Published On: Wed, Aug 14th, 2019

Google’s internal activism is spreading across tech companies


At the Code Conference in June, I sat down with former executives at Facebook, Google, and Twitter to ask why their internal cultures of activism are so different. The answer I got, from former Google communications chief Jessica Powell, is that at Google activism had been part of the culture from the beginning. What changed over the past few years, she said, is that what had once been an internal discussion about company policies and procedures had lately spilled into public view.

In a comprehensive piece at Wired today, Nitasha Tiku explains how that came about. Over the course of more than 11,000 words, she details how the company nurtured a culture of dissent right up until the point that it boiled over into public view — at which point the company began assiduously buttoning up.

In their best-selling 2014 book, How Google Works, Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg, two of the main architects of Google’s culture, stressed the importance of open debate in the care and feeding of innovative people. “In our experience, most smart creatives have strong opinions and are itching to spout off; for them, the cultural obligation to dissent gives them the freedom to do just that,” they wrote. They stressed the importance of rooting out “knaves” (liars, cheaters, loafers) but supporting and protecting “divas,” difficult but brilliant employees who can grate on other employees’ nerves. “You need these aberrant geniuses because they’re the ones that drive, in most cases, the product excellence,” Schmidt said in an interview with WIRED earlier this year. “They are better than other technical people.”

Since 2016, those aberrant geniuses led protests of Trump’s travel ban, Google’s hiring practices, its defense contracts, its planned return to China, the makeup of its artificial intelligence ethics advisory council, and its habit of making multimillion-dollar payouts to executives credibly accused of sexual harassment. And with leaks flowing to news outlets across the political spectrum, Tiku reports, Google changed:

That month, Google also tightened the reins on TGIF. Brin and Page stopped showing up. Employees could access video recordings for only a week after the meeting, rather than for years. The company nixed live questions, which Google claimed was more fair to employees in different time zones. (“We’re a global company and want to make sure we’re answering questions from employees around the world,” a spokesperson says.) TGIF’s transformation from candid conversation to press conference was pretty much complete.

Two quick thoughts occur. One is that Googlers’ activism can have some curious blind spots. It seems strange, for example, that the anti-authoritarian impulses that lead the company to oppose defense contracts and work with China have been muted when it comes to YouTube. In yesterday’s edition I included Max Fisher and Amanda Taub’s investigation into YouTube’s impact on Brazil, which has mirrored its impact elsewhere: promoting far-right extremism, which contributes to the election of far-right politicians, who then work to limit civil liberties. The reporters write:

Though corruption scandals and a deep recession had already devastated Brazil’s political establishment and left many Brazilians ready for a break with the status quo, Ms. Boyd called YouTube’s impact a worrying indication of the platform’s growing impact on democracies worldwide.

“This is happening everywhere,” she said.

I imagine that it’s simply easier for employees to protest a new and relatively small initiative like Project Dragonfly than it is to unwind the various product features and incentives that have made YouTube so effective at promoting fear and outrage. And surely YouTube employees I speak with are aware of the issue here.

On a happier note, however disruptive the past few years’ events have been for Google, they seem to me to have had a positive effect on the corporate world generally. In the wake of Googlers’ actions, a new surge of employee activism could be spotted around the tech industry.

Over the past year, we’ve seen Amazon employees protest warehouse working conditions, the company’s impact on the climate, and partnerships with companies that work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Microsoft employees protested the company’s defense contracts and relationship with ICE. Salesforce employees protested the company’s ties to Customs and Border Protection. Riot Games employees walked out to protest forced arbitration provisions in their contracts.

All of these, to my mind, are part of the legacy of the Google walkout, and everything that came before and after at the company. It turns out that you don’t need a strong culture of dissent to generate employee protests. A dawning cultural awareness of employees’ collective power, and employers’ fear of losing them, can be just as effective. And nothing Google has done to date has suggested that dynamic can be reversed.

Democracy

China Is Waging a Disinformation War Against Hong Kong Protesters

Steven Lee Meyers and Paul Mozur report on how the Chinese government is attempting to quell protests through the aggressive use of disinformation:

In recent days, China has more aggressively stirred up nationalist and anti-Western sentiment using state and social media, and it has manipulated the context of images and videos to undermine the protesters. Chinese officials have begun branding the demonstrations as a prelude to terrorism.

The result, both in mainland China and abroad, has been to create an alternate version of what, seen from Hong Kong, is clearly a popular demonstration movement. In China’s version, a small, violent gang of protesters, unsupported by residents and provoked by foreign agents, is running rampant, calling for Hong Kong’s independence and tearing China apart.

