It was the deplorables, sure. And it was the Russians, at least a little bit. But the intellectual class is now apportioning the lion’s share of the blame for the 2016 election to Silicon Valley’s biggest tech companies. And those companies are in turn desperately trying to signal their contrition. Whether it was their failure to stop “fake news” and properly monitor their networks for pro–Donald Trump foreign subversion or just their contribution to the ongoing social and political polarization of our society, they want to say they’re sorry.
The election of Trump and, to a lesser degree, the electoral success of Brexit aren’t being attributed to voters, or explained by reference to evenly divided societies, an anti-incumbent mood, and lackluster campaigns by Hillary Clinton and Remainers. These events have to be someone’s fault. And if Silicon Valley can be made to cough up some money to public treasuries and hire journalists out of a failing media industry for no-show jobs, so much the better, our ruling class thinks.
Silicon Valley has started to respond. In the U.S., there was Mark Zuckerberg’s weird listening tour. In France, Tim Cook groveled before Emmanuel Macron and admitted that perhaps Apple can no longer hide all its European profits in Ireland, where its effective tax rate is 2.5 percent. Facebook is hiring English-speaking journalists and partnering with progressive “fact-checkers.” (Presumably, “fake news” isn’t a problem in other languages.) Apple is giving money to liberal groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center.
This should be seen for what it is: a kind of disguised influence buying, a way of paying off the class of people who can start moral and legal panics.
The legal status of social networks as “platforms” rather than publishers is increasingly untenable. The algorithms that govern what users see, and the internal policies that companies use to expel users, shape what kind of content one sees. The business and political priorities of Silicon Valley are going to appeasement of its center-left critics in Western Europe and America, and reshape the Internet in strange ways.
As Niall Ferguson points out in a perceptive essay in the Spectator, the major Silicon Valley companies have a branding problem on their hands: It is crucial for them to appeal to young, predominantly liberal users — tweens, teens, and twentysomethings. They cannot afford to even accidentally become aligned with President Trump again, as they did in 2016. And they are hell-bent on making sure they don’t.
Silicon Valley treats complaints from Western journalists and governments as serious priorities, and its ad hoc responses are inadvertently creating a hierarchy of linguistic freedom on the Internet. Chinese is the most-policed language on the Web, thanks to the Chinese government’s fanatical efforts. But after that, Silicon Valley itself is beginning to get into the censorship and editing game in German and English, though it can’t yet hire enough Arabic and Farsi interpreters to achieve the local cultural understanding that would enable effective censorship in those languages. This means that soon, Silicon Valley will have overwhelming incentives, business and political, to quickly police speech that annoys important Anglophone liberals — which is to say, speech by Anglophone conservatives and right wingers.
Of course, once the potential regulation of social media is on the table, there may be no way of putting the rabbit back into the hat.
Of course, once the potential regulation of social media is on the table, there may be no way of putting the rabbit back into the hat. If Facebook cannot be trusted to correctly edit its algorithm because it may purposely or accidentally influence an election, why should the Washington Post and the New York Times be trusted to edit their own content? Surely, their editorial decisions also influence elections.
Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election are, of course, a major security concern, though most liberal journalists seem unaware that they, too, were targets of those attempts. They are predisposed to think such disinformation campaigns are primarily about changing voting behavior. But by making tokenistic efforts to change voting behavior, a hostile foreign power like Russia can drastically reshape media coverage of the ensuing presidency, as well.
You could see the success of Russia’s efforts when it snuck a photographer into a White House meeting, and when it trumpeted a “warm reception” from Trump during a perfunctory credentialing ceremony, sending liberal-media Twitter into a froth. By making tiny pro-Trump ad-buys on Facebook, it managed to steal some of the legitimacy of the Trump presidency in a media culture already predisposed to think him illegitimate. And it increased our polarizing energies in the bargain.
There’s another thing working against Silicon Valley’s companies in their coming battle with governments and the media: While it isn’t strictly illegal to accidentally make the world a worse place to live in, there is a generalized feeling, especially among the richest consumers in the West, that the digital revolution has been a disaster for society as a whole, and for the psychology of most “information workers,” in particular.
On the political level, the promises of Silicon Valley have been a chimera. Instead of powering young democratic movements in Iran, as promised, Silicon Valley’s social networks allowed Sunni extremists to launch civil wars and tear down authoritarian regimes in favor of Islamism. They allowed ISIS to groom and recruit among the lonely and disconnected in Europe, and send back terror.
Other tech companies, such as Uber, openly weaponize their customers against the rule of law as they try to break into new markets without developing the kinds of standards and compliance operations that most global companies had to master in the bygone age when the state’s sovereignty was unchallenged in the West.
On the psychological level, it is also difficult to find a “knowledge worker” in the West who doesn’t now openly despise the way that Silicon Valley makes such a close and effective study of our human nature in order to ensnare and monopolize our attention, or the effects that Big Tech’s devices are having on social and family life.
But I expect a truce can be found between Silicon Valley and Western elites. So long as social networks and tech companies incorporate, codify, and integrate into their algorithms the biases and preferences of the liberal chattering class, they’ll be free to continue reaping windfall profits no matter what industries they destroy in the first world or furies they unleash in the third world.
Will Western conservatives put up with the soft censorship these companies impose on the web on the grounds that private enterprises should be free to do what they wish? I wonder.