How presidential candidates are talking about tech on the campaign trail
Sep 19, 2023

How presidential candidates are talking about tech on the campaign trail

National security and censorship often come up in the contenders’ tech-centered rhetoric, and a lot of it revolves around China, says Dave Weigel, politics reporter for the news website Semafor.

We are a little more than a year away from Election Day, and voters have probably heard something about candidates’ views on the economy, foreign policy and other issues in the media daily.

But today, “Marketplace Tech” is looking at what candidates are telling voters about their plans for the future of technology in the United States. How are they framing issues related to artificial intelligence, social media and the power of Big Tech?

If you scroll through the websites of the leading candidates, tech might not seem very high on their priority list so far. But tech is definitely on the agenda — you just have to know where to look and what to listen for.

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke with Dave Weigel, politics reporter for the news website Semafor, about how the contenders are defining and spinning tech to influence voters.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Dave Weigel: You’re hearing this in two ways. One I would call a national security conversation. One is a free speech conversation. So one of them is we need to protect our tech advantage, stop China from stealing it and pursue policies that make that possible. We’re not just going to be letting China steal our [intellectual property] anymore. Now, that’s something candidates have promised in the past, but they’re more specific now. The other — this is far more from Republicans than the president — is we are going to stop tech companies from censoring people. One thing I would say that floats between these two categories is TikTok. There is a discussion among candidates, among really Democrat and Republican, about banning the app, limiting the app. I say that flows between them because it’s not necessarily a free speech issue to say we’re going to ban this app that millions of people are using to share their content, get famous [and] talk to each other. But that fits into this category of ways the campaigns are thinking about fighting China, competing with China, preventing China from getting any advantage or influence over Americans. Vivek Ramaswamy, [who has] the most, I think, Silicon Valley experience in the field — not much, but a little — he calls it “digital fentanyl.” Not every candidate uses those terms, but that’s sort of the way they talk about it.

Lily Jamali: It’s a very evocative term.

Dave Weigel: It is, it’s very uh … touching TikTok cannot kill you, but the idea there that, and it goes pretty deep, I mean, it’s that the Chinese Communist Party, which has a hand in most [Chinese] companies, is going out of its way to popularize a social media that tells young people and — again, I’m kind of channeling the way Republicans talk about this — everything from disrespecting your parents to questioning your gender to how to steal a car, you know, how to steal a Kia or Hyundai with your USB. The idea there from these candidates and really not pushed back on is, this is done purposefully. We should be limiting something that our foreign adversaries are using to weaken America from within.

Jamali: Well, staying on the GOP side, former President [Donald] Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have talked about this notion of enshrining “digital rights” for individuals. What’s your understanding of what they mean by that phrase, digital rights?

Weigel: Yeah, that is tied to all this. So Trump and DeSantis, who, add them up in Iowa, they’ve got most of the vote right now, they both support basically what Trump calls a Digital Bill of Rights. I think DeSantis would adopt that framing if he was pushed on it, which is companies are not allowed to censor you. In Florida, DeSantis actually got a law passed, signed it with Republican support that you have a right in Florida to sue a company if it censors you. [So] basically, it’s in the interest of the state to protect conservative speech. What supercharged this was the end of the 2020 campaign and coverage of Hunter Biden’s laptop that he left at a Mac repair shop in Delaware. Without getting into every little angle of that story, the way that, I think, has been passed down in into Republican campaigns, Republican legislation, is that tech companies who don’t have any voter accountability were censoring news stories about something that would have damaged Joe Biden’s campaign for president. We can’t let that happen again.

What really hypercharged this was the way these companies handled gender identity. There was an acceptance, certainly at Twitter, that it was hate speech to misgender somebody if they were using pronouns, identity, etc., different from their sex at birth. That was the old Twitter policy. Elon Musk does not believe in that, has said so, took that out of the protected categories. But that too, that was another factor that was getting a lot of conservatives taken offline. And that’s been baked into this debate over how we need digital free speech rights. Not every Republican has talked as much about this. They do favor more regulation of the way tech companies handle speech. But it’s really DeSantis and Trump who’s led the fight on, we can’t let these guys change our culture with no input from the state.

Jamali: Are there any Republican candidates of any prominence that, you know, have expressed that their views depart from this fairly mainstream view within the GOP?

Weigel: So not especially. I mean, Mike Pence was in the Trump administration, obviously. He brings it up, and they at the end of their term were trying to ban TikTok. He still supports that. He says he has some of these same concerns. I bring him up because he’s been critical of, for example, Ron DeSantis and his war with Disney over Disney’s criticism of Florida’s parental rights laws. So no, there’s not really any disagreement with these candidates, there are differences in what they promised to do. And really, I think it’s almost undercovered, like Trump has been quite specific in if he came back to the presidency what he would do, how he would act on this stuff faster, who he would appoint to various roles. It would be the power of the state allowing more conservative speech online and restricting access to things they think are making young people change their morals, change their values.

Jamali: Yeah, well, let’s turn to the Democrats now. Is President Biden making much effort to talk about how his administration has approached Big Tech?

Weigel: Not especially, I mean Biden’s talked more than people expected about, for example, like unionizing at Amazon, but he doesn’t vocalize this as much on the trail. The story when it comes to tech has been, look at the investments this president made and that everyone else talked about and didn’t do to make us not just more competitive with China, but make them irrelevant. That’s the message they’re sending, less about breaking up monopolies here at home from them. That’s the policy, that’s just not really part of their campaign narrative. I’ve not seen the candidates get too much into monopoly. It is something, certainly in the DeSantis wing of the party, which has shrunk a bit but includes a lot of the more populist conservative intellectuals. They’re interested in it. But it’s just not something even DeSantis has talked about.

More on this

There’s still plenty of time for any candidate to change their stance on tech. Last week, GOP presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy — who, as Dave Weigel mentioned, described TikTok as digital fentanyl — announced that he joined the social media platform to meet and engage with younger voters, though he still argues that TikTok is a threat to younger Americans. Currently, he’s one of 12 contenders challenging former President Trump for the nomination.

While President Biden is largely considered the favored Democratic presidential candidate, he has two challengers.

There’s Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a vaccine skeptic whose attacks on internet censorship have won him support from anti-establishment donors in Silicon Valley.

The other is Marianne Williamson, who’s made investing in energy tech part of her campaign to offer a more progressive alternative to Biden.

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The team

Daniel Shin Daniel Shin
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer