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Biden and Trump’s Love-Hate Relationship with Big Tech

Janesmith

2024-02-20

Tech giants are frequently the subject of intense scrutiny and pointed barbs from leaders in Washington, D.C. Yet, despite the tough talk and scrutiny, these same corporations receive significant campaign expenditures from presidential candidates. The paradox is evident: while politicians vocalize concerns over privacy, misinformation, and antitrust issues, their reliance on the expansive reach of platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter for campaign advertising underlines a complex love-hate dynamic. This intersection of technology and politics creates a landscape where critique and reliance go hand in hand, reflecting the entwined fate of governance and digital innovation.

As evidenced by the latest Federal Election Commission filings, presidential campaigns have funneled millions of dollars into Silicon Valley, particularly for digital advertising. These documents confirm that reaching voters through the powerful algorithms of Facebook, the extensive networks of Google, and the real-time communication capabilities of Twitter is now fundamental to political strategy. Beyond advertising, the filings illuminate the multifaceted dependence of campaigns on tech giants: from cloud services that store vast amounts of data to analytics tools that hone in on key demographics. Tech platforms, with their sprawling ecosystems, have become as integral to campaign infrastructure as they are pervasive in the daily lives of Americans.

The Irony of Political Platforms on Big Tech Platforms

Imagine a world where political candidates cease to use the very platforms they criticize. Unfortunately for Big Tech detractors, reality is not that convenient. Both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have utilized the services of major tech firms in their campaigns, albeit often while lambasting them in public forums.

Trump’s intermittent flirtations with antitrust rhetoric and his audacious launch of Truth Social are indicative of his attempt to circumvent what he perceives as a prejudiced Big Tech. Yet, his actions do not align neatly with his words. Despite his vocal criticisms, Trump’s campaign has not shunned the advertising reach of Facebook (META), nor has it avoided leveraging the logistical prowess of Amazon (AMZN) for stocking campaign materials. Similarly, President Biden navigates a precarious tightrope: while his administration actively prosecutes legal actions against tech conglomerates like Amazon, Google (GOOG), and Meta, with Apple (AAPL) potentially in the crosshairs, his campaign continues to engage the very platforms it combats in court. The dichotomy of combating and patronizing the same tech titans underscores a political paradox where opposition and customer status are tangled.

Biden’s antitrust initiatives underscore his administration’s conviction that consolidation in the tech industry, among others, results in limited choices for both workers and consumers. This stance highlights the quandary his campaign similarly encounters as it navigates the political landscape. The issue is not unique to the current administration, as past presidential candidates also exhibited a reliance on Big Tech even while censuring their practices. The 2020 campaign was particularly notable in this context; Senator Elizabeth Warren took her message of dismantling Big Tech monopolies directly to the electorate by advertising those very plans on the platforms she aimed to regulate. This strategy demonstrated the complex interdependence between policymakers and the tech giants: utilizing the latter’s reach to propagate agendas that could potentially reshape their future operations.

Tech Spending in Political Campaigns: A Whopping Figure

The scale of campaign spending is staggering, with the Biden and Trump campaigns collectively pouring at least $30 million into advertising efforts in the year 2023 alone. Despite competition from various advertising avenues, a significant portion of this budget was allocated to the tech behemoths residing in Menlo Park, California—home to Facebook’s headquarters—and in Mountain View, California, where Google’s expansive complex, affectionately known as the GooglePlex, orchestrates the flow of online information. Advertising indeed constitutes the bulk of the nearly $80 million total campaign expenditure from both political figures last year, as per Federal Election Commission records. In comparison, other business sectors like airlines, restaurants, and event organizers also featured prominently but did not match the magnitude of the investments in digital campaigning. This financial prioritization reflects a profound truth about modern electioneering: the path to voters’ hearts and minds increasingly runs through the servers and algorithms of Silicon Valley.

The question of exactly how much of those advertising budgets ends up in Big Tech’s hands is somewhat harder to answer, with the money flowing through third parties and various intermediates. Campaign funds disperse through a labyrinth of marketing agencies, consultants, and ad brokers before they reach the coffers of Google, Facebook, and others. These transactions are clouded further as campaign financing entails intricate layers of expenditure, not all of which are transparent or straightforward. The FEC filings shed light on top-level figures, but peeling back the exact percentages that trickle down into Big Tech’s revenues requires a granular analysis of the campaign’s indirect spending—a task not easily accomplished given the complexities of online advertising economics.

Despite the complexity of tracing campaign expenditures, certain figures have begun to emerge, revealing how the investments made by political campaigns in technology platforms are distributed. The Trump campaign, for instance, allocated at least $11.5 million in 2023 to a variety of contractors for services categorized as “online advertising” or “placed media.” Efforts to follow the spending trail have been undertaken, with Bully Pulpit Interactive disclosing to Axios that within the first few months of 2023, they traced hundreds of thousands of dollars going to Facebook and Google ads. Although updated figures were not readily accessible at the time, there is a strong belief that the total spend grew substantially throughout the year.

Meanwhile, the Biden campaign has been directing millions of dollars to firms that align with Democratic ideologies. One name that appears with notable frequency in the financial records is Gambit Strategies, which is steered by two former Biden aides. The company specializes in digital advertising and boasts specialized expertise in persuading and mobilizing voters online. According to the provided records, Gambit Strategies raked in over $8 million from the Biden campaign in 2023. This financial data further underscores the significant role and influence that digital advertising, and by extension, the agencies that specialize in it, play in today’s political campaign strategies.

