The tech industry’s 2020 Trump trap

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Sunday, 10 February 2019

The tech industry’s 2020 Trump trap


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The tech industry’s 2020 Trump trap

The 2020 presidential campaign is shaping up as a major political headache for tech companies still reeling from blowback over the support they offered Donald Trump's campaign and the Republican Party in the last election.


Two and a half years ago, companies including Google and Facebook gave the then-Republican nominee the same technical assistance they lend to other candidates, despite widespread distaste among their largely liberal employees for his comments about women, minorities and immigrants.


But now the companies are facing rising pressure from liberal activists to withhold any technical or financial aid for the president and the GOP. The activists, including groups that hold sway in Silicon Valley, say Trump's track record in the White House makes business as usual out of the question.


"It's no longer acceptable for these companies to play both sides like they're equal," said Rashad Robinson, president of civil rights advocacy group Color of Change. "If they want to invest resources and money into a candidate who believes that there were good people on both sides of what happened in Charlottesville, they're going to have to be held accountable for it."


Pressure from liberal activists, employees, customers and shareholders has already forced tech companies to back off some of their initial cooperation with the Trump administration, for example by pulling out of the White House's business councils. Objections to Trump's rhetoric also prompted Apple to refuse to donate technology or money to the 2016 Republican convention, sources familiar with the company's thinking told POLITICO at the time.


But cutting off Trump and the GOP in this way in 2020 could reduce tech companies’ ability to influence the administration on issues like trade and immigration — both critical issues for an industry that relies heavily on Chinese manufacturing and foreign-born workers. It could also restoke accusations from the right that the industry is biased against conservatives, a charge that Trump and Republican lawmakers have increasingly adopted in the past three years.


"These companies need to engage more with government, not less, and if they allow extremists to dictate the terms, at some point the punishment is going to be far worse than some three-day media story," said one Republican strategist who requested anonymity because of his work with the tech industry. "They will have zero allies" among Republicans in a position to check Democratic plans to regulate Silicon Valley, the strategist said.


Facebook has already shown signs it will treat 2020 differently by curtailing its practice of embedding staff with campaigns to provide on-site product support, such as guidance on how to use the platform to reach and influence voters. Such support was critical for the Trump campaign, which didn’t invest heavily in its own digital operations during the primaries. (Brad Parscale, who led Trump’s digital effort, later told "60 Minutes" that Facebook was "how he won.") Hillary Clinton’s campaign declined the offer of embeds.


Tech companies first began looking to politics and government as a place to expand their reach during the 2008 election cycle, including by giving lawmakers hands-on training in using their social media tools and digital ad services. The companies failed to generate much business at the presidential level in 2008, but they began to get traction during the 2012 contest featuring Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. By 2016, the companies' political involvement had grown to include providing on-site campaign support and sponsoring elements of both the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions.


Facebook contributed $1 million in cash to the Republican convention in 2016, while Google chipped in $500,000 and Twitter $250,000, according to Federal Election Commission reports. Google was also the official live video provider of the GOP convention, while Facebook sponsored a visitor center complete with a mini-Oval Office and broadcast studio.


Politics isn't a big moneymaker for these companies, but the efforts gave them a high-profile stage to show off their products and allowed them to build relationships with the politicians making decisions that affect their industry.


That arrangement came under strain in 2016, as the companies took heat for providing tech help to the Trump campaign and financial support to the convention that nominated him.


“Facebook and Google stood up in the political space not thinking about how different it was than selling soap or any other consumer good,” said Daniel Kreiss, a communications professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who co-authored a study detailing the surprisingly active role tech companies played in helping the Trump campaign shape its message and target voters. “But politics is a very different business.”


Also complicating the picture in 2020: Russia's manipulation of social media in the last election to boost Trump against Clinton. Special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, research studies and media reports have all documented how the Kremlin used Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites to spread pro-Trump messages, disparage Clinton and sow divisions on issues like police shootings and race. That history could make it more uncomfortable for tech companies to do business as usual with the Trump campaign.


And tech's fraught 2020 decisions aren't limited to conventions or candidate help. They'll also be called on to police the evolving digital tactics employed by campaigns. They’ve already had a taste of what that could be like, given the recent flap over Democratic activists' use of Russian-style misinformation efforts during the 2017 special Senate election in Alabama.


While the giants of Silicon Valley often say they get involved in election season to help foster political discussion, that mantra rings hollow to critics.


"After they let Russia play around on their platforms and didn't catch it, I don't think anybody wants them enabling democratic conversation, any more than I want Colonel Sanders protecting chickens," Robinson said.


At the same time, internet companies are under enormous pressure from Trump and other Republicans over allegations that they suppress conservative viewpoints. Trump has even dangled the threat of antitrust scrutiny over the issue, while alleging without evidence that tech firms were making it more difficult for users to follow him on social media.


“Facebook, Twitter and Google are so biased toward the Dems it is ridiculous!” the president wrote on Twitter in December.


The industry routinely denies it demotes any content or restricts users for political reasons. Still, the relentless GOP messaging over bias will make it politically difficult for the companies to pull back on supporting Trump's campaign and Republican Party activities without making a similar retreat from Democrats.


Facebook told POLITICO its effort to help campaigns use its tools in 2020 will be "centralized," rather than delivered through on-site support by company employees, but declined to elaborate. Both Google and Twitter said it's too early to say anything about their 2020 plans.


Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), chairman of the House Democracy Reform Task Force, pressed Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last year on whether his company’s on-site campaign tech support could be considered an unfair donation that violates campaign finance law. Sarbanes told POLITICO he's pleased about the company's move to pull back from the embed program, but said he'll continue to scrutinize the social network.


“Facebook made the right decision to shut down its flawed campaign embed program, but that’s only a first step," he said. "On a whole host of issues, House Democrats will continue to hold Facebook accountable in order to protect American consumers and safeguard American democracy.”


Trump's critics say actions in the White House have provided ample reason for tech companies to distance themselves from him, including his separation of migrant families, ban of transgender recruits from the military and praise for the "very fine people" who attended 2017's deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.


In addition, his status as president and his push to consolidate the Republican Party around him will make the August 2020 GOP convention in Charlotte, N.C., an even more Trump-centric event than the 2016 gathering was, argued Heidi Hess, co-director of the liberal advocacy group CREDO Action.


Hess said her group and its allies are prepared to seize upon any sponsorship of the Republican gathering as a chance to pressure Silicon Valley to distance itself from Trump and the GOP, including pressing the companies’ shareholders, rallying their users and organizing their largely liberal employee bases to agitate internally.


“There’s even less room for companies to claim that the convention is somehow not just about Trump,” Hess said. “Any money that any corporation gives to the convention is really money straight into Trump's pockets to run for reelection, and we know who they're sponsoring when they do that.”


Liberal activists have succeeded in recent years in pushing corporations away from conservative politics through public pressure. Color of Change, for example, helped drive companies like Coca-Cola and McDonald's to leave the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group that advanced policies such as so-called Stand Your Ground gun laws, by rallying their would-be customers in opposition.


When it comes to tech, activists have an extra pressure point: Silicon Valley’s largely liberal employee base. Tech giants are reluctant to offend their employees’ politics given the tight labor market and hot competition for engineers and other tech workers.


One area where the tech companies may have lucked out in 2020: Trump doesn't have any primary challengers yet. That means Facebook, Google and Twitter may avoid having to make decisions about working with the Republican primary debates, as they've done in the past. It also means they can sponsor the Democratic debates without offering the appearance of being biased towards the left.


Source: The tech industry’s 2020 Trump trap

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