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Facebook At The Crossroads: Immigration, Donald Trump and Peter Thiel

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Leadership & Transparency

President Donald Trump's first week in office included several controversial executive orders, one of which placed a temporary ban on U.S. entry for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg promptly pushed back with a statement of inclusion and tolerance. But the continued presence of staunch Trump supporter Peter Thiel on the Facebook Board of Directors undercuts Zuckerberg's progressive messaging.

The immigration order created havoc -- and heartbreak -- for travelers on Saturday, including some who held valid visas and green cards. A firestorm of large, spontaneous protests broke out at multiple airports around the country.

By Saturday evening a federal judge issued an emergency stay of the order, but that is clearly not the end of this episode.

Why is TriplePundit so interested in Peter Thiel?


For those of you new to the topic, TriplePundit has been following Peter Thiel partly because he stands out as the only Silicon Valley tech billionaire who publicly -- and very actively -- supported Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. He was instrumental in the Trump transition, and he continues to advise the president.

Thiel is now reported to be vetting candidates for top officials at the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice's anti-trust division.

As a news organization, TriplePundit is also interested in Thiel because last year he was revealed as the secret funder behind a lawsuit that bankrupted one of his chief critics, Gawker Media. Thiel is reportedly barreling down the same track this year with a lawsuit against another news organization, Techdirt.

The corporate social responsibility angle also comes into play because Thiel's support for Trump is not an outlier. It is part of a track record peppered with exclusionary affiliations that run counter to foundational CSR principles including gender equality and human rights.

One early example is Thiel's notorious 2009 essay published in the Libertarian journal Cato Unbound. In the essay, he declared that freedom and democracy are incompatible, and he laid much of the blame on the enfranchisement of women.

Thiel has also been linked to racism, anti-immigration groups and white nationalism through his 2008 donation to the organization Numbers USA, his support for the 2012 campaign of Ron Paul (a Libertarian candidate linked to racist literature), and his inclusion (later withdrawn) in a white nationalist conference in Turkey last summer.

Thiel's data mining company, Palantir, has also begun to raise red flags over its numerous government contracts. At least one media organization has suggested that the company could provide a data platform leading to mass deportations.

Peter Thiel and Donald Trump


Despite media reports linking the Trump campaign to fascistic tendencies and the white nationalist movement, Thiel did not waver. He was awarded a key speaking slot during the Republican National Convention, penned op/eds lauding Trump's leadership skills as the campaign season heated up, and provided a massive infusion of cash in the run-up to Election Day.

By last October, Facebook employees were becoming so alarmed at Thiel's relationship with Trump that Zuckerberg was compelled to write an internal memo in defense of Thiel's position on the board of directors. Among the many news organizations that circulated the memo, Forbes cited this passage:

“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,” wrote Zuckerberg. “There are many reasons a person might support Trump that do not involve racism, sexism, xenophobia or accepting sexual assault.”

It appears that Zuckerberg's confidence in Thiel was misplaced.

In November, just days before the election, Thiel used an appearance before the National Press Club to downplay fears about Trump's candidacy. He dismissed Trump's anti-Muslim statements as nothing more than campaign rhetoric (cited here by TechCrunch):

"... Thiel — who said he doesn’t support a 'religious test' — said the 'media is always taking him literally. I think a lot of the voters take him seriously but not literally, so when they hear the Muslim comment or the wall comment, it’s not, ‘Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?’ but, ‘We’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy’ and ‘How do we strike the right balance between costs and benefits?’”

As the events of last several weeks amply demonstrate, Thiel was far off the mark. Trump meant everything he said on the campaign trail, and more.

Zuckerberg pushes back, sort of


Zuckerberg responded to Trump's executive order with a widely circulated post on Facebook. The post was long on personal details, but it was also equal parts circumspect and conciliatory. Here are a few snippets:
"Like many of you, I'm concerned about the impact of the recent executive orders signed by President Trump."

[snip]

"That said, I was glad to hear President Trump say he's going to 'work something out' for Dreamers -- immigrants who were brought to this country at a young age by their parents."

[snip]

"I'm also glad the President believes our country should continue to benefit from 'people of great talent coming into the country.'"


That's a sharp contrast with the reaction of other Silicon Valley leaders cited by the Independent. One example is Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who wrote on Facebook:
"Trump's actions ... are so un-American it pains us all. ... It is time to link arms together to protect American values of freedom and opportunity."

EBay founder Pierre Omidyar called out Trump on Twitter:
"We already have extreme vetting. Trumps' order is simple bigotry."

Notably, Google co-founder and Alphabet president Sergey Brin joined protesters at San Francisco International Airport. He clarified that his participation was not a reflection of official company policy, but his action was consistent with other official statements from Google.

In other signs of growing activism in the tech sector, VentureBeat and recode are among those calling on Twitter to ban Trump, or at least suspend him.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey seems to be moving that direction. He posted a blow-by-blow account of the immigration issue on Twitter (@Jack), leading off with this observation:

"The Executive Order's humanitarian and economic impact is real and upsetting. We benefit from what refugees and immigrants bring to the U.S."

The Facebook code of conduct


Adding a heavy dose of irony to the situation, Thiel himself is an immigrant. He was born in Germany and became a U.S. citizen at a very young age, after his family moved to the U.S.

In addition, last week news surfaced that Thiel has been a citizen of New Zealand since 2011. The news sparked outrage in that country because citizenship normally requires five years of residency, a benchmark that Thiel does not seem to have met.

With this in mind, here is the introduction to the code of conduct described in Facebook's corporate governance pages:

"Employees of Facebook, Inc., or any of its affiliates or subsidiaries, ('Facebook') and others performing work for Facebook or on its behalf, collectively referred to in this code as 'Facebook Personnel,' are expected to act lawfully, honestly, ethically, and in the best interests of the company while performing duties on behalf of Facebook ..."

The code of conduct also includes a section on harassment that is relevant to the immigration situation:
"Facebook does not tolerate unlawful harassment or any mistreatment ... on the basis of sex, race, color, nationality, ethnic or national origin, ancestry, citizenship, religion (or belief, where applicable), age, physical or mental disability, medical condition, sexual orientation, veteran status, marital status, genetic information or characteristics (or those of a family member), or any other category protected under applicable federal, state or local law ..."

If Facebook employees call upon Zuckerberg to justify Thiel's position on the board again, he may have a tough time making his case.

Image: Luc Van Braekel via flickr.com, creative commons license.

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Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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