Orangeburg, South Carolina — Sen. Elizabeth Warren wound up to smack the easiest softball yet here in a half-empty college auditorium. She needed all of two words to do it.
Respond to Mark Zuckerberg’s worry that your election would “suck” for Facebook, would you?
“Well, boohoo,” she deadpanned.
Simple enough. If she wanted whoops and hollers from a weary crowd, she got them. Warren, gleeful, didn’t say another word. Her questioner, chastened, moved on.
Warren has staked her campaign in part on a narrative-setting proposal to break up Big Tech, a message she first unveiled this winter but that she has sharpened in the last few weeks to include criticisms of Facebook’s unwillingness to fact-check politicians and of the personal net worths of billionaires like Zuckerberg. There have been recent stretches where she has picked a fight with a tech company or figure every day, eclipsing everyone except perhaps Donald Trump in her willingness to rattle the cage of Silicon Valley.
But there is an emerging disconnect between what Warren sees on the surface when asked about Zuckerberg, for instance, and public opinion: She may be talking into the void. When Recode interviewed 50 voters — black, Hispanic, Native American, and white; millennial to elderly; Warren-curious to Warren fan-girl — at five Warren campaign events over three days across the Carolinas earlier this month, not a single person volunteered tech issues when asked to share their top concerns.
With their blank stares, head shakes and are-you-kidding-me laughs, voters all made something plain: The tech debate is hardly a political priority when Democrats are trying to choose their next president.
All told, the interviews served as a vivid reality check that should be — but isn’t — obvious: For all of Silicon Valley and Washington’s all-consuming freak outs about Facebook or Uber or privacy violations or antitrust probes, most Americans simply have more pressing concerns in their day-to-day lives.
Almost all prospective Warren backers told Recode that their vote would be determined by matters that more directly shape their lives — one woman spoke of her $280,000 in student loan debt from veterinary school; another of her husband’s trouble securing health insurance given his preexisting condition; a third man of the pollution that had harmed the lungs of his entire family.
And this, more broadly, speaks to one of the core strategic challenges for politicians seeking to regulate Big Tech — this is an issue that does not have a clear group of aggrieved parties who can serve as emotional spokespeople for its abuses, nor is Big Tech’s power something that regular people widely and easily understand.
That dynamic will undergird the debate about tech regulation — whether Warren wins or not. Political issues compete with one another for voters’ attention. And when compared to proposals that would directly improve people’s lives, an abstract debate about the power of Silicon Valley companies can feel cerebral and irrelevant — even if privacy leaks, misinformation, anti-competitive practices, and election interference very much have concrete impacts.
That means that concern about tech companies could fail to lead to any real action to regulate their power or business practices.
Warren insists that voters do care about tech’s power, even if they don’t know it. In an interview with Recode, she dispensed with the argument that Big Tech did not affect people’s lives.
“This is a pocketbook issue,” she said backstage following a rally before 750 people in a high school cafeteria in Goose Creek, South Carolina. Voters, she insisted, understood that.
“What they see is power. That these big guys determine whether or not their data gets stolen. Determine what kind of stuff comes into their news feed. Determine who is a successful seller on their platform,” she continued. “People get this. They may not use the same frame in terms of the words they use — but they get the power dynamic in terms of what’s happening in America, and they’re sick of it.”
The fundamental problem with Elizabeth Warren’s tech message
As you’d expect, many of the 50 voters across the Carolinas had very immediate, direct personal reasons for caring about one issue or another. Often it’s because the status quo screwed them over.
And that makes voters scoff at the idea that questions about tech or Facebook or data privacy could ever be important.
Sarah Oliver shook her head when asked if any of that even registered. She has $8,000 in medical debt from a surgery three years ago, which prevents her or her husband from going to the doctor when they’re sick.
“Facebook one way or the other doesn’t affect my life. I still have to cook dinner and go to work every day. I have all this other stuff,” said Oliver, seated alongside her husband on the margins of Warren’s rally in Goose Creek. “It’s not life and death for us. Whereas we’re actually in debt for health care.”
Loretta Slater’s top concern is mental health following the death of her daughter at the age of 21. Silicon Valley’s power? “I value people’s lives more.”
Marvin Neal, the head of a local NAACP, cares most about the environment in poor African American communities. Why? Because his nine sisters, two daughters, and three grandchildren all have asthma from air pollution. Mark Zuckerberg? “Not that important to me.”
Jenny Estes, who is $280,000 in debt from her years in veterinary school, cares most about student loans. Tech? “I wouldn’t say it’s a top issue.”
Warren voters interviewed care more about student debt issues than Silicon Valley issues. Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images
As pollsters have observed, Americans have turned sharply against the tech industry as its scandals accumulate. But when it comes to priorities, pollsters have found something else that syncs with what these voters said in North and South Carolina: It’s a C-list issue.
When the research company Morning Consult asked adults what industries deserved the most scrutiny from presidential candidates, the tech industry didn’t even crack the top 10. Americans unsurprisingly called for the most criticism of the health care industry, but tech lagged behind sectors like manufacturing and alcohol industries, too.
Tech finished in fifteenth place among the 19 industries polled.
That gets at the fundamental problem that everyone from Warren to the Department of Justice is encountering as it prepares for antitrust scrutiny of Big Tech companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook: Relatively few Americans suffer direct, known consequences from these companies’ power. Instead, many people “are feeling the effects indirectly” — making it difficult to “finger point,” said Matt Stoller, a leading advocate at the Open Markets Institute for breaking up the tech giants.
“Most people are looking at Facebook or social networking and saying, ‘They know a lot about me’ or ‘I use it too much,’ but they don’t perceive it as a major problem in their life,” Stoller said. “It takes time before people can construct a language to articulate it.”
