What Google’s whistleblowers and walk-outs have revealed about working in a politicised information duopoly. How we cannot expect neutrality even in tackling COVID-19.
7:30am in the lobby of an independent news agency, a man of scruffy bearing and sweaty palms keeps looking anxiously at his wristwatch. He wasn’t typically so prone to stress, but the last few weeks have given him good reason to look over his shoulder.
A few weeks ago, he was a nondescript employee in one of the world’s most prominent and influential tech organisations. He had begun to find himself bothered by a series of decisions and practices that sharply clashed with his moral compass. So he quietly collected evidence in preparation for his big day. When that day came however, he became a condemned man; condemned to forever roam under the all-pervasive threat of vengeance from the most powerful technology company in the world. He received an anonymous letter making demands and, demanding cease-and-desist action by a specific date. Then, the police showed up to his door on the specious grounds of concern about his “mental health”. Knowing his life may have been on the line, he created a kill-switch: “kill me and everything I have on you will be released to the public”.
Did you enjoy my screenplay for this summer’s next action-thriller hit? Well I have a confession to make; it’s based on a true story. This is actually the beginning of the tale of Zachary Vorhies — the latest in a long line of Google Whistleblowers.
If you want to skip to the conclusion and its link to COVID-19, please click here. If you want to hear the whole sorry saga then, please, read on.
For those of you well-acquainted with Big Tech’s ethical mishaps, you may have already heard of the Google Data Dump. It was, in short, a substantial leak of internal Google documents, policies and guidance designed to demonstrate Google’s willingness to deliberately shape the information landscape in favour for a certain conception of reality. Said conception of reality seems to exclude right-wing media outlets, and seeks to promote a socially-liberal agenda. As the old Stalinist adage goes: “It’s not the people who vote that count, but the people who count that vote” — put another way, it’s not the facts that matter so much as how you interpret and arrange those facts (and does Google ever interpret and arrange facts, with their 90% search engine market share!).However shocking the suggestions here may be, we need to read through the coverage of this data dump with a critical eye. As a journalist, whenever I approach such a leak, I like to go through the thought-process of the actors involved. Why did Zachary leak the documents? What drove the decision to leak those documents at a specific date? How did he hear about Project Veritas, why did he provide them with a scoop, and what does the recipient of such data gain?
The leaked documents were shared to Project Veritas, an independent whistleblowing outlet which pledges exuberantly on its front page to “Help Expose Corruption!”. Most of its brand content seems to derive from shocking whistleblower revelations that come with the site’s own flavour of sensationalist titling and conspiratorial imagery.
On the site, Zachary’s story plays comfortably into Project Veritas’ audience-expectations. The audience in question is ambiguous and unknown to the writer, and the reflections made are largely based on the platform’s content-reel. The implications are first allowed to fester, and then spread as part of a bigger conspiracy of liberal Google executives forcing coders to prevent the spread of right-wing populism (as encapsulated by Donald Trump). The data dump itself isn’t intrinsically shocking as much as it is when used to support a particular vision of reality. I discussed this topic with several Google insiders working at the company’s Colorado and Ireland offices. They tell me that most of the information in the data dump is easily accessible and circulated frequently amongst Google employees. They tell me that, while it is frowned-upon to discuss such matters openly, the data dump only began having significant traction whence it landed on the doorsteps of Project Veritas, who knew how to use the data to reinforce a fiery conspiratory narrative.
Google’s convenient counter-narrative to these revelations runs along the lines that it’s all because, as Genmai says, “Google got screwed over in 2016”. It is clear that, during the 2016 presidential race, a series of right-wing media outlets managed to navigate through the ludicrously arcane Google and Facebook traffic algorithm, and successfully gamed it to the point at which both publishers had to change the rules of their game. There is a strong sense of enmity at Google about how a handful of Albanian or Macedonian fake news artists managed to “out-hack” Google. Designers at heart, Googlers are uncomfortable with the idea that certain content pieces are able to “outperform” (without directly benefitting Google/Facebook financially). Indeed, the only content that is meant to over-perform is paid/sponsored content.
What these whistleblower scandals and recent walk-outs have proven is that we cannot see Big Tech as monolithic, as a set of corporations acting solely to further the interest of shareholders or of ad revenues. Google is a group of individuals, made up of a plethora of political ideologies and socio-ethnic representations. It is a company full of engineers and designers who are aware of their impact on politics and society through their quasi-duopoly on the information space. With this awareness is a confidence and agency inherited from the “Googler” mindset; a perpetual journey to solve problems, even when alone against all odds. Add these ingredients together and what you have is an unstable cocktail of ideas that sometimes leads to breakthrough innovation, sometimes to conflicts over how best to wield technology to change the world (for the better).
Perhaps the tech commentariat should have seen it all coming. Big Tech has accumulated a staggering amount of political power, through information-market dominance and financial success. Cries to regulate Big Tech “monopolies” have reached fever pitch. In the meantime, governments the world-over have urged Big Tech to build solutions to deal with some of the societal and political ramifications of their tools.
