One of the great unforeseen consequences of the 2016 presidential election is the war being waged on Silicon Valley. Increasingly it is facing attacks from the Left and Right, both wrongly advocating for government intervention in tech rather than a robust protection of the free enterprise system that spawned these enterprises and will spawn their competitors if we permit it.
Let us start with the Left, where Big Tech must be stunned that it is taking a beating in light of its monolithic progressivism.
The recent hysteria around the social media companies’ “complicity and collusion in the conspiracy to elect Donald Trump” – the effective charge – is something to behold.
The fact is, as with the Russiagate revelations of grave offenses at the highest levels of the national security and law enforcement apparatuses, the backlash against the tech companies that President Barack Obama brought to Washington, D.C. is purely a function of Hillary Clinton’s loss.
Scapegoats must be found. Crises must not be let go to waste.
First there was the panic over Russia influencing the U.S. election by disseminating propaganda on social media in support of a variety of issues and at least four candidates according to the relevant Mueller special counsel indictment (contrary to the propaganda’s purported pro-Trump, anti-Hillary propaganda bent).
What was the size of this operation? As Byron York summarizes, Russians purchased 3,000 ads totaling approximately $100k across Facebook and Instagram combined, or one-tenth of one percent of the $81 million the Trump and Clinton campaigns spent on those two platforms. Fifty-six percent of the 11 million views of those ads came after the 2016 election. 25 percent of the ads were never seen. Most of the ads did not deal with the presidential election, voting or a candidate.
If those social media messages swung the election, every last campaign consultant should be fired. Moreover, it is hard to see how a Soviet Union equally adept in active measures, dedicating resources several orders of magnitude greater than $100k to such tactics for decades, would not have triumphed over us during the Cold War.
Russia’s expertise in spreading propaganda and disinformation to destabilize its foes is no laughing matter. What is laughable is the idea that social media posts elected Donald Trump, as if Americans have no agency and a Russian hundred-grand is worth infinitely more than American millions. What is further laughable is the impression one gets from our media that Russia’s efforts to influence the American political system began in 2015. From the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt onward the Soviet Union sought to infiltrate and subvert our political system. Beginning in the 1950s, U.S. national security policy explicitly acknowledged the Soviet Union’s use of active measures, and emphasized the importance of engaging in information warfare to counter such efforts.
Now there is the panic over Cambridge Analytica. David Harsanyi describes the story aptly:
Facebook obtained information on users who took a personality quiz with their online friends. Another outlet, Cambridge Analytica, harvested that information to brainwash a bunch of rubes, and then yada, yada, yada … Russia! Senators are now demanding executives come forth and answer questions. Investigations must be open. Democracy is under threat.
Former Cambridge Analytica contractor and now-professional whistleblower Christopher Wylie told CNN that while at the company he helped build a “psychological warfare weapon” to “exploit mental vulnerabilities that our algorithms showed that [Facebook users] had.”
So, in other words, he worked in the advertising business.
The use of Facebook to mine personal data and then microtarget millions of voters with political ads, which was viewed as dazzling campaigning during Barack Obama’s 2012 run, is now cast as nefarious manipulation when it comes to Donald Trump’s 2016 run. Why? The singular substantive difference is that Cambridge Analytica is alleged to have received such data indirectly. While University of Cambridge Professor Aleksandr Kogan had obtained user information legitimately, he was not entitled to sell it to Cambridge Analytica. When he did so, and Facebook discovered it in 2015, Cambridge Analytica allegedly falsely claimed to have destroyed it, thereby violating Facebook policy. Of course, the Trump campaign reportedly never used Cambridge Analytica’s data in the general election.
This is in contrast to the 2012 Obama campaign. As former director of integration and media analytics Carol Davidsen recently tweeted: “Facebook was surprised we were able to suck out the whole social graph [the entire U.S. social network], but they didn’t stop us once they realized that was what we were doing. They came to office in the days following election recruiting & were very candid that they allowed us to do things they wouldn’t have allowed someone else to do because they were on our side.” Talk about collusion. The double standard is stunning.
Moreover, as Kalev Leetaru writes in Forbes: “Cambridge Analytica’s alleged use of Facebook data for voter targeting pales in comparison with the ways in which Facebook itself exploits its private user data for its own purposes and those of the researchers that collaborate with it.” The use of Facebook data is commonplace across every area that studies people, from academic researchers to businesses to governments. The data is what makes Facebook so valuable.
But now Facebook has poked the proverbial bear in the political class, under the guise of failing to protect user data, but really because Trump won. It is calling for CEO Mark Zuckerberg to come to Capitol Hill and testify. Silicon Valley “insiders” are suggesting this could be the start of the social network’s demise.
What is really going on?
Washington is trying to find a silver lining in its failure in the 2016 presidential election, by using it as a backdoor into regulating the Silicon Valley empires. In the absolute worst case scenario from the perspective of the politicians, it can legally extort these companies by threatening regulation in exchange for protection in the form of millions of dollars in campaign contributions. In the best case, it can exert total control over these businesses. More control means more power and thus political capital to be cashed in when needed.
The media meanwhile is no objective observer in covering Silicon Valley. Several titans of media have been critical of Facebook and Google, with some urging regulators to probe them. There is an inherent conflict of interest here: Namely that the media companies’ business models are inextricably tied to these platforms. Could it be that in attacking the social media companies news outlets are actually talking their own book?
The two major narratives regarding Silicon Valley and the 2016 election render the government and media’s agenda transparent.
In the case of the slapping around of social media companies over “Russian interference,” we know this is kabuki. Though there is no moral equivalence between Russia and America, the U.S. too of course seeks to influence foreign politics, as the Obama administration did quite brazenly when it came to Brexit and Israel’s 2015 presidential election. And how can one forget that the Clinton Foundation itself was seemingly built to allow foreign actors to influence U.S. politics.
