Facebook and Big Tech Discover That Political Friends Are Fickle Friends

As Facebook's supposed ideological allies unfriend the social media giant, the tech industry is learning that there are no permanent allegiances in politics.


Richard B. Levine/Newscom

It's no secret that tech companies play at politics. But the big companies overwhelmingly favor only one of America's dominant political factions—the Democratic Party—even to the extent of shunning and shaming individuals in the industry who identify with conservatives.

Now the tech industry, led by Facebook, is discovering that it has accomplished nothing but to make itself a target for Republican officials without gaining lasting favor among Democrats. Politics remains a domain where loyalty is fleeting and "friends" are discarded as soon as they cease to be useful.

News that Facebook hired Definers Public Affairs, an opposition research firm that usually works for Republicans, "elicited fury from Democrats, who demanded a Justice Department investigation into Facebook's lobbying campaign," according to The New York Times. Sen, Charles Schumer (D-NY), who has raised more money from Facebook employees than any other Washington lawmaker, has visibly cooled on the company, and his former chief counsel, who he hand-picked for a slot on the Federal Trade Commission, is pushing for more monitoring of the tech industry.

That's probably not what tech workers expected when they opened their wallets for Democratic candidates. Just over 1 percent of their political contributions went to Republicans this year, while 23 percent went to Democrats, Wired reports (the rest went to more bipartisan company political action committees, and to nonpartisan groups).

Facebook went further and made Trump supporters such as Peter Thiel, who sat on the company's board of directors, feel uncomfortable over his political views. In response, Thiel denounced the industry's "intolerant, left-leaning politics" and has shifted his efforts away from Silicon Valley and what he describes as its "one-party state."

Palmer Luckey, who sold virtual-reality company Oculus to Facebook, suffered worse consequences for his ideological leanings. A prominent Trump fan, Luckey was reportedly urged to publicly support Libertarian Gary Johnson in the 2016 presidential race (apparently a more palatable choice to the tech industry) before being forced out of Facebook in 2017 over his political views.

That intolerance would seem to hit lower-level employees at least as hard. Brian Amerige, then a senior engineer at Facebook, complained that the company was "a political monoculture that's intolerant of different views." He subsequently quit after releasing a memo linking his departure to concerns about "free expression and intellectual diversity."

Majorities of libertarians and conservatives who work in tech are hesitant to express themselves because their ideology clashes with cultural norms in the industry, according to a survey conducted this year by the Lincoln Network, which promotes the expansion of liberty through technology.

Unsurprisingly, that "political monoculture" affects the way companies do business. Already under fire after allegations by former contract workers that their peers suppressed news of interest to conservatives, Facebook recently purged hundreds of pages and accounts that served conservatives, libertarians, and anti-establishment progressives. Whether that was intended to suppress unwelcome voices, reassure allies, or both, it certainly angered and unsettled those targeted.

If Republicans still cared about free markets, all this might make the party controlling the White House seethe over a hostile industry without necessarily looking to retaliate for what are company owners' and employees' private actions and preferences. But the Trump-era GOP is populist and perfectly capable of weaponizing the tools of government against its enemies (which, frankly, is how the tools of government are always used once they're unleashed).

With the president railing against the tech giants, the White House is looking into using the government's antitrust powers against the industry, including Facebook. Newly elected Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) went after Google as Missouri's attorney general and now vows to continue and expand his crusade at the federal level. Under Republican control, the House Judiciary Committee put the screws to social media companies over their censorship of ideas they oppose, and its subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice roasted the companies again when it revisited the topic in September.

Which means that the tech giants wager on Democrats and the political left better have paid off. But it doesn't look like that's the case.

Almost certainly, the problem for big tech companies is that they haven't confined themselves to cutting checks to politicians—they also started becoming political players themselves, by going after critics across the political spectrum and amplifying political messaging.

For instance, in hiring Definers to research and counter its critics, Facebook engaged in the sort of bare-fisted tactics that may not be nice, but are extremely common for businesses and politicians alike. Facebook may have paid to target George Soros, the 800-pound gorilla of Democratic donors, but the Democrats' own 2016 champion, Hillary Clinton, "helped fund research that resulted in a now-famous dossier containing allegations about President Trump's connections to Russia and possible coordination between his campaign and the Kremlin," according to The Washington Post.

Meanwhile, Facebook and other tech giants haven't contributed enough cash to buy off people who like having the political field to themselves and don't want to see new entrants. Together, employees of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft contributed about $15 million to political causes this year. Coincidentally, that's just about exactly what Soros spent all by himself—and he's only number seven on this year's list of top contributors to political causes.

So, now Facebook, Google, Twitter, and the other tech behemoths will find themselves the target of regulatory efforts from Democrats as well as Republicans, and claims that relatively low-budget foreign propaganda shenanigans helped swing elections, rather than the foibles of the candidates and the preferences of the voters. Through their political activism and favoritism, the tech companies have put targets on their own backs without acquiring enough clout to defend themselves.

As Facebook's supposed ideological allies unfriend the social media giant, the tech industry is learning that there are no permanent allegiances in politics—only pitfalls and potential enemies.