By Kish Rajan
As the dust settles after the recent presidential election, many are asking themselves some hard questions. Will Donald Trump follow through on even his most terrifying campaign promises? What can we do to help the most vulnerable over the next four years? And why were voters so angry that they were willing to take a risk on a tweet-happy businessman with no record of helping anyone but himself?
The tech industry needs to add a question to this list: What role, if any, did we play and what can we do about it now?
Like it or not, technology played a big role in the election. Social media created two competing echo chambers that got louder and louder as we got closer to election day. Fake news stories spread faster than the real thing and both sides told themselves that they were about to win. Only one side was right and that side didn’t include the vast majority of people in tech.
The day after the election was full of online hang wringing and self-flagellation among the technorati. Venture capitalist Dave McClure got a standing ovation at the Web Summit conference when he angrily compared social media to talk radio calling it a “propaganda medium” and demanding tech entrepreneurs take action to make sure this does not happen again.
There’s no question that the people who created and run the biggest social media networks in the world have to do better. If fake news has the same appearance as real news that’s no longer giving people unfettered access to information — it’s making them susceptible to propaganda. When trolls are allowed to attack and harass people on Twitter, that’s no longer facilitating the free flow of opinions — it’s sitting by while vulnerable people are made to feel unsafe.
But the soul searching has to go even deeper than that. Technology has ushered in an era of incredible efficiency but there’s no value in pretending that efficiency doesn’t cost people their jobs.
While many on the coasts are finding their lives greatly improved through smartphones, apps and the platform economy, people at the lower end of the economic scale are seeing the wonders of technology pass them by, just out of their reach.
But here’s the thing — if there are any people in this country who can help make things better, it’s the people who call the tech industry home. I have no doubt that we can innovate our way out of a lot of problems we are now facing.
We need the next wave of technologists to start working on algorithmic accountability. On Facebook, for example, it shouldn’t be enough that a story is popular to get it more widely distributed. There has to be something in the algorithm that evaluates the source of that story.
On Twitter, algorithms should be able to quiet bullies before they become harassers.
Entrepreneurs need to think about how many jobs their company will create instead of simply about market cap or a founder’s net worth. As new companies grow they can open offices in places like Michigan and Iowa and spread job growth beyond hubs like San Francisco, New York and Austin.
Tech leaders need to find their way to the table to work with the new government. Donald Trump has said he will spend $1.5 trillion on infrastructure. That’s great. How can tech help and make that new infrastructure as modern as possible to provide highly-skilled jobs across this whole country? How do we train more people to be able to do these jobs? How can we make sure that the country’s digital infrastructure is being upgraded as well?
Finally, tech can work to promote and protect vulnerable populations by making better hiring decisions. The industry needs to look beyond white male Stanford grads and hire people who better reflect the diversity of America. Such a commitment will show that this community values and celebrates diversity and openness.
Companies can also continue to push for policies and priorities that the next administration might not share. Just because Trump may pull out of the Paris Accords doesn’t mean corporations should reduce their commitment to ending climate change. If Trump does end Obamacare companies should do everything they can to ensure that all of their employees (even contractors) are getting medical coverage. Actions like these can speak louder than words.
This is a difficult time but also an opportunity. As tech takes a hard look at where it’s been, I know we have the opportunity to do everything we can to make sure there’s a brighter future for everyone.