Jun 1, 2020 - Technology

How Big Tech has responded to the protests

A protester holds a sign.
A protester holds a sign in downtown Minneapolis to protest the death of George Floyd on May 31. Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

An explosive weekend in America sent Silicon Valley grasping for moral clarity. While many companies and executives spoke out against racial inequities, critics and even some of the rank-and-file found some of the companies' responses lacking.

Why it matters: Tech companies have giant platforms, and their leaders have become public figures, many of them household names. History will record their words and actions — which, in the case of platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, directly shape the bounds of public discourse.

What's happening: The response from the tech industry to Floyd's death and the subsequent protests and looting ranged from vague appeals to peace to statements of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

  • Google, Twitter, Netflix, Cisco and Uber were among the companies that either took broad stances in favor of Americans protesting in the name of racial equality, or saw top executives do so. (The Plug, a site that gathers data and news on Black people in tech, curated many more tech industry comments in a Google Docs file.)
  • Some corporate leaders, such as Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, Box CEO Aaron Levie and Jeff Dean, a top Google AI executive, took police to task for what they argued were actions that only heightened tensions with protesters, turning demonstrations into violent clashes.
  • A number of companies including YouTube and Apple also made donations to organizations fighting for racial justice.
  • Google devoted a portion of the Google and YouTube home pages to advocating for racial justice and also postponed an Android 11 event that had been scheduled for Wednesday.

Yes, but: A number of major tech companies already face criticism that they exploit or even contribute to racial and economic injustice.

  • After Amazon tweeted, "The inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people in our country must stop" from its corporate account, the replies were filled with suggestions of concrete action the company might take on that front.
  • Suggestions included paying its warehouse employees better and stopping what many see as the retaliatory firing of employees who speak out on working conditions.
  • NBC News' April Glaser noted, "Amazon has hundreds of partnerships with police and law enforcement agencies across the country and wants more," referring to deals that give police access to video from Amazon's Ring cameras.

The elephant in the room: Facebook. Twitter has taken stronger steps than ever to partially block a tweet by President Trump including language — "when the looting starts, the shooting starts" — seen by many as a call for violence.

  • Meanwhile, Facebook employees continue to express frustration that, as they see it, the platform continues to allow the president to spread hate and incite violence.
"I don't know what to do, but I know doing nothing is not acceptable. I'm a FB employee that completely disagrees with Mark's decision to do nothing about Trump's recent posts, which clearly incite violence. I'm not alone inside of FB. There isn't a neutral position on racism."
Facebook R&D executive Jason Stirman, in a tweet

What they're saying: In an email to employees Sunday, Apple CEO Tim Cook wrote: "At Apple, our mission has and always will be to create technology that empowers people to change the world for the better.... To create change, we have to reexamine our own views and actions in light of a pain that is deeply felt but too often ignored. Issues of human dignity will not abide standing on the sidelines."

Our thought bubble: Cook's message was echoed by many other tech CEOs. In an era when tech is under fire from the political left and right, companies and leaders will be under the microscope for how they handle this moment. It may be a put up or shut up moment for those calls to "change the world."

The bottom line: Words are easy, but actions matter more. Donations make support quantifiable, but the most consequential impact tech companies can have is in choosing whether their platforms exacerbate tensions or help bring people together.

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