Google’s jobs search draws antitrust complaints from rivals

Foo Yun Chee and Paresh Dave report on a new antitrust complaint against Google in Europe:

In a letter to be sent to European Union competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager on Tuesday and seen by Reuters, 23 job search websites in Europe called on her to temporarily order Google to stop playing unfairly while she investigates. […]

Some rivals allege that positioning is illegal because Google is using its dominance to attract users to its specialized search offering without the traditional marketing investments they have to make.

YouTube’s Conspiracy Theory Crackdown Has One Big Winner: Fox News

Jesselyn Cook and K. Sophie Will report that changes to YouTube’s algorithmic recommendations earlier this year have been a boon to Fox News:

In early August, using incognito mode to avoid browsing-history bias, we watched a total of 100 of the latest videos from 20 deep-state conspiracy theory channels with at least 50,000 subscribers (repeated three times over three days, as recommendations change frequently). On average, more than half of the first five suggested videos following each conspiracy theory video were segments from Fox News or its affiliates. Some conspiracy theory channels led to Fox more often than others.

The number of YouTube recommendations going from conspiracy theorists’ videos to news outlets’ videos has modestly increased for all mainstream media outlets in recent months, but the increase for Fox alone has been bigger than that of BBC, CNN, CNBC, CBS, MSNBC, NBC and ABC combined, according to former Google engineer Guillaume Chaslot, who helped design YouTube’s algorithm and who now tracks YouTube recommendations.

Trump’s anti-bias order sounds like a nonsensical warning shot against Facebook

Adi Robertson considers the implications of the Trump administration’s proposed executive order about bias on social networks:

If the leaked report is correct, the FCC is supposed to declare that “anticompetitive, unfair, or deceptive practices” violate the definition of “good faith,” along with “remov[ing] or suppress[ing] content” without notifying the user. (This last rule seems aimed at “shadowbanning,” a vague term that includes not automatically suggesting a user’s name on Twitter.) As Bergmayer wrote in an earlier blog post, however, things like anticompetitive behavior could already be considered a form of bad faith. We don’t know whether Trump will add more explicit language about politics.

In any case, the FCC may not even be authorized to reinterpret the rule. “Agencies only have the power to interpret statutes that are ambiguous,” says Bergmayer. “I don’t see much in 230 that is ambiguous.” And if the FCC doesn’t have authority, then a company could get its new rules thrown out in court.

Jeffrey Epstein and 22 other Trump-fueled conspiracy theories

In the wake of Trump promoting a Clinton conspiracy, Aaron Blake rounds up the many times that the president has promoted baseless conspiracy theories:

This is one of the biggest conspiracy theories Trump has ever elevated, but it’s hardly the only one. Below are 22 others. Trump didn’t technically espouse each and every one, but he elevated all of them — no matter how specious and/or ridiculous.

Why Is This Republican Congressman Following White Nationalists On Twitter?

Hmm, I think I can guess! Matt Shuham:

Anonymous internet bigots are a dime a dozen. But when a member of Congress subscribes to a live feed of their thoughts, we take note.

Sure, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) “follows” some usual suspects on his personal Twitter page. Among the 792 accounts the congressman keeps up with on the social network are national parks, think tanks, journalists and local restaurants in Arizona’s Fourth District. The list includes Trump supporters, plenty of “Qanon” conspiracy theory believers, accounts with anti-immigrant beliefs that mirror Gosar’s own and even the rapper Drake.

Elsewhere

Verizon is selling Tumblr to WordPress’ owner

The big news from Monday afternoon is that Tumblr, which sold to Yahoo for more than $1 billion, would be sold to Automattic for a mere $3 million. I loved my years on Tumblr and am sad that it all came to nought in the end.

Facebook Paid Hundreds of Contractors to Transcribe Users’ Audio

Facebook is the latest company to be caught up in the current panic over the use of human contractors to review voice recordings to improve voice transcription. Sarah Frier:

Facebook Inc. has been paying hundreds of outside contractors to transcribe clips of audio from users of its services, according to people with knowledge of the work. […]

Facebook confirmed that it had been transcribing users’ audio and said it will no longer do so. “We paused human review of audio more than a week ago,” the company said Tuesday. The company said the users who were affected chose the option in Facebook’s Messenger app to have their voice chats transcribed. The contractors were checking whether Facebook’s artificial intelligence correctly interpreted the messages, which were anonymized.

Oculus Co-founder Nate Mitchell to Leave Facebook

As Alex Heath points out, Mitchell’s departure means that every co-founder of Oculus, Instagram, and WhatsApp have now left Facebook.

4 Dating Apps Pinpoint Users’ Precise Locations – and Leak the Data

Popular gay hookup apps are making it possible for security researchers to pinpoint users’ exact locations:

Four popular dating apps that together can claim 10 million users have been found to leak precise locations of their members.

“By simply knowing a person’s username we can track them from home, to work,” explained Alex Lomas, researcher at Pen Test Partners, in a blog on Sunday. “We can find out where they socialize and hang out. And in near real-time.”

