Did the internet elect the president?

Silicon Valley VC freaks out over Trump
Silicon Valley VC freaks out over Trump

"Tell me the truth. Do you think Twitter elected Donald Trump?" a high profile tech exec asked me moments after Trump won.

Of course, Twitter didn't cast a vote -- people all around the country chose to elect Trump -- but it's impossible to look at this election without analyzing the internet's role in shaping it.

There were fake news stories trending on Facebook; Twitter bots that trolled users by the thousands; and Wikileaks emails that showed how hackers can influence the election.

Tech platforms took on a different shape and wielded a new power.

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There has never been a more important time for tech leaders to own their platforms, understand the implications of algorithms, and engage in the challenging conversations about exactly what their roles are.

Justin Kan, Y Combinator partner and Twitch founder, acknowledged an insular mindset in Silicon Valley, one that has made it harder for tech leaders to understand or relate to those who feel disenfranchised. New technologies like self-driving cars will have a huge impact on people who worked as cabbies or truck drivers -- and Silicon Valley wasn't prepared to offer solutions.

"Are those people going to lose their jobs? Are they going to become very angry? Are they going to become a new voting block?" Kan asked at Web Summit in Lisbon. "We need to figure out how to build a society that's inclusive of that."

At the same time that millions of U.S. voters waited for results from the historic election, tech leaders were gathered in Lisbon to talk about the future of technology -- and how it requires ethical reasoning.

Saul Klein, a partner at VC firm LocalGlobe, pointed to an increasingly insular internet, where users see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear and don't have access to contrary viewpoints.

"The nature of the social graph means that it's engineered so we hear from people we like and who agree with us," he said. "Which means if Facebook and Twitter are driving an increased amount of our news consumption, our opinions are being formed and validated by people who agree with us."

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This speaks to the shock that many felt when Trump was elected. Klein likens the reaction to Brexit.

"Most people, whether they were on the Clinton or Trump side, felt constantly validated by their experience in social media," he says. "They felt like their side was winning, their side was generating the momentum, totally unaware that people on the other side were having the same experience."

Wikileaks rejects pro-Trump bias allegations
Wikileaks rejects pro-Trump bias allegations

He says tech companies like Facebook (FB, Tech30) view themselves as similar to broadband providers: they argue they're just pipes, and an algorithm is determining what people see.

"Either we need to think about engineering for serendipity or for alternative viewpoints," he said, "or we have to take more of a human role in curation and take more responsibility for putting in front of people the things they won't agree with."

Those are tough questions for Facebook, which has emphatically said it is not a media organization even as it becomes increasingly important in the consumption of news.

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Twitter's (TWTR, Tech30) role was also scrutinized in Lisbon.

"If you look at all the bots on Twitter that affect and shape people's opinion, it's out of control," Radius CEO Darian Shirazi said in a panel on ethics and tech. "It's very easy for a Donald Trump or any campaign to basically create a bunch of accounts."

"It's very inconsistent -- who they ban, how they choose to ban them, what the rules are for that. A lot of it seems very politicized," added VC Joe Lonsdale.

In an impassioned speech, 500 Startups founder Dave McClure said tech leaders deserved more scrutiny given that their products impact users around the world.

"We judge the leaders of countries and hold them up to certain value systems morals and ethics, but the people who run some of the largest companies probably have larger populations of users than many countries, and I don't think we're holding those folks up to the same standards," he said.

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But within Silicon Valley, tech leaders have already been grappling with their responsibility to a changing world.

"I'm sad because all of us [feel] like we work on technologies that should be more inclusive and should engage more people, [and yet] we were somehow too insular, too isolated, and didn't realize the extent of the divide," Passion Capital investor Eileen Burbidge said. "If we're the one delivering these tools and won't take some responsibility, who else is going to?"

Tech execs answer: Which Silicon Valley company needs 'Ethics 101'?
Tech execs answer: Which Silicon Valley company needs 'Ethics 101'?

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff started making changes within the company, recently hiring a chief equality officer. Time Well Spent founder Tristan Harris has said engineers at tech companies should take a Hippocratic Oath to build software ethically, so that it doesn't users don't become addicted to their devices.

With an incredible amount of power and influence, Silicon Valley has a responsibility to build products that matter, to take on difficult problems, to have conversations about the ethics of tech and to use technology to help bring an increasingly divided nation together.

"Two days ago, I was thinking about the next company, the next investment," Kan said. "But this is a much more existential question for America and the tech industry in general -- hopefully the good that comes out of this election is that we think about bigger problems."

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