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Silicon Valley’s Smokescreen and the Phoniness of ‘Thought Leadership’—Data Sheet

Technology companies are big on changing the world. And they do. Computers have revolutionized access to information and how we communicate. Software has simplified once tedious tasks. Few industries are untouched by the magic of digitization.

But make no mistake: When top executives at the world-changing companies shout too loudly about all the good they’re doing there’s typically something deeper going on. Writer Anand Giridharadas is onto the tech leaders. I interviewed him for a discussion that serves as a counterpoint to Fortune’s new “Change the World” issue devoted to celebrating the world-changing efforts of global capitalism. Giridharadas thinks the world-changing stuff is a smokescreen, a misdirection intended to ensure those in power stay that way.

He is particularly critical of tech companies precisely because of what he sees as their faux idealism. "Uber just wants to create micro-entrepreneurship in America,” he begins. “Google just wants to organize all the world's information. Facebook just wants to build a universal community of mankind. And I really think they believe it. Our society is way more defenseless against the idealists than the realists. We don't regulate the idealists well, because to some degree we are sucked in by their story."

Giridharadas wrote last year’s provocative Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. From a tech-industry perspective, it’s a prescient look at how the tide is turning for present-day plutocrats. The kind of muscular regulation Giridharadas advocates finally is coming.

Less commented on is his distinction between "thought leaders" and critics. The former are paid pseudo intellectuals who produce white papers and give speeches and produce conferences intended to foster a safe environment for conducting commerce. The latter are less well paid thinkers (and journalists) who write essays and give speeches and convene true debates to air out ideas that matter to society. It’s an important if sometimes blurry distinction, one worth considering next time you consume the work of a self-proclaimed "thought leader."

Adam Lashinsky

On Twitter: @adamlashinsky

Email: adam_lashinsky@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Apologies to our censors. Twitter removed 936 accounts it determined were part of a Beijing-backed disinformation campaign designed to drum up popular sentiment against Hong Kong’s pro-Democracy protesters. Tipped off by Twitter, Facebook removed five accounts, seven pages, and three groups that it associated with the “coordinated inauthentic behavior” from China. 

Ups and downs. Baidu shares popped more than 9% on Monday after the Chinese Internet giant beat the Street’s earnings expectations, despite profits dropping 62% versus the same quarter last year. CEO Robin Li cited “temporary pain” from internal restructuring in a letter to employees. Meanwhile, Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi missed earnings estimates, reporting its slowest sales growth ever. The company has lost some steam as Chinese consumers have rallied behind its embattled rival Huawei.

Antitrust but verify. A group of state attorneys general is planning to move ahead with a joint antitrust investigation of big technology companies in the U.S., the Wall Street Journal reports. The probe could come as early as next month.

Here comes the sun. Tesla is reviving a contract-free rental option for home solar panel installations once offered by Solar City, a debt-laden business Tesla acquired in 2016. Telsa is presumably looking to reverse the erosion of its share of the consumer solar market, which had accelerated as the carmaker attempted to focus on profitability. 

All my exes live in Texas. Twenty-three cities in Texas are reeling after a coordinated ransomware attack knocked their systems offline. Local government officials say the municipalities are racing to get their systems back up and running. The attacks follow similar ones that recently targeted Baltimore, Atlanta, and other U.S. cities. 

On the silver screen. Apple’s budget for original shows and movies slated for TV+, its soon-to-be-launched video streaming service, has ballooned from $1 billion to $6 billion, the Financial Times reports. The company is said to be debuting the Netflix competitor in two months in an attempt to pre-empt a similar product debut by Disney.

ON THE MOVE

Arlen Shenkman, a longtime SAP executive, has joined software-maker Citrix as chief financial officer. He will be helping the company transition to a subscription-based business model…Robert Cohen, a cryptocurrency cop who headed the Securities and Exchange Commission’s cyber unit, is joining white-shoe law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell. He led an investigation into the hacking of the SEC’s corporate filing system and sued chat app-maker Kik over its $100 million “initial coin offering”…Alibaba cofounder Joseph Tsai is plunking down $2.35 billion to buy the Brooklyn Nets…Bill Stasior, Apple’s Siri division leader for nearly a decade, is heading to Microsoft artificial intelligence division.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Hot tub diplomacy. In keeping with Adam’s column, here’s a droll look at how Big Tech is preparing for the big-time reckoning that is surely coming its way. Taking note of the turn-for-the-worse sentiment, the latest issue of the New Yorker goes deep on “Silicon Valley’s crisis of confidence.” It’s a trip. Here’s an excerpt.

There are two kinds of people: those who know nothing about Esalen and those who purport to know everything about it. To find out which kind of person you’re talking to, simply utter the three syllables (stress on the first, slant-rhyme with “mescaline”) and wait. In response, you’ll get either an uncomprehending stare or an effusion of tall tales. Have you heard the one about the poet and the astrophysicist who met in the Esalen hot springs and eloped the next week? How about the accountant who visited for the weekend, cured his depression with a single dose of ketamine, and became a Zen monk? The secret full-moon dance parties? The billionaire-C.E.O. sightings? “This isn’t a place,” a staffer told me while rolling a joint on a piece of rough-hewn garden furniture. “It’s a diaspora, a guiding light out of our collective darkness, an arrow pointing us toward the best way to be fully human.”

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Disney’s New Streaming Service Will Be Unavailable on the World’s Most Popular Streaming Devices by David Z. Morris

Apple CEO Tim Cook Is Worried Tariffs May Help Samsung. Is He Right? by Don Reisinger

Facebook Is Hiring Journalists Ahead of a Closely-Watched Return to News by Danielle Abril

A Cryptocurrency Custody Battle Is A-Brewing by Robert Hackett

You’re Not Imagining Online Video Throttling on Your Phone—It’s Pervasive by Olga Kharif

BEFORE YOU GO

An Instagram influencer turned her motorcycle accident into an impromptu photoshoot. Onlookers questioned whether the stylized posts were sponsored by Smartwater, given the prominence of a water bottle in the frames. The woman, who received minor scrapes from her spill, told BuzzFed News that she “would never turn a very important personal story like this into a brand campaign.” 

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Robert Hackett. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.