He got 2 million people to say they’d storm Area 51. Now he’s planning an alien festival.

Hanna Knowles has a real-life Black Mirror tale for us all with this one:

The call to raid an Air Force base for aliens was a joke, drawing on decades of conspiracy theories. Then 2 million people signed on to the Facebook event.

Authorities warned against any attempt to enter the base. And now, unless plans go awry, hordes of strangers will, indeed, gather in the Nevada desert next month near a secretive government facility called Area 51.

The man who created the Internet sensation, Storm Area 51 — They Can’t Stop All of Us, is planning a real-life festival called Alien Stock near the remote base within the Nevada Test and Training Range, a couple hours’ drive northwest of Las Vegas. The three-day festival set to start Sept. 20, a celebration of aliens that promises surprise performances, art installations and camping, is expected to pack a tiny town already overrun by media attention and a spike in extraterrestrial enthusiasm.

Twinfluencers Are Taking Over the Internet

The hottest trend on social media is having an identical clone of yourself to aid in content production. Taylor Lorenz reports:

There are the Dolan Twins, a pair of square-jawed 19-year-olds who have amassed more than 10 million subscribers on YouTube and millions more on Instagram. They are joined by the Merrell Twins, the Rybka Twins, Niki and Gabi DeMartino, and Brooklyn and Bailey McKnight—massive YouTube stars, all. At this point, every up-and-coming YouTube star seems to have a body double, and every category of influencer has its own set of famous twins: twinswho show off makeup techniques, twins who create exercise videos, twins who review toys. The popular YouTuber Jake Paul just welcomed a new set of twins, the Caci Twins, into Team 10, his YouTuber collective; they replaced the Martinez Twins and the Dobre Twins, who both left in 2017. Twin content is inescapable.

These are the 26 biggest stars on TikTok, the viral video app teens can’t get enough of

Paige Leskin walks us through the TikTok-verse.

Maverick Baker is an 18-year-old TikTok star living in Oklahoma who produces popular lipsync and dance videos. He releases music with his brother Cash, a fellow TikTok star, under the name “Cash and Maverick,” whose joint TikTok account has 6.3 million followers itself.

The Baker family is a team of social media famous siblings: Maverick, Cash, and their sister Lani collectively have 26.2 million followers on their TikTok accounts.

Launches

Snap announces Spectacles 3 with an updated design and a second HD camera

I wrote about this year’s model for Spectacles. (Vogue went inside the lab.)

Snap today announced Spectacles 3, a redesigned version of its augmented reality sunglasses with a sleek new design and an added HD camera to create depth perception. The glasses, which the company has positioned as a limited release, represent Snap’s latest effort to build a new computing platform centered on the face. They will go on sale on Spectacles.com in November for $380.

That makes them more than twice as expensive as last year’s model, which cost $150. Snap executives say the higher-end version is meant to appeal to a smaller group of “fashion-forward” creative types. It may also be designed to recoup more of its manufacturing costs for the famously money-losing product; Snapchat wrote down nearly $40 million in costs associated with the first version of the glasses after wildly overestimating demand.

Twitter’s latest test makes following tweetstorms a lot easier

This seems useful:

Remember the epic, fingernail-biting tale of corporate intrigue where a man got his lunch stolen at the office and caught the thief by watching security tapes over the course of two days? It wasn’t easy to follow unless you were already following the user writing the tweets — but there may soon be a better way. Twitter is testing a feature to let you follow replies to individual tweets, so you can keep up with the next great Twitter saga.

Singularity 6 raises $16.5M from Andreessen Horowitz to create a ‘virtual society’

Hmm, OK:

Today, Andreessen Horowitz announced that it’s leading the $16.5 million Series A of a stealthy gaming startup called Singularity 6. The startup’s ex-Riot Games co-founders claim their venture is less focused on building a button-mashing competitive shooter than it is a “virtual society” where users can develop relationships with in-game characters powered by “complex AI”.

Takes

Jeffrey Epstein death: Twitter-fed disaster demands new way to consume news

Margaret Sullivan joins the chorus calling for a “slow journalism” movement for Twitter:

Breaking-news reporters don’t have the luxury of slowing down their newsgathering, but they can avoid amplifying misinformation.

News consumers, though, can take an early look at a growing information disaster and make a healthy decision. They can shut off the fire hose of malignancy — and come back later when we might actually know something.

And finally …

The Fish Tube meme, and the science behind giant fish waterslides, explained

Look, the “salmon cannon” meme is already a couple days old, and originated from a years-old video that was recently re-cut and promoted by Cheddar. But the fish tube tweets are … very good. To wit:

Talk to me

Send me tips, comments, questions, and fish tubes: casey@theverge.com.





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Google’s internal activism is spreading across tech companies