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Silicon Valley has never been more politicized

JP Mangalindan
Chief Tech Correspondent

(Photo: Getty Images)

Billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel sparked controversy in July when he appeared at the Republic National Convention to endorse Donald Trump. (Photo: Fortune Videos)

Silicon Valley has become more involved in politics than ever before.

Those in the tech industry once limited their political participation to quiet donations. But now, many in Silicon Valley are also weighing in heavily on social media, hosting fundraisers for candidates, and encouraging involvement in their community.

Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, for example, are making their first contribution toward Democratic election efforts by giving $20 million. In August, the venture capital firm Charles River Ventures posted a blog entitled simply, “F*** Trump,” which declared Trump’s stance on immigration to be “diametrically opposed to the core values of entrepreneurship.” Employees at more than 300 companies, including Square (SQ), Twilio (TWLO) and venture capital firm Homebrew all have Election Day off to cast their votes.

High-profile technorati, meanwhile, are voting on issues such as capital punishment with their wallets. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, Steve Jobs’ widow Laurene Powell Jobs, and Y Combinator CEO Paul Graham are all contributing sizable donations between $500,000 and $1 million toward Prop 62 and working to abolish the death penalty in their home state of California and throughout the U.S.

“Silicon Valley has traditionally shied away from the political world because we’ve wanted to avoid alienating customers, and because the world views presented in any election were at least defensibly rational,” explained Matt MacInnis, CEO of the startup Inkling, which creates tools for digital content distribution. “But this election isn’t presenting two rational worldviews, so those rules seem to have flown out the window. We’re terrified of electing a demagogue.”

MacInnis, of course, is referring to Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has polarized the U.S. with his strong rhetoric against Hillary Clinton and his positions on issues such as the economy, immigration and foreign affairs.

“The sheer terror of electing Trump as our president has caused many of those donors and activists to be public with their views, regardless of the social or business consequences,” added MacInnis.

It’s somewhat easy to pinpoint when Silicon Valley became extremely vociferous on subject of politics to this July, when billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel appeared at the Republican National Convention to stump for Trump — a move that dumbfounded many of the technorati, including colleagues at Thiel’s own venture capital firm, Founders Fund, three sources told Yahoo Finance. Indeed, several of Thiel’s colleagues have distanced themselves politically from the investor, at least where social media is concerned.

Thiel made more waves this week when reports surfaced that he would donate $1.25 million to Trump’s campaign directly and indirectly.

However, it’s not just the election that’s causing this political swell in Silicon Valley, contends Susan Etlinger, an industry analyst at the San Francisco-based Altimeter Group.

“Yes, the candidates and the stakes are bringing people out into the open who normally might support candidates or donate (or not) quietly,” Etlinger explained. “But what’s also important is that we are at a real inflection point with regard to technologies such as artificial intelligence. It’s going to have massive impact on our lives: the health care we receive, the cars we drive, the homes we live in, how we get our news, how we’re educated, our financial lives, and so on. Silicon Valley wants and needs a seat at that table.”

Matt Mahan, CEO of the civic-focused social network Brigade, which launched in 2015, chalks up part of Silicon Valley’s increased involvement in politics as having to do with government regulation, as well as the age-old entrepreneurial desire to make a difference.

“Tech companies are running up against government regulation earlier and more frequently than ever, so politics matters more to Silicon Valley than it used to,” Mahan told Yahoo Finance. “Also, the tech sector is full of ambitious people who want to fundamentally change the world and disrupt the status quo. Politics and government is still the greatest lever we have for influencing society, and the civic space remains one of the last areas of our society nearly untouched by technology.”

Translation: This is just the start for a new kind of activist Silicon Valley, an industry emboldened to use its clout, not just to transform the way we engage online or with our devices but also to change how America runs.

JP Mangalindan is a senior correspondent for Yahoo Finance covering the intersection of tech and business. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.  

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