Why US rightwing populists and their global allies disagree over big tech | Silicon Valley

The emerging global movement of rightwing populists is guilty of many things but ideological incoherence in choosing their enemies is generally not one of them. Whether it is Steve Bannon bashing Pope Francis, Matteo Salvini attacking the “do-gooders” in humanitarian NGOs or Marine Le Pen venting against the dull technocrats in Brussels, the populists go after a predictable, well-calculated set of targets. If anyone chooses their enemies well, it’s them.

But there’s one issue on which there’s no agreement between American rightwing populists and their peers in the rest of the world: what to make of Silicon Valley. On the one hand, its services and platforms have been a boon to the populists everywhere, greatly boosting their audience numbers and allowing them to target potential voters with highly personalized messages; the Cambridge Analytica fiasco has made it quite clear. Today, upstart and new rightwing parties like Spain’s Vox instinctively understand the primacy of digital battles; Vox already leads all other Spanish parties in terms of Instagram followers.

Steve Bannon called people leading ‘evil’ Silicon Valley ‘complete narcissists’ and ‘sociopaths’

This pragmatic embrace of digital platforms is where the populist consensus ends; the intellectual evaluation of Silicon Valley’s significance is rather cacophonous. The American wing of the movement sees big tech as an attractive target of attack; for them, Silicon Valley is a bizarre mix of greedy capitalists and “cultural Marxists”, keen on indoctrinating their users into leftwing ideas while getting filthy rich off everyone’s data. Populists in the rest of the world, in contrast, see Silicon Valley’s platforms as their best chance of escaping the intellectual hegemony of their own domestic “cultural Marxists”, firmly ensconced in elite institutions, such as the media, the academia, and the Deep State.

In an August 2018 interview with CNN, Steve Bannon called people leading “evil” Silicon Valley “complete narcissists” and “sociopaths”; the data grabbed by their companies, he insisted, should be “put in a public trust”. He also predicted that big tech would be one of the main themes of the 2020 presidential election.

Given that the anger towards Silicon Valley is also growing on the left – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the latest sensation of American leftist politics, memorably attacked New York City’s $3bn welcome package to Amazon – it seems like a reasonable prediction. Silicon Valley appears to be a perfect enemy for non-centrist forces in America, as bashing it helps to delegitimize the legacy of Obama and Clinton, seen as its primary enablers.

Others on the right endorse Bannon’s opinions. Brad Parscale, the digital media director of Trump’s 2016 campaign, has complained that “Big tech monsters like Google and Facebook have become nothing less than incubators for far-left liberal ideologies and are doing everything they can to eradicate conservative ideas and their proponents from the internet.” Recent bans on far-right and conservative personalities by social media and online fundraising platforms have only amplified such perceptions of Silicon Valley. Even Donald Trump complained that Google was “suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good” – a “very serious situation” that, he promised, “will be addressed”.

To see the sharp contrast with how rightwing populists elsewhere perceive Silicon Valley, one could turn to a viral clip from Bolsonaro’s recent inauguration in Brazil, where a crowd of his supporters were filmed chanting “WhatsApp, WhatsApp! Facebook, Facebook!” This is hardly an atypical feeling. In 2017, when he was still a member of the European Parliament, Matteo Salvini delivered a feisty speech against attempts to crack down on fake news, declaring that the old elite ways of setting the public agenda were over. He concluded with “Long Live Facebook!” (he likewise thanked the site after the party did well in the 2018 elections).

The European Union Copyright Directive nicely illustrates the bizarre friendship between Silicon Valley and European populists

Salvini’s coalition partners, the Five Star Movement, have distanced themselves from the likes of Bannon and Bolsonaro. But, as a movement started by a blogger and propelled by social media, they, too, are enamored of big tech. Its culture of disruption is precisely what they hope to emulate with their rhetoric of turning Italy into a “smart nation” – for example, by endorsing the further Italian expansion of Amazon justified on the grounds that the data of Italian enterprises handled by the firm will now be stored locally.

Last year’s battle about a controversial piece of legislation – the European Union Copyright Directive – nicely illustrates the bizarre friendship between Silicon Valley and European populists. The directive is universally hated by the digital platforms as it would require them to increase enforcement of uploaded content (many civil society groups have also complained that it might criminalize memes and even sharing of links). During the September 2018 vote in the European Parliament, most of the opposition to the directive came from Poland’s Law and Justice party, Italy’s Five Star Movement and Lega, and UKIP – Silicon Valley’s few odd allies in Brussels.

Absent a major geopolitical and trade rupture with Washington, European populists are unlikely to change their views of big tech. Rather, they’ll keep building political capital by accusing establishment politicians of regulating digital platforms with the sole goal of censoring their populist opponents. Macron’s actions with regards to the online mobilization tactics used by the gilets jaunes movement are of critical importance here: any meddling in the digital platforms by the French state, already keen on enacting a stringent fake news law, would spectacularly backfire.

But neither will the American populists lower their tone and find another target. On the issue of Silicon Valley and its power, Steve Bannon will remain closer to George Soros than to Matteo Salvini. This is a paradox that clever progressives ought to be able to exploit, if only by asking non-American rightwing populists to explain their great love for an industry that even Steve Bannon considers to be “evil”.

No answer would be forthcoming as rightwing populists, whatever their rhetoric, have no sound analysis of either the global economy or of tbig tech’s role in it (nor, alas, do many of their non-populist opponents). The sooner this absence gets revealed, the better.

Originally published: 2019-01-22 11:00:14

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