Representatives from both the Biden and Trump campaigns have remained reticent on providing an itemized account of their spending, particularly when approached by inquiry from sources like Yahoo Finance. This lack of disclosure persists despite the public record of their significant investments in advertising with Big Tech companies—a stark contrast to their vocal criticisms of these very platforms. In 2023, amidst a series of disparaging comments, former President Trump labeled Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg a “weirdo,” pointing to their divergent political views. Meanwhile, President Biden has openly censured Facebook and other social media giants for their handling of misinformation about COVID-19, going so far as to suggest that their policies were having lethal consequences. Despite this public disapproval, both campaigns continued to direct a conspicuous portion of their budgets into the coffers of these technology companies, underscoring a complicated relationship where condemnation coexists with reliance.

The filings reveal that beyond the substantial outlays for advertising, both political camps have invested heavily in a variety of other tech-related services. In particular, Amazon has figured as a noteworthy recipient of campaign spending, though the nature of the expenditures differs between the candidates. The Biden team allocated approximately $60,000 to Amazon Web Services in 2023, utilizing the subsidiary’s expansive cloud infrastructure to support the campaign’s online presence. Conversely, the Trump campaign demonstrated a preference for a different sector of Amazon, accumulating expenditures over $30,000 on office essentials and supplies through the e-commerce arm of Andy Jassy’s multi-faceted enterprise.

Despite these transactions, the relationship each campaign has with Amazon is tinged with past tensions. Biden and Trump have both had skirmishes with the company, most notably in their public commentary addressing concerns of antitrust and labor issues, reflecting the nuanced and often fraught relationship between political figures and the tech titan.

Reflecting a broader regulatory push, the Federal Trade Commission under President Biden, collaboratively with 17 states, has filed an impactful antitrust lawsuit against Amazon. This legal challenge accuses the ubiquitous tech behemoth of harnessing its “monopoly power” to manipulate and inflate prices, bolstering a narrative of big tech’s outsized market dominance. President Biden himself sparred with Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, in a memorable 2022 Twitter exchange focusing on inflation and the civic duties implied by corporate tax contributions. This public confrontation laid bare the tension between governmental oversight and corporate power, highlighting the administration’s concerns over equitable economic practices.

Former President Trump’s history with Amazon similarly hints at skepticism of the company’s market power. During his term, he not infrequently voiced the prospect of antitrust action against major tech entities, including Amazon. In a notable statement in 2018, Trump expressed the sentiment that many view the situation with Amazon, Google, and Facebook as a clear antitrust concern. These standoffs with Amazon underscore the complicated and, at times, adversarial relationships elected officials often maintain with towering tech corporations, even as they serve as indispensable tools in the political machinery.

Other tech spending is perhaps more illuminating about the distinct cultures of the two campaigns. Biden’s team appears to have spent a lot on Apple products. Over $170,000 was spent in 2023 at an Apple authorized service provider named “Mac Business Solutions.” The records indicate that the expenditures were likely for a robust inventory of iPhones, MacBooks, and other Apple accessories integral to the campaign’s day-to-day operations, suggesting a strong preference for Apple’s ecosystem within the Biden camp. iPhone and MacBook purchases appear to be less numerous in Trump’s filings, but the campaign nonetheless spent almost $9,000 directly with the company on purchases of “office equipment.” This contrasts with the Biden campaign’s more considerable investment and may reflect a different technological strategy or supplier relationship preferred by Trump’s team.

Transportation and meal logistics also painted a picture of each campaign’s operational preferences. Campaign staff for Trump showed a pronounced partiality for Uber, utilizing the rideshare service at a rate ten times higher than that of Lyft. Subsequent records revealed that the Trump team’s affinity for Uber extended to meal provisions, with a recurring presence of Uber Eats in their expenditure documents. On the other side of the political spectrum, Biden’s staffers demonstrated a more balanced approach between rideshare services, albeit with a slight inclination toward Lyft, indicating perhaps a more conscious choice reflective of the company’s brand image or corporate practices. Interestingly, direct engagement with what used to be Twitter was minimal for both teams. Yet, in the Trump campaign’s ledger, a singular entry denoted a payment of $168 to the now Elon Musk-led social media platform, signaling an investment in premium service offerings.

The complex interplay between politics and Big Tech is one that future generations of political thinkers and tech analysts will likely study with equal parts fascination and frustration. For now, it’s apparent that the role of major technology corporations in electoral processes is firmly entrenched, despite the ongoing push to regulate and curtail their influence.

As we move into future campaign cycles, it’s safe to assume that the reliance on Big Tech will only grow. The need for engagement on social media, strategic data analysis, and complex digital advertising will ensure that the love-hate relationship will continue, providing us with no shortage of paradoxes and political intrigue along the way. Whether these intertwined destinies ultimately lead to mutual growth or a collision course is a narrative still being written.

In conclusion, the intertwined destinies of political campaigns and Big Tech are emblematic of a rapidly evolving landscape where power, information, and governance intersect. As long as digital platforms remain the primary battleground for public discourse and the fight for elected positions, the symbiosis between these entities will persist. The true test lies in how these relationships are managed in the face of competing interests and the public’s demand for transparency and fairness. Only time will tell if these dynamics evolve into something more equitable or if they will serve as a cautionary tale about undue influence and conflicting loyalties in the political sphere.