Companies are not democracies. But companies born in democracies sometimes display their values, as when social networks cite the First Amendment in drafting their policies around content moderation.
The act of protest is not not limited to democracies, of course. And yet there was something wonderfully democratic about today’s Google walkout, in which thousands of Googlers left their desks to demonstrate against their leadership’s problems with swiftly separating sexual harassers from the company. A large group of loosely connected people, moved to common action, came together to seek redress for their grievances.
And I suspect, in the long run, that they will be successful.
The proximate cause for today’s events was last week’s blockbuster story in the New York Times, which reported that Android co-founder Andy Rubin had been granted a $90 million exit package despite the company finding a sexual assault allegation about him to be credible. It was one of several incidents of sexual impropriety found by the Times among top executives at the company.
In the immediate aftermath, Google CEO Sundar Pichai told employees that it had fired 48 people for sexual harassment in the past two years. But what made today’s protests so powerful was the way they showcased to the world how widespread sexual harassment and the unequal treatment of women had been at the company.
“For every story in the NYT there’s thousands of other stories that aren’t told,” an anonymous Googler told BuzzFeed’s Caroline O’Donovan. “That’s why so many people are getting involved.”
O’Donovan went to one of the walkouts today — they took place in and around Google offices around the world — and captured a heartbreaking story about an employee who said a coworker attempted to “drag her away from the crowd” during a company event.
Nancy said she reported the incident to HR, which made it clear “that I was the problem.”
She cried in her car every day before work for an hour.
“They told me I’m no longer allowed to talk to anybody about this issue at all. They recommended therapy,” said Nancy, in tears. “They said, ‘Don’t worry, keep working with this person’.” Despite an investigation, nothing happened, and Nancy said she continued to work with the person for three months. During that time, she said she cried in her car every day before work for an hour.
These incidents surely are not unique to Google. But the company holds itself to a high standard, and its workers, by virtue of their high level of skill and extreme optionality when it comes to finding other jobs, hold unusual leverage over their employers. Googlers, being very smart, knew this, and staged their walkout partly in hopes that it would inspire other workers to hold their employers similarly accountable.
As one employee told the Times today:
Claire Stapleton, a product marketing manager for YouTube, which is owned by Google, who helped call for the walkout, said the number of employees who had turned out at protests exceeded her expectations.
“We’re optimistic that we’ve opened a conversation about structural change here and elsewhere,” she said.
One reason that’s the case is that the conversation overflowed across both mainstream and social media. There was no precedent for thousands of Googlers taking to the streets to complain about their employer — many of them on the record — and news outlets seized on the opportunity. Photos of the cleverer protests signs ricocheted around Twitter, as did videos of marching and chanting. The Cut published a list of demands from the walkout’s organizers. which featured in every story written about the event.
The Google brass, backed into a corner, offered an official (if muted) endorsement of the event. CEO Sundar Pichai, who had inauspiciously agreed to appear onstage today at a Dealbook conference, told his interviewer: “Moments like this show that we didn’t always get it right, and so we are committed to doing better.”
I felt a rare surge of optimism today. The Google walkout felt like an event out of another time — one when the power of social media seemed to be used primarily to speak truth to power, rather than dissolve the nature of our reality. The protesters played their parts masterfully, offering a useful playbook for many others follow. If we can’t get a functioning democracy from our democracy, at least for now, we may still able to get a taste of it from our employers.
I wrote about Freedom House’s 2018 internet freedom report, which found many reasons for concern:
In the United States, internet freedom declined in 2018 due to the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of net neutrality rules. Other countries fared much worse — 17 out of 65 surveyed had adopted laws restricting online media. Of those, 13 prosecuted citizens for allegedly spreading false information. And more countries are accepting training and technology from China, which Freedom House describes as an effort to export a system of censorship and surveillance around the world.
Lyor Cohen, YouTube’s global head of music, is the latest YouTube executive to publish a blog post condemning the European Union’s Copyright Directive. Article 13 will harm musicians and independent creators, Cohen says. (It will also create many legal headaches for YouTube and Google.)
“Let me be clear: we understand and support the intent of Article 13. We need effective ways for copyright holders to protect their content,” Cohen wrote. “But we believe that the current proposal will create severe unintended consequences for the whole industry. We still have a couple of weeks to work together towards a better final version of the law. The music industry should really pay attention to these unintended consequences - the system that largely contributes to their success is at risk of major change in the European Union.”
Big tech companies are telling the Trump administration on Thursday not to change federal policy to define gender on the basis of one’s biological sex at birth.
Dieter Bohn asks whether Google’s rollout of a feed threatens to be a destabilizing force in the manner of Facebook:
After a weekend where we learned about two domestic terrorists who were radicalized by social media, all I could think about regarding Google’s new effort to push an algorithmic news feed was: “Hey Google, read the freaking room.”
