A viral blog post from a bureaucrat exposes why tech billionaires fear Biden — and fund Trump

Silicon Valley increasingly depends on scammy products, and no one is friendlier to grifters than Trump

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published June 24, 2024 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The drastic rightward lurch of Silicon Valley's executive class has been swift and mysterious — but now the key to unlocking the mystery may lie in a cheeky blog post written by a regulator from the Federal Trade Commission. Advisories from federal regulators instructing businesses to follow the law aren't typically known for being funny, but Michael Atleson, an attorney for the agency's advertising division, went viral this month with a public memo warning tech companies to stop falsely advertising their chatbots. 

"Your therapy bots aren’t licensed psychologists, your AI girlfriends are neither girls nor friends, your griefbots have no soul, and your AI copilots are not gods," Atleson wrote in a post titled "Succor borne every minute." Comparing so-called "artificial intelligence" to a Magic 8 Ball, the federal regulator chastised tech marketers who "compare their products to magic (they aren’t)" and "talk about the products having feelings (they don’t)." Atleson even joked that his Magic 8 Ball replied, "Outlook not so good," when he asked if he can expect companies to advertise chatbots "in ways that merit no FTC attention." 

Will Oremus of the Washington Post posted on Bluesky, "The Federal Trade Commission, of all entities, is out here writing absolute bangers about AI snake oil." It was both funny and a relief to read someone cutting through all the hype to remind everyone that AI is not "intelligent." Turns out that Atleson has a rich body of pun-heavy work threatening companies that misuse AI to steal, mislead or defraud. Delightful stuff, but also a telling indicator of why we're seeing a stampede of tech billionaires throwing money and assistance to Donald Trump's campaign. 

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The tech industry is getting increasingly scammy. True innovation has slowed down drastically in recent years, threatening to shrink the staggering profits from the earlier parts of the century. To replace that income, tech leaders have increasingly turned to overhyped products or even outright fraud, as evidenced by the collapse of the FTX cryptocurrency exchange and imprisonment of its founder. Joe Biden's administration has made shutting down consumer fraud a majority priority. Rather than dial back the shady behavior, the tech industry is turning to Donald Trump, a man whose entire business career was built on fraud, to save them. 

It's alarming how many tech leaders have thrown their weight behind ending Joe Biden's presidency.

The liberalism of the tech investor class has always been overrated. Yes, the industry overall tends to be more Democratic, but that's due to the workers more than the people in the C-suites. Still, it's alarming how many tech leaders have thrown their weight behind ending Joe Biden's presidency. As Theodore Schleifer reported in the New York Times, Trump, who used to avoid Silicon Valley, has now been regularly rubbing shoulders with its elite class. This month, he visited San Francisco for the first time since before his first presidential run, for a fundraiser that raised $12 million. In a publicity stunt donation, the Winklevoss twins of Facebook infamy, now big cryptocurrency celebrities, donated $2 million in Bitcoin to Trump

Before this, perhaps in a pathetic bid to pretend they are still "liberal," many of these same folks were propping of the candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an anti-vaxx crank who many Trump supporters hoped could use his famous name to siphon votes off Biden. Kennedy is so wound up in Silicon Valley that his running mate, tech lawyer Nicole Shanahan, is the ex-wife of one Google executive and close friend of Tesla CEO Elon Musk. But as polls are starting to suggest Kennedy might be pulling support away from Trump as much as Biden, the Silicon Valley enthusiasm for the anti-vaccine activist has dimmed. They're moving to just supporting Trump directly. 

The direct fundraising is just the tip of the iceberg. Big names in tech are also steering the larger media environment in a more Trump-friendly direction. Musk famously bought Twitter and has been steadily turning the now-named X into a dumping ground for odious right-wing propaganda, much of it overtly neo-Nazi in nature. Musk himself tweets a steady stream of "just asking questions"-style provocations about race and intelligence. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who promised the values of the Washington Post "do not need changing" when he bought it in 2013, has made a series of controversial changes in management recently, hiring multiple people who cut their teeth working for right-wing propagandist Rupert Murdoch. Both the newly hired publisher and editor, Will Lewis and Robert Winnett, were swiftly exposed for having ties to a criminal phone hacking scandal that roiled the British publishing world years ago. Winnett resigned before even starting at the Post

The Bezos decision has been spun as merely a business move. But the Post could make money without embracing sleazy characters. (The New York Times does it with their games and their food coverage.) So I'll note that the Biden administration has sued Bezos, accusing Amazon of an illegal monopoly. It's this monopoly that has turned Amazon's once-fantastic product search engine into a wasteland of junk. It's impossible to search for anything, from socks to computers, without being overwhelmed with shoddy knockoffs. But going elsewhere to buy stuff is hard as Amazon has run competitors out of business. 

It's a process we see time and again: Tech companies that once made genuinely good and helpful products are becoming increasingly useless, overwhelmed by spam, scammy gimmicks, and other efforts to snake a few extra pennies from consumers without producing any value for their money. Google searches are wastelands of ads and AI-generated "answers" that rarely answer your question. Social media is full of snake oil salesmen. Instead of the next cool product that will improve everyone's lives, we first got cryptocurrency, which was tulip trading at best and, as FTX showed, outright theft in many cases. Then NFTs, which pretended easily screenshot pictures on the internet could be worth more than diamonds and gold. Now we have "artificial intelligence," in which we're falsely told we can replace human intelligence with machines that mimic language but have no actual thoughts of their own. 

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Because it's wonky and mostly boring — except for the occasional funny blog post — Biden's war on corporate fraud, including forcing airlines to refund customers for canceled flights, rarely gets the attention it deserves. Just this week, for example, Biden's FTC sued Adobe for making it impossible to cancel subscriptions. But, as Schleifer notes, the private jet class of Silicon Valley sure noticed. Lina Khan, the chair of the Federal Trade Commission, "has ascended to Darth Vader-like status in some corners of the technology industry," Schleifer reports. Turns out the meanie bears in the Biden administration don't like it when you tell lonely men a computer screen can replace a girlfriend. They correctly see that as a lie, just like the fake cancer cures and get-rich-quick schemes that have been used to defraud so many people before. 

Trump, however, will never get between a con artist and his victim.

Project 2025, which functions as the policy arm of the Trump campaign, has openly promised to clean house at federal agencies, replacing competent bureaucrats with Trump stooges. When it comes to agencies like the FTC, this plan is often downplayed as "business-friendly" in the press, but that is a misnomer. It's scam-friendly. Trump is ready to empower every multi-level marketer, fake "cure" hawker, and investment fraudster in the business. The category increasingly encompasses much of the tech world.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Big Tech Commentary Donald Trump Elections 2024 Fundraising Joe Biden Silicon Valley Tech