Last week, I was in Scotland when the unexpected U.S. election results rocked the world. It felt like Brexit all over again, except more momentous and ominous on multiple levels. Jat Gill, a senior BBC producer invited me to the London headquarters of the BBC to appear on the show Tech Tent. He asked me to analyze the role of tech in the election and predict what’s next for Silicon Valley and clean tech. We explored:
Did Facebook help swing the election in favor of Trump by propagating “fake news” or are we all partly culpable by following those with whom we agree, and demonizing others?
How will a Trump presidency impact Silicon Valley and the clean tech sector?
During the campaign, Trump called global warming a hoax “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” His choice of Myron Ebell, a climate change skeptic and non-scientist, to oversee the EPA transition is threatening for the clean tech sector. There is growing fear that a Trump presidency will cripple the Paris climate pact and derail global progress toward a low carbon economy. Despite these fears, I am hopeful that the worst excesses of the Trump agenda will be tempered by the concerted efforts of state and local leaders, leveraging existing state laws and making legal challenges when necessary.
You can listen to the show at the BBC’s Tech Tent or below:
Here are some program highlights, edited for length and clarity:
Rory Cellan Jones: Hello and welcome to Tech Tent. This week we’re going to be focusing on the technology of Trump. How did the unexpected winner of the presidential election harness data science to zero-in on key voters? And we’ll be looking at the role social media played in the election and whether Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is the media baron who swung it for the Republican candidate. To help me in all of that I’m joined from the BBC Tech Desk by Chris Foxx. Hello Chris.
Chris Foxx: Hi everyone!
Rory Cellan Jones: And my special guest all the way from California is Alison van Diggelen, our regular commentator on Silicon Valley and green energy. She’s in London with us this time. Good to see you in person.
Alison van Diggelen: Good to see you Rory.
Rory Cellan Jones: Alison will be commenting on all our stories…
It appears that Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has been stung by any suggestion that the social network helped swing the election in favor of Donald Trump. Here’s what he said at the Techonomy Conference overnight:
Mark Zuckerberg: I think the idea that fake news on Facebook influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea. There’s a profound lack of empathy in asserting that the only reason why someone could’ve voted the way they did is because they saw some fake news. If you believe that, then I don’t think you’ve internalized the message that Trump supporters are trying to send in this election.
Rory Cellan Jones: Our Silicon Valley reporter, Dave Lee is on the line from California. Dave, how do you see this Facebook role playing out?
BBC North America Tech Correspondent, Dave Lee: I saw a rattled Mark Zuckerberg in that interview. He was very strongly defending Facebook there. The post he put up about the election… the picture of him and with his daughter, Max, watching the television…as if he was just any kind of onlooker, like the rest of us. I don’t think people are buying that. Of course he had a big role to play. But I think it’s important to take his point: at a time when many people are finding any reason to explain to themselves how this election played out…blaming Facebook is like blaming the mainstream media…various different excuses, other than just a large part of America being extremely angry with how they see the state of the world. We should take his point on that. But to suggest that Facebook hasn’t had a massive influence in this election is naive and I’m not sure Mark Zuckerberg really believes that.
Rory Cellan Jones: Let’s bring in Alison van Diggelen who lives in Silicon Valley. Do you see the impact yourself? I presume you’re a Facebook user. The idea is that Facebook just filters out anything which doesn’t accord with the view you already see.
Alison van Diggelen: I think we are all guilty of (choosing) this siloed information. You follow the people whose opinions you enjoy, that resonate with you. So there is that self perpetuating opinion-making that’s out there. But I think it’s good to listen to Zuckerberg. Donald Trump’s message resonated strongly with people. That’s something that the liberal media and intelligentsia should not overlook. A large percentage of the US population is angry and wants change, even if that means taking a risky change.
Rory Cellan Jones: Before we go, I want to make sure our special guest, Alison van Diggelen, who is an expert on green energy and reports on it a lot from Silicon Valley, gives us the perspective now. How’s that looking given that the president-elect is not noted for his interest in environmental issues?
Alison van Diggelen: Yes, in fact he is a known climate skeptic. I think the clean energy sector is taking a deep breath right now. Trump has said he wants to destroy, or at least not take part in the Paris Agreement and rescind Obama’s Climate Action Plan. But I think it’s not going to be as easy as that to dismantle everything that Obama has put in place. Utility scale wind and solar are already competitive. But I think it is going to hit hard the immature cleantech sector that relies on subsidies. Electric vehicles are somewhere in between.
Rory Cellan Jones: Electric vehicles…one of the arguments about them in middle America maybe is that A: they take away the pleasure of driving and B: they’re a threat to jobs and he’s made big promises about jobs.
Alison van Diggelen: That’s true (re job promises), but Tesla employs about 15,000 people. They’re actually manufacturing in the U.S. which is a rare thing. The thing to remember about Donald Trump is that he is a businessman and I don’t think he’s going to intentionally destroy jobs. But I think what is at risk is the long term research and development investment from the federal government and that could impact America’s ability to compete globally in the clean energy market, which is going to be a big market. You have China and India and Europe which are moving ahead, and I think America needs to look at its global competitiveness in this arena. Hillary Clinton’s plan to be the international leader in cleantech is now a distant dream. It is no longer.
Rory Cellan Jones: Yes, that was then, this is now. We’re moving into a new world. We’ll see how it pans out. Thanks to my special guest Alison van Diggelen who’ll be back in Silicon Valley next week. Thanks to Chris Foxx from the BBC Technology news desk. All of his stories and more at BBC.com/Technology. Don’t forget our Facebook page and join us again in the Tech Tent at the same time next week.
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