We live in an era where we see real-world tragedies inspired by some form of awfulness on social media every day. We sometimes struggle to clearly define the online causal connections to these tragedies, but over the past few weeks, it doesn’t seem all that hard. So it seems like a pretty inopportune time for Google to decide to put yet another news feed in front of millions (or billions) of people. There has probably not been a time in 2018 when Google could have chosen to launch a new news feed that wouldn’t have made me feel this way, but this week seems particularly bad.
Peter Aldhous writes about new research from Microsoft about how Russians harnessed viral sharing:
Most Russian trolls made little headway, but the star performers scored some big hits. Sometimes they beat the mainstream news media to coverage of divisive events. On other occasions, their tweets were embedded in widely read news stories. And in March 2017, one story from a fake black identity news site operated by the Kremlin got a huge traffic surge thanks to a high ranking in Microsoft’s Bing search engine.
It all demonstrates “the ease with which malicious actors can harness social media and search engines for propaganda campaigns,” the Microsoft study found.
Georgia Wells and Rob Barry write about what Russian trolls tweet about when they’re not undermining democracy. It turns out they were obsessed with the canceled Comedy Central show @midnight, which invited viewers to tweet stupid puns.
One of the trolls’ most popular tweets was in response to the prompt #RedneckAMovie. The tweet “Y’all Come Back to the Future, Ya Hear?” got more than 140 likes. On the topic #MarriageAdviceIn3Words, the reply “Order your fries”—possibly a reference to spouses who don’t like to share—was retweeted 174 times
Snap CEO Evan Spiegel said at a conference on Thursday that his company will remain independent five years from now. Based on recent trends, that’s enough time to hire and fire a chief business officer more than 3,600 times.
With TikTok on the rise in America, Raymond Zhong profiles its parent company, ByteDance:
Sae-eun said she didn’t realize that TikTok was made in China, which raises what might be the most interesting question about Bytedance: How did a company that is further democratizing self-expression come out of sternly undemocratic China in the first place?
Bytedance, which was founded in 2012, did not set out to dominate the market for bite-size videos. For many years, the company’s best-known product was not Douyin but a news aggregator called Jinri Toutiao, which uses machine learning to figure out what users like, then feeds them more of it.
A new study from the University of Ottawa found says social media is saturated with ads for fatty foods, targeted at children:
The study, commissioned by Heart & Stroke, found that children see an estimated 111 advertisements for food per week, or an average of 5,772 ads per year on apps such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and YouTube.
The majority of those ads promoted ultra-processed foods and beverages high in fat, salt, or sugar, the study found.
John Anderson gives a rave to a two-part documentary about Facebook that aired on Frontline this week. (I haven’t seen it),
There’s not a lot of TV that’s genuinely “must see,” but “The Facebook Dilemma” qualifies. Part 1, which airs Monday night, concerns itself with the warnings that arose, very early on, about the dangers Facebook posed to democratic institutions. Tuesday’s Part 2 deals with the company’s response, or lack thereof, to charges that it has enabled “fake news” and the disruption of electoral politics. It’s no small thing that the program clarifies vital issues raised about Facebook—algorithms, for instance—so obscure to so many. Or that it so concisely tells its very disturbing story.
You can now pay to have Facebook show your crappy brand story to more people on Instagram, Josh Constine reports:
A new ad type called “Promote” for Stories allows Instagram business pages to show their ephemeral slideshows to more users without doing much work. Admins can choose to auto-target users similar to their followers, people in a certain location, or use all of Instagram’s targeting parameters to inject their Story into the Stories queue of more users as an ad that can also link to business’ Instagram profile or website.
Factcheck.me tracks bot activity, amplified images, and viral links across social media. It’s a research tool that the founders recently deployed to track bot-related activity around the Pittsburgh shooting and the migrant caravan.
Farhad Manjoo says Mark Zuckerberg is effectively accountable to no one:
That few can imagine a Facebook without Mr. Zuckerberg, 34, underscores how unaccountable our largest tech companies have become. Mr. Zuckerberg, thanks to his own drive and brilliance, has become one of the most powerful unelected people in the world. Like an errant oil company or sugar-pumping food company, Facebook makes decisions that create huge consequences for society — and he has profited handsomely from the chaos.
Yet because of Facebook’s ownership structure — in which Mr. Zuckerberg’s shares have 10 times the voting power of ordinary shares — he is omnipotent there, answering basically to no one.
Jim Rutenberg notes that the hyper-partisan rhetoric that I so often write about here also extends to works paid for by major publishers, media companies and theater chains:
You can see this kind of thing in the pages of “Liars, Leakers and Liberals” by the Fox News opinion host Jeanine Pirro. Published in July by Center Street, a division of the Hachette Book Group, Ms. Pirro’s book lays out “the globalist, open-border oligarchy” that, the author asserts, is seeking to nullify the results of the 2016 presidential election.
“The perpetrators of this anti-American plot include, but are not limited to, the leadership at the F.B.I., the C.I.A., N.S.A. and other intelligence agencies, the Democratic Party and perhaps even the FISA courts,” she writes.
And finally ...
Very few things are more enjoyable to me than social network algorithms helping people purely by accident. Brian Krebs had a winner today from LinkedIn.
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