Stoller said that can make voters shy away from truly grappling with tech’s negative impact — compared to something more tangible, like health care costs.
“Big Tech is fundamentally more dangerous because it’s destroying our democracy — and it’s much harder to put together a democracy than it is to fix a health care system,” Stoller said. “But the health care system is killing a lot of people and it directly threatens a lot of people, so I get why people are like, ‘That’s a massive problem.’”
In fact, many Democratic voters told Recode that they are still coming to terms with a broader notion — that Silicon Valley could be anything beyond well-intentioned.
“I trust the tech guys to do what they do. I want to keep my internet. I want my internet to stay streaming. I want my web browser to work,” said Eddie Oakley. “If there’s specific problems with Facebook, whether it’s antitrust, I don’t stay on top of it.”
Others are avoiding the issue altogether. Buelah Roberts sat in the row behind Oakley at Warren’s event in a high school library in Summerton, a town ravaged by poverty over the last decade after the closure of an auto parts plant, alongside two longtime friends, Mary Cooper and Phyllis Way. None of the three elderly ladies are even on Facebook.
So, yeah, Warren’s tough tech talk is hardly top of mind.
“I’m not on Facebook. I don’t get on Facebook. I don’t believe in Facebook,” Roberts said. “I don’t care about anybody’s business.”
How Elizabeth Warren can make Americans care
Warren has shaped her political brand as a brainiac — pointing to her voluminous plans on every issue under the sun. But as Warren has risen in the polls, competitors have argued that those plans obscure that she is out of touch with regular people.
This month, Joe Biden, her chief rival for the nomination, went so far as to say that the former Harvard law professor is an elitist who condescends Democratic voters by insisting that she knows what’s best for them, portraying her vision as purely an “academic exercise.”
So how Warren connects on tech helps answer a more fundamental question about whether Warren is in sync with the American voter.
Warren speaking in Long Island City, where Amazon had planned to open its second headquarters, after she unveiled her plan to break up tech companies like Amazon. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
The people at Warren’s rallies who resonated most with her rhetoric about Big Tech were the ones who had indeed managed to connect personally with the issue so it no longer seemed so academic. In some ways that offers a blueprint for how politicians from both sides might successfully message their tech rhetoric going forward: make it personal.
And given the issue’s importance, politicians need to find a better strategy.
People who did insist that tech was a major issue for them are those who had a personal connection to the issue. One woman at a Warren town hall in Raleigh said she grew concerned about the privacy of her kids as they used digital platforms. Another prospective Warren backer, Meredith Pope, began to care about tech as ads for boots or trips to Mexico began following her all over the internet, following some prior search queries.
“The idea that technology could be my foe is really unsettling for me,” she told Recode.
Francis Beyotte has been concerned about the power of tech giants, but grew more so after he tried to boycott the so-called FAANG companies — and was barely able to last a week before returning to the comforts of Netflix.
“It’s just getting to the point where I just don’t feel like I have choices anymore. And it makes me nervous,’ said Beyotte. “If I decide that I don’t like the people at any of these companies, if I decide that they’re bad people, I can’t not use them.”
For some, making it personal meant finding a connection between tech and the issue they ultimately cared about, be it tech’s role in their kids’ education or its role in immigration enforcement.
Adelina Nicholls, the head of an immigration rights group, cares about tech companies’ willingness to work with federal law enforcement. That’s what matters to her — not academic concerns about these companies’ monopoly power.
“It’s not about the power,” she said as she smoked a cigarette following an immigration event in Raleigh. “It’s how they use the power.”
Warren has modulated how often she talks about tech in recent weeks. These days, she has a single line in her stump speech about tackling Big Tech — which plugs into her broader argument about corruption and the monopoly power of big companies writ large. Sometimes the applause from Warren’s monopoly riff is so ravenous that you can’t even hear her say “Big Tech.”
The very best evidence of Warren’s messaging success is when voters tie in her argument about big tech into this overall, bigger critique of big business. That’s Warren’s goal.
“I would love to be able to differentiate between Silicon Valley and Wall Street and Big Motor companies,” said Katrina Graham after hearing Warren speak before 7,500 fans in a Raleigh high school gymnasium, “but to me they’re all the same.”
One other surefire way to make this issue personal? Give voters a foil.
When Warren started bickering with Zuckerberg over truth in ads on Facebook this fall, Cody Roberts remembered scratching his head. “What are you doing?” he recalls thinking, wishing that she was talking more about the “big ticket items” that he cared about.
“I just didn’t understand why she was going at him. It just seemed like it was out of nowhere,” he said from a line in Raleigh where people waited to take selfies with Warren. “When he started firing back, I was like maybe she’s onto something.”
But now he’s a convert— because at some point, he realized Zuckerberg is a “giant tool.”
Mark Zuckerberg is an effective foil that help makes the tech issue personal. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Warren now leans into any conflict she can pick with Zuckerberg — as she did in Orangeburg with her mock tears. Before a rally the next day in Goose Creek, a group of three friends awaited Warren’s arrival and debated what they thought about Zuckerberg.
Nancy Rogers, a retired teacher and the most energized of the trio about tech, deems him a “big crook” and says he “infuriates” her. She wants to close her account.
But her friend seated to her right, Mary Erickson, reflected the resignation that people can’t help but feel in 2019 — concerns over Mark Zuckerberg and the massive social platform he oversees can seem so intractable. In some ways, it’s easier to tackle the medical debt.
“You know what to fight against if you get a horrible medical bill,” said Erickson. “People don’t know how to fight this.”