Who builds these solutions? Googlers do. The very same Googlers endowed with ideological responsibility, voicing their political and social views so that they may have a say in the way society is ultimately run.
So the more interesting question(s) lies a level below the accusations of the Whistleblowers or of the walkouts:
The charge for Big Tech is two-fold, therefore:
Our next piece on the topic will look at how useful the comparison between editorial lines and product design-bias at Google and other Big Tech companies can be.
Feel free to read through the detailed insights of Wonk Bridge’s read through Project Veritas data leak below. A bientôt!
From the data dump, an oft-cited passage:
“If a representation is factually accurate, can it still be algorithmic unfairness?”. This screenshot from a “Humane tech” (a Google initiative) document was used by Vorhies to say facts were being twisted to manipulate reality into “promoting the far-left wing’s social justice agenda”.
From the Data dump
Whether or not it does so deliberately, the leaked blacklists point to a preference for slamming the ban-hammer on right-wing conservative or populist content, if our scope is limited to US content.
As a publisher, there is no clear reason why it should be objective here, just like how MSNBC and Fox News are pretty clear in their ideological stances too. The issue is that Google presents itself as a neutral tool.
What is the solution to an overly ideological publishing monopoly? Generally, this translated to the creation of competitors, which has not occurred. Perhaps it’s early days, but there are enough Conservative coders and programmers out there and enough right-wing capital in circulation to create a rival to Google. Just speculation here.
Google’s response to the Project Veritas leak is much more damning, however. The case here being that Freedom of Speech and social activism should be permitted in both cases (Google’s and Project Veritas’). a) The removal of the video from YouTube b) threatening of the whistleblower… Does it qualify as abuse of power?
The crackdown on whistleblowers (evidence: organisers of the Google Walkout), organisers of industrial action in the Google Walkout decried similar discrimination in reverse to that of the right-wing conservative Googlers. ““I identify as a LatinX female and I experienced blatant racist and sexist things from my coworker. I reported it up to where my manager knew, my director knew, the coworker’s manager knew and our HR representative knew. Nothing happened. I was warned that things will get very serious if continued,” one Googler wrote. “I definitely felt the theme of ‘protect the man’ as we so often hear about. No one protected me, the victim. I thought Google was different.”” The claim there was that Google wasn’t doing enough to protect social justice at work (and also in the products they make). The claim here being that Google doesn’t respond convincingly to these allegations.
In a message posted to many internal Google mailing lists Monday, Meredith Whittaker, who leads Google’s Open Research, said that after the company disbanded its external AI ethics council on April 4, she was told that her role would be “changed dramatically.” Whittaker said she was told that, in order to stay at the company, she would have to “abandon” her work on AI ethics and her role at AI Now Institute, a research center she cofounded at New York University.
Now, it is easy to fit these events into a broader narrative of the whistleblower crackdown, but it is clear that perspective plays a huge role in how you view these events. The disbanding of the External AI Ethics Council (which Wonk Bridge has discussed in a previous podcast) was also largely influenced by the Council’s misalignment with the values of a majority of Googlers. Meredith Whittaker may have tried to be balanced in her running of the Council, but that didn’t sit too well with the rest of the company body.
Claire Stapleton, another walkout organizer and a 12-year veteran of the company, said in the email that two months after the protest she was told she would be demoted from her role as marketing manager at YouTube and lose half her reports. After escalating the issue to human resources, she said she faced further retaliation. “My manager started ignoring me, my work was given to other people, and I was told to go on medical leave, even though I’m not sick,” Stapleton wrote. After she hired a lawyer, the company conducted an investigation and seemed to reverse her demotion. “While my work has been restored, the environment remains hostile and I consider quitting nearly every day,” she wrote.
The fates of Claire Stapleton, Meredith Whittaker and Zachary Vorhies all demonstrate a common moral dilemma posed by large and influential corporations; the balance between the corporate interest, the sum-total interest of employees, and of the “public interest”. These interests are often in conflict with each other, as is the case around the question of: “How should we manage access to controversial and/or potentially fake content”.
The reason why corporations like Google are not well-placed to answer such questions, is because they are unable to align their interests with the public interest in any accountable way. Well-functioning democracies are better placed to provide answers as their interests align directly to the public interest (in theory). Elected officials are mandated by “the People” to represent “the People” and fulfil the “Public Interest” in a representative capacity. As long as trust in elected officials and their capacity to fulfil the public interest is strong, the social contract continues to align the institutional and public interest.
As we look to our most influential actors (governments, large corporations, influential people) to show us the way through the COVID-19 crisis, the Public’s reaction will largely depend on the key question of whether they see their interests as aligned with the institutions in question. When Google and like corporations involve themselves in seemingly gratuitous philanthropy, they should not be surprised by negative push-back. It is an objectively good thing for Google to use its vast wealth of data to help curb the growth of Coronavirus. But the Public will still doubt whether it is a good thing for Google to actually do this.
Retaliation against employees who whistleblow
An academic paper explaining the impact of search-engine manipulation on election outcomes.
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