printed recently because the Times is no longer reliant on Hollywood advertising. He noted that a Times reporter said she had the Weinstein story in 2004 and was rebuffed by Times editors, who gutted the story of the most serious accusations after a lobbying campaign by Weinstein, whose company was a big Times advertiser. What explains the difference between 2004 and 2017, when the Weinstein story broke in the Times? Not the #MeToo movement. Not a pair of special journalists. The answer is the changing advertising vs. subscription revenue chart. This is, to put it mildly, hogwash.
Thompson backtracks a bit at the end, but his cynical message is clear: Don’t romanticize traditional journalism. “I can imagine there are many that long for the days when the media—and by extension the parties—could effectively determine presidential nominees,” Thompson writes. “The Weinstein case, though, is a reminder of just how rotten gatekeepers can be. Their very structure is ripe for abuse by those in power, and suppression of those wishing to break through; consumers, meanwhile, are taken for granted.”ADVERTISEMENT
In a footnote on that piece, Thompson makes his case for the world Silicon Valley has created: “Fortunately, to date, those that own distribution—the aggregators—have tried to be neutral; that’s a good thing.”
Facebook appealed to neutrality to explain its recent decision to carve out an exemption for politicians’ prevarications: “Our approach is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is.”
Donald Trump has been a clarifying agent for our broken society. Until now, Facebook had been accustomed to carefully choreographic negotiations with the government where it acknowledges that something went awry, it refuses to accept guilt, it writes a big check, and is free to commit its next misdeed.
The current president isn’t so easily assuaged. If Facebook really will do anything to keep growing, Trump will make that “anything” more interesting than a mere $5 billion fine. You will be expected to produce something of real value—like helping a reelection campaign mislead the public. You will become a target for the other political side who recognizes your complicity in Trump’s plans. In the end, he probably won’t deliver what he promised you. And there will be photos