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Waiting for Silicon Valley’s Superman

Tech companies have a penchant for playing the political superhero, as long as it also aligns with their business interests. In the age of Trump, their heroism will be tested.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The titans of tech did not always wear capes. In the 1990s, Microsoft was a startup-killing monolith with a CEO often portrayed as a sleazy backstabber. IBM was, in pop culture parlance from an even earlier time, Big Brother. The PCs they sold us were the office versions of a toaster: utilitarian, boring, and politically neutral.

But something changed around the turn of the century. A search engine with a goofy name and a whimsical logo espoused a seemingly radical corporate strategy: “Don’t be evil.” One of those quirky companies that Microsoft had vanquished (and then bailed out) came roaring back, and it aligned itself with political radicals like Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, and Mahatma Gandhi under the banner “Think Different.” Today, Apple and the Google parent company, Alphabet, are the two most valuable companies in the United States, and their narratives of using technology as a tool for societal good is now the modus operandi of the industry.

It’s within this framework that tech companies large and small felt compelled to respond to President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning refugees and blocking travel from seven majority-Muslim countries over the weekend. The order’s abrupt implementation incited logistical chaos, stranding refugees and permanent U.S. residents alike at airports and leaving others (including tech executives) unsure of whether they should dare to travel outside the country again. But even beyond the confusing rollout, the isolationist spirit of the order was at odds with the ideals that Silicon Valley espouses: that the growing connectedness of the world is a good thing, that sharing information is always better than hoarding it, that diversity is a driving force in America’s future prosperity.

Tech companies will not let these ideals be extinguished easily, for both practical and ideological reasons. Microsoft has 76 employees who are citizens of the banned countries. Google, which set up a “crisis fund” that could total up to $4 million to donate to organizations fighting the ban, had previously identified the Middle East as an “extremely strategic” region for its business. Leaders at both companies, as well as executives at firms such as Facebook, Lyft, and Airbnb, have been part of a years-long lobbying effort to push Congress to pass more permissive immigration laws. “Tech companies rely a lot on labor that comes from different foreign markets, probably more so than any other industry. They see themselves as less domestic and more global firms,” says Brayden King, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “Because of that, they benefit the most from having open borders.”

But there is more at play here than simple human resources. There has been a simmering disconnect between tech companies’ desire to be seen as apolitical platforms and their employees’ demands that they use their clout to fight injustices. Over the summer, tech companies struggled both internally and externally to articulate compassionate messaging after a week of racially charged violence between police officers and black citizens. After Trump’s election, a rogue group reportedly formed at Facebook to take more direct aim at the social network’s “fake news” problem. And before Twitter turned against Uber over the weekend, some of its employees allegedly already had because of CEO Travis Kalanick’s willingness to serve on an economic council for Trump. The travel ban felt like a put-up-or-shut-up moment not just for the Twitter mob but for the engineers and other workers these companies fight so hard to recruit. “[Tech] is attracting people — not just people who want to make money, but also people who believe their work has real meaning and virtue,” says King. “They’ve said a lot of things to the public as a way to communicate internally to their employees what kind of culture they’re trying to create.”

Outside their cloistered campuses, tech firms are having their every move scrutinized by people desperate for someone — anyone — to step in and stop Trump. Through their own incessantly idealistic marketing, these firms have conscripted themselves into the task of “making the world a better place” by stopping the president’s most onerous policies — at least, that’s how many internet users see it. Uber’s Kalanick is being pilloried for serving a role on the Trump council while the CEOs of Disney, Pepsi, General Motors, and even IBM participate largely without criticism. The hyperrationality of Elon Musk, who also serves on the economic council and wants to amend the travel ban at Trump’s side, is wearing thin for some of his followers. And calls on Twitter to ban Trump will only grow louder with each passing presidential tweet. “A significant amount of consumers just have no hope that our government is going to do anything positive,” says Kellie McElhaney, an adjunct associate professor in the Center for Responsible Business at the University of California, Berkeley. “I think right now we’re looking at companies and individuals to really step up against some of the government policies that are happening really quickly.”

Some people argue that this desire for corporate activism is short-sighted. Aneel Karnani, a professor of strategy at the University of Michigan’s business school, believes companies should seek to maximize shareholder value while the government protects the public interest via laws and regulation. “If we value diversity in society, it’s not that we should get companies to do this,” he says. “We should then have immigration laws that are appropriate to creating a diverse society. We as citizens can’t abdicate our political responsibilities by telling companies to be socially responsible. In this particular case, I don’t agree with the Trump administration, but they won the election. That’s the democratic process at work.”

Asking CEOs to assume political roles is a risky proposition, Karnani says, since they’re unelected officials. He’d rather see a focus on lessening corporate money and influence in politics, not strengthening it. “Lots of people who expect companies to [act politically], they want companies to do it so long as the company agrees with their personal belief,” he says. “At least if it’s a politician I can vote him out after four years. But I can’t vote out the CEO of Microsoft.”

Despite misgivings from some quarters, the politicization of tech probably won’t stop anytime soon. Silicon Valley has a penchant for playing the political superhero (as long as it also aligns with its business interests). In 2012, an assortment of major tech players, including Google, Wikipedia, and Reddit, blacked out their websites for a day in opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act, a copyright bill that opponents said would lead to online censorship. The act garnered mass media attention and helped lead to the indefinite shelving of the bill. It was a more impactful and disruptive form of protest than anything attempted so far in opposition to the travel ban.

But the Trump era is young, and Silicon Valley’s weekend statements and donations appear to have been an opening salvo. On Monday, thousands of Google employees around the world staged a protest to the executive order. CEO Sundar Pichai, himself an Indian immigrant, vowed that “the fight will continue.”

“My hope for the tech leaders is that they’ll coalesce together,” McElhaney says. “They’re going to be much more powerful if they do something en masse than one move by LinkedIn or one move by Airbnb.”

This process may already be starting — on Monday, Amazon, Microsoft, and Expedia all voiced their support for a lawsuit by Washington state’s attorney general challenging Trump’s executive order. “No nation is better at harnessing the energies and talents of immigrants,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wrote in a staff email announcing his company’s participation in the suit. “It’s a distinctive competitive advantage for our country — one we should not weaken.”

Defying the president — especially this president, who issues Constitution-defying orders, vilifies corporations, and doesn’t understand technology — is a big business risk that King believes most major companies will do their best to avoid. But tech firms — thanks to financial self-interest, internal and external pressure, and plain old bouts of conscience — are the most likely to speak out and take action.

After Trump’s ban, LinkedIn moved up plans for the U.S. launch of an assistance program that helps connect refugees with job opportunities. “Consumers care deeply now about whether or not a company is taking a stand,” says Meg Garlinghouse, head of LinkedIn for Good. “Employees, too, are looking to companies to take these bold stances. It’s a much more complicated situation than it was 40 years ago. In my opinion, it’s impossible not to wade into some of these murky waters.”