This week saw two instances of what you might call “corporate speech” in the political realm. It highlighted very different approaches taken to the issue by two Silicon Valley companies: Apple and Facebook. Apple let it be known it will not provide the customary financial and technical support to the Republican Convention that it (and a number of other tech companies) historically has done in the past, likely to do with Donald Trump being the party’s presumptive nominee for President of the United States. And Facebook kept Peter Thiel on its board of directors despite his strong support of Trump. It’s worth looking at these two companies’ approaches to this somewhat thorny issue and what it says about the power of the tech giants to shape political outcomes.
Apple, Trump, and Ryan
Apple didn’t make a public announcement but its decision obviously made its way into the press regardless, and Trump (a frequent iPhone user even with his occasional appeals to boycott the company) renewed his calls for a boycott of Apple by his supporters and Republicans in general. Apple and HP stand alone (at this point) among major tech companies in refusing to support the Republican Convention this year in any way – Facebook has withdrawn its financial support, while maintaining its technical support, while Microsoft and Google have largely continued as in the past.
Subsequent to the decision about Trump and the RNC, news has emerged Tim Cook will personally host a fundraiser for Paul Ryan, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives (and vice-presidential nominee for the party four years ago). This seems to be a statement from Apple that it isn’t taking political sides here, but rather objecting to a particularly odious candidate for that party, who supports many causes Apple simply can’t put financial and technical muscle behind. (I’ve no doubt Tim Cook finds many of Ryan’s views personally objectionable too, not least his endorsement of Trump, but he is at least more safely within the mainstream of the party and the Overton Window in American politics generally).
Facebook, Thiel, and Trump
Some commentators had called for Facebook to oust investor Peter Thiel from its board over his support for Trump’s candidacy and specifically his willingness to serve as a Trump delegate at the convention. Thiel has, of course, also been in the news recently over his funding of the legal campaigns against the Gawker news organization. Its annual shareholder meeting this week seemed the obvious time to do so and yet, the subject wasn’t broached during the Q&A session. Thiel was re-elected to the board without any commentary from Facebook or Mark Zuckerberg (who has final say over such issues).
No Single Right Answer
It would be tempting to see these two stories as illustrative of a principled stand on Apple’s part and a less scrupulous position on the part of Facebook, Microsoft, and Google. However, it’s not clear there’s any one way for big tech companies to achieve the desired outcomes here. Those companies whose business relies on supporting freedom of expression have to be particularly careful to avoid being seen to suppress certain views. Facebook, for example, supported its decision with regard to the convention by making the classic free speech argument it believes the best political outcomes are achieved through the airing of all views, not by suppressing some.
Facebook can also argue that, in the case of Peter Thiel, he is not on Facebook’s board because of his political views and shouldn’t be ousted from it because of them either. Further, at Facebook’s recent F8 developer conference, Zuckerberg spoke in general terms about the current political climate but made thinly-veiled references to some of Trump’s policies. It’s clear Zuckerberg personally doesn’t like Trump but he doesn’t appear to feel he can fully translate those personal views into action through Facebook. Tim Cook, on the other hand, is personally hosting the Ryan fundraiser, rather than using Apple’s corporate resources to do so, which draws another interesting distinction between corporate and executive behavior. Sometimes, these leaders can wield the most influence by marshaling corporate resources, but they may be freest to act when doing so in their own names.
Using Power Wisely
For me, the biggest lesson of all this is, though Trump aspires to what Teddy Roosevelt called the bully pulpit, the CEOs of the major US tech companies occupy similarly privileged positions and can wield significant influence. But the way in which they choose to exercise that influence varies greatly. What’s most disappointing is some of these tech companies seem to have done almost nothing to wield that power during the present election despite the growing number of alarming things spouted by one of the two major nominees for president. What’s also disappointing is those who have spoken or acted recently didn’t do so earlier in the process, when their actions could have had a more meaningful impact.