By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc. November 16, 2016
With the joy and pain of the 2016 presidential campaign still fresh, I want to consider the impact that technology had on the election, and vice versa. Suffice it to say that along with the candidates themselves, certain technologies and tech-related concerns came out as clear winners and losers on November 9th. There were also IT and Silicon Valley-related issues whose prospects are less certain than they were before the votes were counted.
Why is it worthwhile to consider these points? Technology has played a central role in U.S. presidential elections since 1960 when, for the first time in history a computer (an IBM mainframe employed by CBS) was used to project the outcome of the race between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. However, the role of technology and its influence on the 2016 campaign, both for good and ill, is unprecedented. Moreover, it seems unlikely that its position is more likely to grow than shrink in future elections.
With that in mind, let’s consider some of the tech-related issues that made the 2016 campaign easy to remember and hard to forget.
- Silicon libertarians – Politics in Silicon Valley tends to drift leftward but numerous younger, typically wealthy entrepreneurs who call themselves “libertarians” are largely Republicans in everything but country club affiliations. Billionaire PayPal co-founder and Founder’s Fund VC member Peter Thiel is a poster boy for this group, and took more than a little heat from his colleagues for donating $1.25M to the Trump campaign in its waning days. Thiel is now rumored to be in the running to lead Trump’s transition team, suggesting his talent for placing winning bets is still paying off. Others are likely to follow.
- Political hacking – The organized theft (reportedly by actors in Russia) of email and other documents from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and their publication by Wikileaks was unprecedented in a U.S. presidential campaign. In fact, on Monday, NSA Director Michael Rogers stated that Wikileaks reflected “a conscious effort by a nation-state to attempt to achieve a specific effect” in the election. There was no killing blow, but the steady flow of unfounded bad news negatively impacted the Clinton campaign, meaning there’s a likelihood of them becoming a common part of future elections.
- Cyberbullies, trolls and racists – In 2014, Gamergate, which stemmed from a campaign on Twitter targeting women in the gaming industry, exposed the degree to which trolls and cyberbullies were successfully using social media sites to harass and stifle people they opposed. Despite efforts by Twitter and other sites to quell that behavior, harassment continued through the campaign, abetted by hate groups, like the Klu Klux Klan and Aryan Nation that were attracted to Trump’s nativist policies.
- Fake news – Though companies like Google and Facebook pride themselves on their technological acuity, their search functions and news feeds were relatively easy to game. Fake news stories planted by anti-Clinton activists appeared so regularly on Facebook that CEO Mark Zuckerberg felt compelled to publicly state the site had no influence on the election’s outcome. As late as Monday afternoon, a false story about Trump winning the popular vote (Clinton currently has nearly 800k more votes, overall) continued to lead Google searches on election news. Both companies say they will fix the problems. The phrase “too little/too late” springs immediately to mind.
- Julian Assange & Wikileaks – The publication of documents injurious to Clinton led to accusations that Wikileaks and its editor-in-chief, Julian Assange were willing tools of the Republican party and Trump supporters in Russia. In fact, the Ecuadoran embassy in London where Assange resides reportedly restricted his Internet access due to his suspected election meddling. If Clinton had won, Assange would almost assuredly have remained in the embassy. With Trump in the White House, a deal for his release could already be in the works.
- Gig economy – The President-elect’s and his party’s loathing of business regulations should be net-positive for “gig economy” style businesses, like Uber that depend on expansive interpretation of rules for employing and not providing benefits for workers. This could also impact Mr. Trump’s plans for nationwide infrastructure projects and growing U.S. manufacturing jobs. Union representation made many of those positions desirable in the first place, but it’s highly unlikely that unions will be allowed anywhere near White House-backed projects.
- Polling/pundits – The clearest losers in this election were the vast majority of political pollsters who got the outcome of the election exactly wrong. In fact, only the L.A. Times/USC Daybreak tracking poll consistently forecast a strong showing for Mr. Trump, along with a few individual analysts, like Allan J. Lichtman, a distinguished professor of history at American University, and filmmaker Michael Moore. What’s the takeaway here? That accurate analysis is generally hard and correctly parsing dynamically complex populations and events is orders of magnitude more difficult. That said, this is the second U.S. presidential election where numerous major polling companies failed utterly, badly injuring their claims of continuing relevance.
- TPP & Other Trade Agreements – Trump’s stated plans to quit the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was fatal to the trade agreement between the U.S. and eleven other Pacific Rim countries; TPP is dead in the water and waiting for disposal in the Marianas Trench. Trump’s claims that he will revisit other existing deals and consider tariffs against countries with policies he considers predatory is leading U.S. trading partners, like China, to warn of possible retaliations. That could seriously injure numerous IT players, especially consumer electronics players like Apple that depend on foreign markets for sales and growth.
- H-1B visas – Similarly, Mr. Trump’s stance on reducing the number of immigrants in the U.S. and improving job prospects for native-born citizens is likely to impact the use and availability of the H-1B visas that many tech vendors use to fill engineering positions. There are certainly U.S.-based engineers and scientists whose talent and skills could benefit technology companies, but how those hires might impact long-term costs and the progress of current projects is impossible to say.
- Email – It’s hard to imagine how the 2016 presidential campaign could have cast more light and less illumination on email and its management. That included everything from the mostly faulty analysis of Hillary Clinton’s private email server to the thousands of hours reporters spent rifling through mundane messages stolen from the DNC to FBI director James Comey’s surprise revival of the investigation into Ms. Clinton’s email server days before the election. The insight it provided? Pretty much zero. It’s total value? Priceless for Mr. Trump.
- Overseas cash hoards –S. companies that hold over $2.5T of their earnings in overseas entities and accounts have long hoped to negotiate a “holiday” allowing them to pay lower taxes than the current 35 percent corporate rate. Tech vendors, including Microsoft, Apple, IBM, Alphabet and Cisco make up a large portion of those companies. The new administration’s anti-tax stance should work in favor of a tax holiday, but the notable friction between Mr. Trump and vendors like Apple and Amazon means companies aren’t likely to get off freely. Tradeoffs could include funding hiring programs for U.S. workers, or new manufacturing facilities and jobs in politically advantageous locales, like Rust Belt states. Tech vendors may resist doing anything more, but I wouldn’t expect the President-elect to demand anything less.
- Silicon Valley/California – A large majority of tech firms and their employees vocally support issues that are anathema to Mr. Trump and the GOP, including gender equality, women’s health/choice and multi-cultural workforces. That’s particularly true in both Silicon Valley and California where residents overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton and passed numerous propositions that are sure to irritate or horrify Republicans. It’s likely that the new President will pursue policies that will often ignore tech industry concerns and could even injure some vendors. A healthy tech industry is arguably critical to the success of the U.S. economy, but many investors are uncertain about its prospects. For now, Californians, particularly those in Silicon Valley, should not expect much love or support from Mr. Trump or the GOP for the next two to four years.
© 2016 Pund-IT, Inc. All rights reserved.