The day after President Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning all refugees and blocking travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, airport terminals across the United States flooded with horrified people. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance announced that it would briefly stop picking up fares from JFK Airport to show solidarity with the protesters. Meanwhile, Uber tweeted that it would temporarily suspend its surge pricing at the airport — thus lowering the cost of its rides at that time. The price adjustment looked like a deliberate undermining of the taxi drivers’ strike; Uber seemed like a scab. People saw the move as so callous that angrily deleting its app became a popular gesture of protest. #DeleteUber trended on Twitter.
The price drop was a misguided bid to avoid negative press, since Uber has been criticized for rate hikes during past significant events. It backfired magnificently. And it added to anger already roused by Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s recent Facebook post, in which he defended his presence on a Trump business advisory team, claiming he’d confront the president about the ban. Rather than quelling resentment, the post reminded people that Kalanick plans to collaborate with the Trump administration. In a scramble, Uber promoted tweets and Facebook messages about how much it cares about refugees and immigrants, taking care to target these promos at people who are interested in the American Civil Liberties Union on Facebook. But the damage was done.
Uber’s drivers are so poorly compensated that some sleep in their cars and urinate into jugs rather than miss a fare. Kalanick has given consumers reason to dislike his objectivist-inspo transit company, and the outpouring of rage toward Uber felt like a reckoning with its greed. But Uber is not the only Silicon Valley titan complicit with the Trump administration’s deeds, and it should not be the only company to face consequences for its obsequiousness and hypocrisy. Long-overshadowed ride-share competitor Lyft seized the golden PR opportunity of reports that thousands had deleted their Uber accounts to immediately pledge a $1 million donation to the ACLU. But protesters shouldn’t download Lyft just yet. Like Uber, it has also agreed to participate in Trump’s Transportation Department advisory committee on automated cars. What’s more, Trump superfan Peter Thiel is also one of Lyft’s major investors, which just makes Lyft a less obvious enemy of resistance.
But no major company in Silicon Valley has earned itself a Trump-based rebuke more than Facebook. While Uber’s cartoonish missteps made it an obvious target for ire this past weekend, Facebook has maintained a position that is less flashy but equally deserving of blowback.
Unless the company cuts ties with Silicon Valley’s most ardent, influential Trump supporter — Facebook board member Thiel, who is the longest-serving member after Zuckerberg — Facebook is tacitly endorsing the administration, from its travel ban to its unprecedented appointment of an unqualified nationalist, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, to the National Security Council.
This is not the first time Facebook has had the opportunity to distance itself from Trump. In October, CEO Mark Zuckerberg addressed criticism about Thiel’s support of Trump in an internal message to the company. “I want to quickly address the questions and concerns about Peter Thiel as a board member and Trump supporter,” Zuckerberg wrote to his employees. “We can’t create a culture that says it cares about diversity and then excludes almost half the country because they back a political candidate. There are many reasons a person might support Trump that do not involve racism, sexism, xenophobia or accepting sexual assault.”
Zuckerberg’s defense echoed what Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said about Thiel in June. “Strong people make really good board members because they have strong views, and they’re not afraid to think differently than other people, which has served Facebook well,” Sandberg said when asked about whether Facebook would eject Thiel for his decision to fund lawsuits intended to destroy Gawker Media. (Full disclosure: Gawker is my former employer.)
Zuckerberg is on a baby-kissing tour of the United States that some technology reporters, including my Ringer colleagues, have hypothesized is a precursor to a political career. It’s clear that he is striving for a more prominent position in the public eye, if not necessarily public office. Zuckerberg has claimed that Facebook is meant to “connect the world,” and he has successfully upsold the original vision of a classmate catalog into a sprawling, ubiquitous digital-communication, data-collection, and media empire. His efforts have made him fabulously wealthy and enormously powerful. Yet, when put in a position to confront fanaticism, he has mustered only a milquetoast objection hedged by compliments.
Zuckerberg and Facebook have not wavered in their support for Thiel, and Thiel has not wavered in his support for Trump. Before the election, Thiel downplayed fears of Trump by telling a reporter that the media was wrong to take his campaign promise of a Muslim ban literally. When this promise became reality, Thiel defended the order. He has not joined the growing chorus of distraught tech voices speaking out against the travel ban, nor will he. This, by default, implicates Zuckerberg.
I asked Facebook if Zuckerberg still believes that someone can support Trump without supporting xenophobia. Zuckerberg had no comment, but a Facebook spokesperson referred me to his aforementioned post on immigration concerns.
In turn, I’d like to refer Facebook back to Zuckerberg’s original post on Thiel, the one in which he claims that Facebook cannot truly embrace diversity without allowing people like Thiel to stay on its top shelf. This claim looks hollower by the day. Facebook cannot create a culture that respects diversity while cosseting Silicon Valley’s loudest champion of xenophobia within its highest ranks.