As for the media, as Lee Smith observes, the very outlets that have trumpeted the idea that Russia poses a mortal threat to our republic were content to print Russian propaganda throughout Vladimir Putin’s reign.
Meanwhile, we have seen no such outrage in the political class or media over other foreign nations who routinely seek to interfere with our political system. Consider the millions of dollars in funding lavished on prominent Washington think-tanks from leading funders of jihad like Qatar; or China’s insidious efforts on U.S. college campuses which our only now starting to be recognized; or Mexican political officials seeking to undermine our sovereignty and influence our politics. What makes Russia different?
But this kabuki is not without real policy implications. The typically Orwellian “Honest Ads Act,” introduced with bipartisan support in October 2017 in response to the Russian social media propaganda, would sacrifice the vestige of a free market in political speech to save the vestige of a free market in political speech. As the Wall Street Journal describes it:
The bill would impose new disclaimer and reporting requirements on internet platforms that run paid advertising, from Facebook and Twitter to the online news sites of major newspapers and magazines or the Drudge Report. The disclosure requirements would essentially require digital platforms to publish the name of any American seeking to discuss political subjects through paid ads, a chilling standard.
The bill would also impose legal liabilities on sites if advertising from prohibited actors slip through. Media outlets and digital platforms could be held civilly or criminally responsible for content on their sites that doesn’t comply with Federal Election Commission legal requirements.
When it comes to Cambridge Analytica, the media seems to be outraged at Facebook for essentially allowing the Trump campaign to do what the Obama administration did in using detailed data to target messages at voters. Question: Why is it “manipulation” when Trump does it, but “genius” when Obama does it? Answer: Because anything, however small, that might have helped Trump win one more vote is de facto illegitimate. Even though the Trump campaign dropped Cambridge Analytica for the 2016 general election. And even though Cambridge Analytica’s much touted “psychometric” voter targeting systems have been called ineffective. And even though no one has yet made a convincing case that social media messaging meaningfully swung voters in a general election comprised of two of the most famous personalities to ever run for the presidency.
Of course voters do not have to consume what is in their social media feeds, or be compelled by such messages in the first place. Hillary Clinton is perfectly happy to blame the voters. But her old colleagues in the senate are wiser than that, especially in a midterm election year, which brings us to where we are today in which social media executives are going to be trotted in front of congress for practices deemed perfectly acceptable just a few election cycles ago.
The end game here again is to use the election as a pretext to at the very least beat Silicon Valley into paying for protection. At its most extreme, one could foresee Washington trying to break up these companies, regulate them and/or treat them as public utilities.
The Right is starting to come around to these positions for entirely different reasons than the Left.
As has become quite clear, conservatives are being systemically discriminated against by Big Tech in a whole raft of ways, from the outright censorship of content, to alleged shadowbanning, algorithmic disadvantaging, deletion of positive book reviews, filtering of content via fact check, demonetization and even barring video channels that have the temerity to talk about guns.
Turning to the government to challenge private enterprises – fully acknowledging the hypocrisy in how the state treats Facebook/Twitter/YouTube versus say a cake shop – is not the answer. I would suggest that the cure would be worse than the disease. As we have seen, chilling political speech was the government’s initial reaction to what transpired in 2016 – a practice that would likely only further erode the freedom of conservatives in the digital sphere.
As Rob Tracinski puts it:
The only thing worse than social media controlled by petty tyrants in Silicon Valley is social media controlled by petty tyrants in Washington DC. In any case, regulation is unnecessary. These platforms have power and influence because we gave them power and influence. The moment enough of us stop doing it, they turn into MySpace.
Even if government regulation was solely about protecting conservative political speech from the progressives who dominate the tech world — rather than bilking them, stifling speech and perhaps counterintuitively protecting the tech titans’ dominant positions by erecting high regulatory barriers to entry – I would still suggest that it is the wrong approach.
The incumbent players in tech are undeniably rich and powerful. One can envision an infinite numbers of ways that they can help make or break an individual, an industry or even a nation via the control of search, advertising dollars and cyberwarfare. But these players derive their power because we grant it to them as consumers.
Such dominance is exactly why we must advocate vociferously for a free market to provide alternatives. The free enterprise system punishes discrimination, ideological or otherwise. Counterintuitively, the progressive masters of the universe in tech are creating a massive opportunity to capture 50 percent of America by discriminating against, marginalizing and ignoring the complaints of the Right.
Government creates monopolies. The marketplace breaks them up. In a capitalist system, dominant enterprises may fall, or be forced to change their ways, for any number of reasons, including:
- Technological advances leaving incumbent players obsolete
- Operational errors
- Lousy investments
- Loss of human capital
- Inability to keep innovating given loss of entrepreneurial culture as companies grow large and sclerotic
- Angering customers
- Tarnishing their reputations
- Hubris and complacency
Industries and individual firms rise and fall throughout history. How soon we forget that supposedly invincible investment banks around for over a hundred years went up in smoke in mere days just a decade ago.
No one will deny that the tech companies are hugely powerful. But too, no one can deny that there are any of a million unforeseen factors that might knock them off their perch or force them to react to competition by better serving currently disenfranchised customers. At least, no one can deny this is so so long as the internet remains relatively free and open.
Those who would suggest that the answer to Big Tech’s problems is to give the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders more power over it have a high burden of proof. They have to show why Big Tech is fundamentally different from any other group of dominant companies in economic history. They have to explain why the free market will not provide superior solutions to hyperregulation. And they have to explain how they can be so sure that the unintended consequences of such hyperregulation alone will not prove more disastrous than the status quo.