Peter Thiel walks off stage at the Republican National Convention
Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images
Venture capitalist Dave McClure was sitting before a crowd at a tech conference Wednesday morning trying to act as though Donald Trump hadn’t just been elected President of the United States.
But in the midst of a panel on whether ego is the biggest reason for failure, McClure, a founding partner at 500Startups, jumped out of his seat to talk about the election results. When the moderator asked McClure to tie it back to technology, he pivoted from anger to something closer to anguish, calling social networks built by Silicon Valley “a propaganda medium” that “assholes like Trump” use to get in office. “We provide communication platforms for the rest of the fucking country and we are allowing shit to happen just like the cable news networks, just like talk radio,” he said. By the time McClure asked the crowd to stand up and “make a goddamn difference,” they gave him a standing ovation.
“Sometimes I feel like we’re just a bunch of nerds who don’t know how to play the game,” McClure said later in an interview with BuzzFeed News, sounding quieter and more circumspect than he had on the conference stage.
That kind of self-flagellation doesn’t always go over so well with technocrats. But Trump’s victory has forced a moment of reckoning for Silicon Valley, where luminaries overwhelmingly supported Clinton. Two of the industry’s most successful products, Twitter and Facebook, were harnessed by a leader who has stood against their creators’ professed values of tolerance and inclusion. As the electoral votes began stacking up Tuesday night, Silicon Valley stalwarts publicly grappled with the disconnect between boom times in their own backyard and backlash from Trump’s voter base.
Former employees of Twitter and Facebook, in posts on those platforms, had candid – and even regretful – conversations about the role these technologies played in Trump’s victory. “What did we build?” a former Twitter engineer asked. “A machine that turns polarization into $,” another former Twitter engineer replied. A third Twitter alum tweeted, “At bare minimum, I regret not knowing about the extent of harassment problem during my time + not doing enough to stop it.”
In a post on Facebook, Bobby Goodlatte, a former product designer for Facebook who left the social network in 2012, sparked a similar discussion. He said Facebook’s news feed had fueled “highly partisan, fact-light media outlets” that “propelled Donald Trump into the lead.” As BuzzFeed News has reported, Facebook during the election cycle became a hotbed for highly partisan fake “news.”
Sam Altman, president of the parent company behind Y Combinator, also said that social media had contributed to the sense that there are two parallel countries “that each think the other side is completely crazy and wrong and dangerous. This is something that tech makes worse and not better” by allowing people to “segregate into a shared-view universe and read what they want to read.” Altman explained, “I bet many of those Trump voters view [the opposition] with the same repulsion.”
Before Tuesday, when the possibility of a Trump presidency seemed more like a thought experiment than an impending reality, Silicon Valley had already begun to acknowledge some self-doubt. The spectre of Trump’s popularity clouded the stage at Vanity Fair’s recent New Establishment summit, for example. “You have an energized base who feels their future is being robbed from them by technology, by innovation,” Aaron Levie, the CEO of the data storage company Box, told BuzzFeed News between panels a couple weeks ago. “I am starting to think the Valley has more responsibility to think about these issues.” On the sense of fear that surrounds automation, he added, “We certainly don’t experience it in the Valley.”
But as Clinton’s concession became an inevitability, engineers and tech investors – usually a self-assured bunch – turned grave. Ben Matasar was the former Twitter engineer whose question hit a nerve among some of his former colleagues.
In response to questions from BuzzFeed News, a Facebook spokesperson said: “While Facebook played a part in this election, it was just one of many ways people received their information – and was one of the many ways people connected with their leaders, engaged in the political process and shared their views.” A spokesperson for Twitter offered the following statement: “We believe that everyone on Twitter should feel safe expressing diverse political opinions, but behavior that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another person’s voice should have no place on our platform. Scapegoating social media for an election result ignores the vital roles that candidates, journalists, and voters play in the democratic process.”
The internet, of course, has long provided a safe haven for hate and harassment. Ellen Pao, the former interim CEO of Reddit, told BuzzFeed News that the creators behind social networking platforms sometimes segregate users as a way to manage conflict that arises from clashing world views. But that approach has bred dangerous echo chambers. “There are never any alternative ideas that are considered and so the opinions shared get stronger and stronger and more radical,” she explained.
Pao has been a champion for diversity in Silicon Valley ever since her high-profile gender harassment lawsuit against the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. Before she resigned from Reddit in July 2015, Pao fought a similarly uphill battle trying to foster positive interaction on the site, where she hoped to eventually host a presidential debate. Her idea was to set up debates between the most reasonable voices from groups with opposing world views, such as atheist and religious sub-Reddits. “The goal was to start to bridge these communities, so there was less of an ‘I hate you, let me start shit-posting and making your sub-reddit unable to function then you’re going to come after my sub-reddit‘ dynamic.” The idea never got off the ground.
Karla Monterroso, vice president of programs for the nonprofit Code 2040, blamed online radicalization on the industry that builds the platforms, not its users. It’s “a direct result of a lack of diversity in the creation of those spaces. If you do not have people who have levers of power within your company that would be impacted by spaces in which people are getting radicalized, then you’re not going to get that kind of feedback,” she told BuzzFeed News. Code2040 is dedicated to fostering opportunities for Black and Latino engineers in tech and has received donations from corporations like Google, whose workforce this year was only 2 percent black, 3 percent hispanic and 31 percent female.
Monterroso described the state of political discourse online as both a symptom and consequence of the industry’s homogeneity. “It reinforces to me why it’s so important that these companies be places where inclusion lives – because they’re creating the rules by which people engage in the 21st century.”
This narrative of soul-searching and doubt was not what many tech titans expected to wake up to – especially considering that 2016 was the year the industry broke with tradition to publicly flex its political muscles.
Hours before last night’s election results started pouring in, Altman told BuzzFeed News that he would be wracked with regret, “if there was anything I could have done and didn’t and then Trump won tomorrow morning.” Altman, in addition to railing against Trump in blog posts and on Twitter, co-founded a nonprofit called VotePlz to help young people figure out the voting process.
In some cases, tech’s sense of culpability was short-lived, quickly replaced by defensiveness as introspection became less contrarian and more commonplace. “I don’t think [Twitter or Facebook are] to blame at all,” Keith Rabois, an investor at Khosla Ventures, told Bloomberg TV on Wednesday. “What technology does and has done for 30 years is remove the role of gatekeepers and intermediaries.”
Even McClure, the venture capitalist who spoke out at the tech conference Wednesday, shrugged off the idea that Silicon Valley was feeling guilty, per se, despite bearing some responsibility. “I don’t think I sat idly by,” he said, noting that he raised $80,000 for his group Nerdz 4 Hillary, which pledged to “defeat Emperor Palpatine (Donald Trump).” Altman told BuzzFeed News that he raised “single digit millions” from about six or seven donors for VotePlz.
McClure, for his part, is an industry stalwart. Before launching 500Startups, a globe-trotting early-stage investment firm that has backed more than 1,500 companies, including Twilio and MakerBot, he worked for Founders Fund, the rarified Silicon Valley venture capital firm started by Peter Thiel, where he invested in Lyft and Twilio.
“We’ve been building a set of tools for humans to play around with and use and those tools are pretty widely adopted,” said McClure, but despite the fact that some platforms have more users than most countries, businesses are not held the same scrutiny as politicians. “So maybe there does need to be a little more accountability. How are the tools being used for the good of humanity, not just how they’re being used to make a buck?”
Caroline O’Donovan contributed reporting to this post.