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How Silicon Valley Treats a Trump Backer: Peter Thiel

David Streitfeld and Mike Isaac
Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, delivers a speech during the evening session on the fourth day of the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.
Getty Images

SAN FRANCISCO — Peter Thiel made a relatively modest investment in the presidential candidacy of Donald J. Trump, but it is generating a major uproar in Silicon Valley.

Mr. Trump is toxic among technology investors and entrepreneurs. The news last weekend that Mr. Thiel was giving $1.25 million to the Republican's campaign is provoking outrage. And tech executives who work with the billionaire investor are being forced to explain why they plan to continue to do business with him.

Now Mr. Thiel will defend himself. A spokesman said Wednesday evening that he would address the controversy in a speech in Washington later this month. He declined to comment further.

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Mr. Thiel was the first outside investor in Facebook and sits on its board. That has put the social media giant in the cross hairs of this debate. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive, warned that cutting ties with Mr. Thiel because of his political views would be a troubling precedent.

"We care deeply about diversity," Mr. Zuckerberg wrote in an internal Facebook post to employees. "That's easy to say when it means standing up for ideas you agree with. It's a lot harder when it means standing up for the rights of people with different viewpoints to say what they care about. That's even more important."

An image of Mr. Zuckerberg's message to employees was posted on Tuesday to the website Hacker News, an online forum popular in technologist circles. Facebook confirmed the veracity of the photo and the post but had no further comment.

Mr. Thiel spoke at the Republican convention in July, where he said Mr. Trump "is a builder, and it's time to rebuild America." That support incited some grumbling. But the complaints are louder this time, no doubt because the episode comes after the lewd "Access Hollywood" recording of Mr. Trump. Silicon Valley has been criticized in the last few years for its marginalization of women and lack of diversity.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during the third and final US presidential debate with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton at the Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of the University of Las Vegas in Las Vegas, Nevada on October 19, 2016.
Paul J. Richards | AFP | Getty Images

Though Mr. Zuckerberg did not say that he agreed with Mr. Thiel's donation in his post, which went up a few days after The New York Times reported the donation, he warned that accepting differing political viewpoints was an essential part of Facebook.

His words echo a sentiment from Sam Altman, the managing director of YC Research at Y Combinator. Mr. Altman, who has invested his own money in a campaign to turn out young voters, defended Mr. Thiel's position as a part-time partner at Y Combinator, a position he took last year.

"Thiel is a high profile supporter of Trump. I disagree with this," Mr. Altman wrote in on Sunday. But "YC is not going to fire someone for supporting a major party nominee."

Mr. Altman's arguments did not satisfy Marco Arment, the lead developer of Tumblr and the creator of Instapaper.

"We have so many diversity and hostility problems (that the industry isfinally working to fix) that Y Combinator should be leading the way toward inclusive, progressive solutions," Mr. Arment wrote on his blog. "Instead, they're defending the large-scale support of racism, bigotry and sexual assault by an influential partner and adviser to their start-ups as its own form of 'diversity.'"

Earlier this week, Ellen Pao, the head of Project Include, an organization that is trying to increase diversity in the tech industry's work force, said her group was severing ties with Y Combinator because of Mr. Thiel's involvement.

"We agree that people shouldn't be fired for their political views, but this isn't a disagreement on tax policy, this is advocating hatred and violence,"Ms. Pao wrote on the site Medium.

Silicon Valley has been politicized in this election in a way it never was before. Mr. Zuckerberg has alluded to his opposition to some of Mr. Trump's policies, once condemning Mr. Trump's call to "build a wall" to stem the tide of illegal immigration from Mexico.

But in recent months he has guarded his political beliefs more closely, especially after claims were made that some conservative viewpoints were being blocked from wide visibility across the network by Facebook employees.

Mr. Zuckerberg now walks a fine line between what he describes as adhering to Facebook's core values of sharing and diversity of opinion and trying to avoid rankling the thousands of people he employs.

"We can't create a culture that says it cares about diversity and then excludes almost half the country because they back a political candidate," he wrote.