Tech Broggadocio

There are no shortcuts in politics, but from California to New York City, that isn't stopping another raft of tech entrepreneurs from throwing their weight around

Chamath Palihapitiya, the billionaire investor and former VP of user growth, mobile and international expansion at Facebook, announced a week ago that he is running for Governor of California, on top of supporting a tech-led effort to recall Gavin Newsom, the current incumbent. I was reminded of him last week as I listened Friday to Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitch.tv stream on the GameStop rebellion, and noticed that Chamath (as everyone refers to him) was originally announced as one of her special guests, but then never showed up. It’s unclear what happened, but I suspect someone close to AOC warned her off. That’s too bad, because it would be interesting to see how he would fare in a debate with one of the left’s most skillful advocates. I, for one, would love to understand how Chamath plans to cut the state’s income taxes to zero percent while promising to pay teachers a floor of $70,000 a year and give every newborn child $2,000. Or why he thinks vouchers for public education is the way to fix public schools? Or why he backpedaled off his strong criticism of Facebook in late 2017?

On Twitter, CrookedMedia’s Tommy Vietor, a former spokesperson for President Obama, tried to push Chamath on the lack of details in his plan for California, which Vietor suggested was too much like a mix of Reaganomics and a Trump-like “I alone can fix it.” Chamath’s response was classic tech bro-gadiccio: “My working life has been trying to probabilistically predict the future and then accelerate it.  I think this plan will pencil out but ultimately it will be my forecast vs another that says it can’t,” adding, “You should just judge the messenger.”

It’s fitting that Chamath would announce his campaign the same week that GameStop blew up, and work to maneuver himself into position as a populist outsider lined up against greedy hedge funds and corrupt stock-trading apps (even if he personally is a lead investor in a direct competitor to Robinhood called SoFi). If a libertarian techie like him with progressive leanings on issues like climate change is to gain any footing in the state’s Democratic primary electorate, he’s going to have to pull a lot of the /wallstreetbets crowd, alienated young men who hope to strike it rich by outsmarting the stock market, into his column. (Alexis Ohanian, one of Chamath’s supporters, certainly seems to think the Reddit crowd can be pulled that way.)

Lenny Mendonca, a former senior partner at McKinsey who is an eminence grise among California liberals, posted a useful Twitter thread of advice for Chamath after his campaign announcement. Among his pithier suggestions:

-“Commission some confidential quality opposition research ASAP. Ask them whether ‘uber confident’ is a compliment.”

-“See how voters react to ideas like: Facebook: We can run government better than you. VC exec calls for 0% tax on millionaires.”

-“Consider a pilot in SF politics.  Run for SFUSD board or SF Board of Sups to learn the civility of campaigns and the ease of governing.”

In a word, get some humility.

If you want a more granular sense of the milieu that Chamath is coming from, consider that Jason Calacanis, a longtime tech VC and pal of Chamath’s (they co-host a popular podcast, All In, together with two other tech bros), has set up a GoFundMe to pay for an investigative journalist to watchdog San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin, whose commitment to decarceration has drawn the ire of many California techies, as Akela Lacy reports for the Intercept. Of all things to raise money for.

There’s a market for the kind of quicksilver commentary that people like Chamath and Calacanis provide on their podcasts, and after the rise of Donald Trump, we should recognize that outrageous statements aren’t political disqualifiers in the way they used to be. Still, it was startling to listen to the most recent episode of their podcast All In and hear Chamath equate the deplatforming of Parler, a hub for violent hate speech that briefly exploded in popularity this fall, and the removal of Trump off of sites like Twitter, with the decision by Robinhood, the trading app, to restrict the ability of its users to trade in stocks like GameStop. “The deplatforming of Trump made no sense,” Chamath declares (at about 58:00 in). Listen a bit more and you’ll learn that he and his buddies seem to think that “economic outsiders” like the day traders on Robinhood are the same as supposed “political outsiders” like the people who stormed the Capitol with the full support of the President and tacit support of much of the GOP (some outsiders, right?), a confusion that only makes sense when you see the world from the Olympian distance afforded by years in Silicon Valley.

Arsonists to the Rescue

One of the frustrating realities of contemporary politics is that people with big piles of money think that makes them smart (and having a big pile usually also means that you are surrounded by people telling you how smart you are and laughing at all your jokes). Most of the time they use that money to pull strings for themselves or incentivize others to do their bidding. Occasionally that money gets put to useful purpose, but more often than not it just sucks up vital attention and distorts the democratic process.  But sometimes those big piles of money decide that running a business successfully (or appearing to have done so) means they could do a better job running a government than people with experience in government, or people rooted in community service. And that’s what gets you political wannabes like Chamath, and before him Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Howard Schultz, Michael Bloomberg (who at least proved he knew his way around NYC), and most recently Andrew Yang, who has parlayed his bio line as a “tech entrepreneur” into quite a hand.

Yang’s bid to become New York City’s mayor is generating a lot of the same weird gravity swirling around Chamath’s California bid, particularly among the city’s tech set. Though Yang’s quixotic run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 was never likely to get him much further than the debate stage, that didn’t seem to bother early backers like John Battelle, a cofounding editor of Wired magazine, who squired him around NY in 2019. Yang’s problematic treatment of women at his company and his outspoken defense of Crisis Text Line’s Nancy Lublin (a protege of tech bro Reid Hoffman) doesn’t seem to have dented his appeal to the tech crowd here, judging from the list of people signed up to co-host a fundraiser for Yang in mid-February featuring him in conversation with…wait for it…Chamath. And so the great wheel spins.

