The Baffler

We Don’t Have Elections

How tech companies merge with the nation-state

The Baffler
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Last week, during Mark Zuckerberg’s painfully unconvincing simulation of humanity before the U.S. Congress, Senator Ted Cruz led the charge in accusing Facebook of harboring the disease known as liberalism. The singularly obnoxious gentleman from Texas said that Facebook displayed “a pervasive pattern of bias and political censorship”—notably against the pro-Trump YouTube personalities Diamond and Silk, who, based on their prominence in an otherwise unremarkable set of hearings, seem to be among the best represented constituents in America. Because Facebook must maintain a patina of ideological neutrality, Zuckerberg took Cruz’s admonishment in stride. “I understand where that concern is coming from,” Zuck said, “because Facebook and the tech industry are located in Silicon Valley, which is an extremely left-leaning place.”

To some, Zuckerberg’s admission—there be lefties in them hills—might seem like a CEO prostrating himself before a committee that, however blatantly incompetent, still retains some political power. ThinkProgress accused Zuck of “pandering” to the execrable Cruz. For the right-wing chest-thumpers of The Federalist, though, the exchange was practically mortal combat. Cruz “savaged” Zuckerberg, the site crowed, “making the Silicon Valley billionaire squirm.”

In fact, the brief spat was, like the rest of the hearings, dead on arrival, not even rising to the level of theater. But Zuckerberg did reveal something about Facebook’s self-image, about how the company tries to carefully triangulate its position so that it stands firmly in the Overton window of acceptable opinion. The truth is that while tech giants act with an authoritarian indifference toward their citizen-consumers, it’s increasingly important they are seen as liberal. These are self-endowed nation-states whose CEOs meet with world leaders like Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. And like bin Salman, our tech CEOs see the trappings of representative democracy as a kind of aesthetic, a pose to be trotted out when it serves a certain public image. They may speak of connection and community and the rights of users, but all this is belied by their behavior, which is conditioned by ruthlessness.

It should shock no one if Facebook emerges from its latest privacy imbroglio with a meager fine and a promise to do better—even as our elected leaders, whose lack of knowledge of Facebook’s workings reflected their advanced age, tut-tutted that this time Facebook has to do better. The canon of American regulatory practices tends toward the ceremonial, with extreme deference shown toward corporations that may one day hire former regulators. Senator Lindsey Graham even invited Zuckerberg to submit possible regulations—an example of regulatory capture so blatant that “corruption” doesn’t even seem like the proper word. Playing along, Zuckerberg expressed an openness to regulation, though he asked for a light touch, which, barring another data spillage, he should expect. Beyond a few mild critiques, Congress’s overriding opinion of Zuck seems to be that he was a classic American success story, and perhaps—in his cunning acquisition of ungodly riches on the backs of others’ labor—he is.

While tech giants act with an authoritarian indifference toward their citizen-consumers, it’s increasingly important they are seen as liberal.

To better understand Silicon Valley’s politics, we might return to the nation-state metaphor and consider technology companies as recently ascendant great powers. Endowed with impressive resources, making themselves known in assorted global capitals, their CEOs are greeted in the manner of heads of state. Their vast offshore cash reserves resemble sovereign wealth funds, whose investments have the power to shape politics. In 2016, Zuckerberg met with bin Salman—a distinction that would later be afforded to Jeff Bezos, who plans to build data centers in the theocratic desert kingdom. A meme circulating on Twitter captured the Zuck/bin Salman relationship: the two, barely a year apart in age and dressed informally, stand laughing. Zuckerberg asks, “Do you want data on Saudi users?” bin Salman replies, “Thanks habibi we don’t have elections.”

Facebook doesn’t hold elections either, though it once did, claiming that its users could vote on site policies. Of course, these exercises in democratic governance went nowhere and were eventually discontinued. But the company—and its CEO, who controls a majority of voting shares—still presents itself as a benevolent guardian of its users. Like the Saudi prince, it only wants to do best by its people.

As Baffler contributor Yasha Levine has expertly shown, the history of Silicon Valley is deeply entangled with the course of American militarism. The tech industry has long been dependent on the largesse of Pentagon contracts and the federal government’s expansive research budgets. In recent years, the relationships have become more overt, as the U.S. government has scrambled to make use of the tech industry’s talent and technologies. Just recently, President Trump had dinner with Peter Thiel and Safra Catz, the CEO of Oracle, which is competing with Amazon and other firms for a massive cloud computing contract with the Pentagon. (Amazon already services the cloud computing needs of the CIA.) Google, meanwhile, has had to recently justify its foray into image-recognition for the Department of Defense—which, quelle surprise, is already a specialty of Amazon’s Web Services division. In addition to its misinformation and election manipulation scandals, Facebook has had to fend off criticisms of its role in state violence in Myanmar. And Zuckerberg, in pointing to China as a favorable place to “innovate” in facial recognition, revealed the industry’s coziness with authoritarian politics. After all, China, in addition to being a seeming free-for-all of technological experimentation, has pioneered the use of facial recognition in the name of suppressing personal freedoms. Rounding out this list of government-industry entanglements, it’s worth noting that Google led all U.S. companies in lobbying expenditures last year.

You cannot parse today’s tech politics without wending your way through a thicket of competing contracts, research efforts, regulatory capture, militarism, and outright corruption. Prosaic as they may sometimes be, these features speak more to big tech’s role in public life than any feckless exercise in congressional oversight. We should continue to judge the tech industry not on its warmed-over homilies to the power of connection but on what it does and who it earns its money from. Based on that standard, a company like Facebook or Amazon exhibits an avariciousness that can make a Middle Eastern despot envious. But as we’ve recently learned, from their decadence to their restless populations, the two have much in common.

Jacob Silverman’s book, Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, is published by HarperCollins.

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