Jun 1, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

We've devoted today's Login to examining the role that technology and tech companies are playing in the protests and unrest following the killing of George Floyd.

Thank you for reading and, as always, I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

Today's Login is 1,534 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Tech responds to the protests

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, Axios' Kyle Daly and I report.

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.

  • But Facebook has held to a free-speech stance, finding that the same expression didn't violate its policies, despite CEO Mark Zuckerberg saying he disagreed personally with the president's comments.
  • As Axios' Mike Allen scooped yesterday, Zuckerberg spoke with President Trump Friday. Both sides described the conversation as productive, but it's unclear what was said.
  • Late Sunday, Zuckerberg said Facebook was making an additional $10 million in donations to various organizations working on racial justice issues.
  • 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.

Go deeper: I urge you to read some of Axios' other coverage looking at the genesis and complexity of the crisis.

2. The technology of witnessing brutality

Charging Alabama state troopers pass by fallen demonstrators in Selma on March 7, 1965. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

The ways Americans capture and share records of racist violence and police misconduct keep changing, but the pain of the underlying injustices they chronicle remains a stubborn constant, Axios' Scott Rosenberg reports.

Driving the news: After Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked wide protests, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said, "Thank God a young person had a camera to video it."

Why it matters: From news photography to TV broadcasts to camcorders to smartphones, improvements in the technology of witness over the past century mean we're more instantly and viscerally aware of each new injustice.

  • But unless our growing power to collect and distribute evidence of injustice can drive actual social change, the awareness these technologies provide just ends up fueling frustration and despair.

For decades, still news photography was the primary channel through which the public became aware of incidents of racial injustice.

  • A horrific 1930 photo of the lynching of J. Thomas Shipp and Abraham S. Smith, two black men in Marion, Indiana, brought the incident to national attention and inspired the song "Strange Fruit." But the killers were never brought to justice.
  • Photos of the mutilated body of Emmett Till catalyzed a nationwide reaction to his 1955 lynching in Mississippi.

In the 1960s, television news footage brought scenes of police turning dogs and water cannons on peaceful civil rights protesters in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama into viewers' living rooms.

  • The TV coverage was moving in both senses of the word.

In 1991, a camcorder tape shot by a Los Angeles plumber named George Holliday captured images of cops brutally beating Rodney King.

  • In the pre-internet era, it was only after the King tape was broadcast on TV that Americans could see it for themselves.

Over the past decade, smartphones have enabled witnesses and protesters to capture and distribute photos and videos of injustice quickly — sometimes, as it's happening.

  • This power helped catalyze the Black Lives Matter movement beginning in 2013 and has played a growing role in broader public awareness of police brutality.

Between the lines: For a brief moment mid-decade, some hoped that the combination of a public well-supplied with video recording devices and requirements that police wear bodycams would introduce a new level of accountability to law enforcement.

The bottom line: Smartphones and social media deliver direct accounts of grief- and rage-inducing stories.

  • But they can't provide any context or larger sense of how many other incidents aren't being reported.
  • And they don't offer any guidance for how to channel the anger these reports stoke — or how to stop the next incident from happening.
3. Exclusive: Most favor Twitter flagging Trump tweet
Screenshot of President Trump's tweet.

A narrow majority of Americans believe Twitter was right to flag one of President Trump's tweets as violating its rules on violence, according to a National Research Group survey being released later today.

Yes, but: As with nearly everything right now, there's a sharp partisan and ideological divide.

According to the survey:

  • 54% of Americans support Twitter's decision to add fact-checking labels to Trump's tweets.
  • Of the remainder, 26% thought Twitter was wrong, while 20% neither support nor oppose Twitter's move.
  • Self-described liberals were far more likely to support Twitter, with conservatives more likely to oppose the decision.

Among the other findings:

  • Only one-third of Americans support President Trump’s decision to sign an executive order that aims to limit the power of social media companies to moderate content.
  • Nearly half (48%) oppose the order, while 18% said they neither support nor oppose it.
  • For more findings, read on.
4. Border Patrol deploys, recalls drone from protests

U.S. Customs and Border Protection sent a drone into Minneapolis on Friday to take footage of protesters at the request of federal law enforcement, a CBP spokesperson told Axios' Orion Rummler. It was later recalled after being deemed no longer necessary.

Why it matters: The deployment gives another tangible example for those who worry about growing government use of technology to surveil American citizens.

Details: The aircraft, as first reported by Vice, was identified as an unmanned Predator drone by an investigative reporter with the Project on Government Oversight.

  • It was launched from the Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota and later returned there, the spokesperson said.
  • CBP did not clarify why officers ultimately found the drone unnecessary or which agency requested it.
5. Take Note

On Tap

  • A number of tech events planned for this week have been postponed in the wake of the protests, including Google's Android 11 event (see above), as well as EA Sports' Madden event and a Salesforce education announcement.
  • Zoom is scheduled to report earnings Tuesday.


6. After you Login

With all the focus on the aftermath, it's worth learning a bit more about George Floyd, as remembered by those who knew him.

Ina Fried