What do tech bros turned pols like Yang and Palihapitiya have in common? Other than very limited experience in the real world of politics, they promise magic leaps forward to their followers. Which makes them seductive, since everyone wishes there was a short-cut to meaningful change. Who wouldn’t love it if we could all have a universal basic income, even if the cost of giving every American $1000 a month would amount to something close to the entire federal budget? Who wouldn’t love it if they didn’t have to pay income taxes and every public school teacher was paid generously? Unfortunately these kinds of radical changes are pipe dreams, especially when disconnected to the long and hard work of building coalitions to effectively shift power.

Facebookization, Continued

Last summer, Facebook data scientists warned company leaders that “blatant misinformation and calls to violence were filling the majority of the platform’s top ‘civic’ Groups,” but Facebook didn’t take strong action in response until after the January 6th assault on the Capitol, Jeff Horwitz reports in a blockbuster story for the Wall Street Journal. About “70% of the top 100 most active US Civic Groups are considered non-recommendable for issues such as hate, misinfo, bullying and harassment,” an internal report concluded.

What you need to remember here is Facebook Groups were made a primary feature of the site at the behest of the company’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who decided in early 2017 that algorithmically promoting Groups so more people could find “meaningful” relationships was the new gospel. (This was also after a 2016 internal company study found that extremist content had swamped large German political Groups and that “64% of all extremist group joins are due to our recommendation tools,” another story Horwitz helped break.) Many of these problematic “civic” groups were private or secret, meaning that only members could access or even know about them. Some were garnering millions of views a week. Administrators of these groups often coached users on how to post offensive content without triggering Facebook’s filters.

What prevented earlier action against these Groups? Horwitz reports that Facebook’s public policy team (which you should remember is led by Republican Joel Kaplan, a participant in the 2000 Brooks Brothers riot and pal of Justice Brett Kavanaugh) “balked at taking action against prominent conservative Groups,” and managers concerned with growth feared what restrictions would do to the company’s engagement numbers. Alex Stamos, who left Facebook after a short stint trying to improve the company’s internal trust and security systems, commented, “Not a lot of value in stocking a Civic Integrity team with data scientists and PhDs and asking them to find harmful product features and then letting Growth steamroll them every time.” (Oh, and who built that Growth team for Facebook back in its formative days? None other than one Chamath Palihapitiya.)

Meanwhile, the company’s ersatz Oversight Board has handed down more decisions, including one revoking the removal of a post in Myanmar that had mocked the psychological mindset of Muslims for supposedly not being concerned by the treatment of Muslim Uyghur’s or Syrian refugees. The Board said that while the post was offensive, it wasn’t an “insulting generalization about Muslims” overall. Huh? The board is now soliciting public comment as it reviews Facebook’s decision to suspend Donald Trump’s account. Reading how the board is narrowly framing the question around the literal words of Facebook’s community standards rather than the broader effects of amplifying a politician like Trump who lies continuously, I don’t have a good feeling about how this is going to go.

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Welcome words

Apple CEO Tim Cook never said the word Facebook, but look at what he said in Brussels on International Privacy Day:

“Technology does not need vast troves of personal data stitched together across dozens of websites and apps in order to succeed. Advertising existed and thrived for decades without it, and we're here today because the path of least resistance is rarely the path of wisdom. If a business is built on misleading users on data exploitation, on choices that are no choices at all, then it does not deserve our praise. It deserves reform. We should not look away from the bigger picture. In a moment of rampant disinformation and conspiracy theories juiced by algorithms, we can no longer turn a blind eye to a theory of technology that says all engagement is good engagement, the longer the better, and all with the goal of collecting as much data as possible.

Too many are still asking the question "How much can we get away with?" when they need to be asking "What are the consequences?" What are the consequences of prioritizing conspiracy theories and violent incitement simply because of the high rates of engagement? What are the consequences of not just tolerating but rewarding content that undermines public trust in life-saving vaccinations? What are the consequences of seeing thousands of users joining extremist groups and then perpetuating an algorithm that recommends even more? It is long past time to stop pretending that this approach doesn't come with a cause. A polarization of lost trust, and yes, of violence. A social dilemma cannot be allowed to become a social catastrophe.

News quiz: Who said it, Andrew Cuomo or Donald Trump?

“When I say ‘experts’ in air quotes, it sounds like I’m saying I don’t really trust the experts. Because I don’t. Because I don’t.”

“I have a gut, and my gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me.”

Deep thoughts:

Don’t miss Claire Potter on why academics need to pay attention to conservative students, who are still at a formative stage in their lives, instead of joining in their ostracism by more liberal peers. “They embrace[] conspiracy theories in part because they felt conspired against,” she writes.

Finally, having invoked Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to start today’s newsletter off, I would be remiss if I didn’t also note her incredibly brave decision to open up about the trauma she went through on January 6th, as well as her connecting it to past trauma as a survivor of sexual assault. Here’s hoping we don’t forget what happened that day, or let anyone sweep it under the rug.