Elizabeth Warren had Facebook in her sights this week, using Twitter to ask a provocative question many of us were thinking to ourselves: “Trump and Zuckerberg met at the White House two weeks ago. What did they talk about?” In the process, she shined a light on the cynicism and culture of mistrust that’s rampant in Silicon Valley and Washington.
The question from Warren, who is steadily rising in the polls among Democratic voters, didn’t exactly come out of the blue; she had two recent developments to triangulate with. First, Mark Zuckerberg was recorded on tape describing to Facebook employees his view that the election of Warren represented an “existential” threat to the company, something “you go to the mat and you fight.” Unstated but implied is that the current president does not represent an existential threat to Facebook—nor does climate change, for that matter.
Second, Facebook just reversed its policies on trying to keep demonstrable lies from its platform in a way that protects President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. “Even if the substance of that claim has been debunked elsewhere,” a Facebook executive explained about the new policy, “if the claim is made directly by a politician on their page, in an ad, or on their website, it is considered direct speech and ineligible for our third-party fact checking program.” Thus, we all learned about the conveniently valuable “politician exemption” to rules against manipulating the public on Facebook.
In her tweetstorm, Warren first noted that Facebook helped elect Trump in 2016 by being “asleep at the wheel” while Russia worked for his election. She then moved to today, concluding that “this time they’re going further by taking deliberate steps to help one candidate intentionally mislead the American people, while painting the candidacy of others (specifically: mine) as an ‘existential’ threat. This is a serious concern for our democratic process.”
This brings us back to that unannounced White House meeting between Zuckerberg and Trump, which was attended by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his digital media strategist Dan Scavino Jr. Facebook’s readout on the meeting was terse: “Mark is in Washington, DC, meeting with policymakers to hear their concerns and talk about future internet regulation. He also had a good, constructive meeting with President Trump at the White House today.” Once news broke of the White House visit, Trump released a picture of the two shaking hands after a “nice meeting.” Good luck keeping this visit under the radar, Mark!
Did Facebook hand the president a “deliverable,” as Warren is suggesting, like giving his campaign carte blanche to lie and distort on Facebook, to the tune of $1 million a week in ads? Did Trump offer something in return? We’ve lately been privy to how fiercely Trump pursues his personal interests in high-level meetings like the one with Zuckerberg.
An outside observer might reasonably conclude there was some transaction made during that meeting, if only because Facebook, and Silicon Valley more broadly, sees the world as Trump does—a ceaseless battle for dominance in which you take advantage of anyone foolish enough to trust you. To Trump and Facebook alike, any attempt to push back, whether from politicians or the press, is treated as an existential threat. I’m sure they shared a word or two on Warren and The New York Times.
For if you concede that Warren is simply trying to get a handle on out-of-control tech monopolies, you would propose discussion and deliberation, not warfare. Likewise, if you recognize that the press has exposed serious flaws in the design and execution of Silicon Valley platforms, you would be open to a vision of social networks that are much smaller in scale and prevented from exploiting personal data. But if your real goals are money and power (as opposed to say, making the world a better place), you’re more apt to see your opponents as a threat to your very existence, as rapacious and cynical as you are.