Companies need to learn to survive the techlash

Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has made no secret of how she feels about Big Tech.
Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has made no secret of how she feels about Big Tech.
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Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has made no secret of how she feels about Big Tech.

Companies need to learn to survive the techlash

The onus is now on tech companies to show they are responsible social actors.
October 16, 2019

In the run-up to Tuesday night’s Democratic debate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren was making headlines by attacking Facebook – including by spreading a little fake news of her own. “Breaking news: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook just endorsed Donald Trump for re-election,” reads an ad that her campaign ran on her Facebook page. Later on in the ad, she explains that while her ad may not be true, “but what Zuckerberg *has* done is given Donald Trump free rein to lie on his platform – and then to pay Facebook gobs of money to push out their lies to American voters.”

Facebook has tried to have it both ways on the issue of free speech in recent months. Its new ad policies prohibit false advertising of the sort that arguably led to ethnic cleansing in Burma, but political candidates can still say whatever they want in campaign ads – although that is sometimes enforced in a seemingly arbitrary manner. The exception is just one way that CEO Mark Zuckerberg has sought to assuage critics on the political right who allege that the company has a bias against them. He has also hosted private meetings with conservative pundits to hear their concerns. By seeking to satisfy them, however, Zuckerberg has become a political punching bag for those on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum, including Warren, who has risen in the polls in recent weeks to become a co-front runner with former Vice President Joe Biden. It’s a strange position for a company that, like Google and other tech giants, was beloved by Democrats – until the 2016 election exposed how social media can be manipulated through incendiary and, sometimes, false advertising.

This has created an opening for a candidate like Warren, who has made no secret of her disdain for Big Tech. She compared Big Tech to Big Oil at a campaign stop on Tuesday and has promised to forgo raising money from some tech executives and investors. In Texas, this might not be so bad. In New York City, though, this could be the kiss of political death. The onus is now on tech companies to show that they are responsible social actors. Those who cannot demonstrate that will have trouble ingratiating themselves to Democratic elected leaders, which will make it that much harder for tech firms to have their concerns considered by key decision-makers. 

Warren’s recent broadsides, the failed HQ2 deal, and the recent political defeats of the local real estate industry offer tech a cautionary tale of what can happen to companies that find themselves on the wrong side of the political divide in one of the most liberal cities and states around.

For the rest of today's tech news, head over to First Read Tech.

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State.
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