The Google Tape, Missed Bites and Insights
A leaked internal recording of a company-wide meeting at the tech giant Google's headquarters, reveals not only disgust for election results, but a desire to use its platform to promote not just its products, but its values.
On the web, Google's philosophy is boiled down to ten things they know to be true. Included in these ten things laid out shortly after Google began are, focus on the user and all else will follow, search is the one thing it does really, really well, and democracy on the web works.
Google's mission statement says, "Our mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." It is hard to argue that it is not fulfilling that mission. Love it or hate it, with more than 90 percent of all internet searches going through its companies, in this day and age it is hard to live without Google. It processes more than 3.5 billion searches a day.
Given this reach, it is not surprising that some found it unsettling when an internal email and recording leaked to the media this week that indicate active political bias among top company executives. What I find even more disturbing, is the willingness of these executives to use the company's resources and reach, in an attempt to instill their values on customers.
If you have not watched this video, you really should.
On September 12th, the Breitbart News Network posted a story headlined, LEAKED VIDEO: Google Leadership’s Dismayed Reaction to Trump Election.
Along with the article is a more than hour-long recording of an internal town hall meeting called a TGIF lead by company executives. Meetings of this type are mandatory viewing across the company and relatively common. This TGIF happened to take place the first Friday after the 2016 presidential election, and its topic was the election.
For the first 25 minutes leadership bemoaned and even cried over the fact that Hillary Clinton had lost the election.
On the evening of September 12th, BuzzFeed posted a story in response to Breitbart's scoop. Its headline read A Leaked Video Shows Google Leadership Reacting To Trump's 2016 Election Win: The footage will likely add fuel to conservative arguments that Silicon Valley is arrayed against the right.
The rest of the meeting was spent answering questions from employees. Including one that wanted to know what the company would do about fake news, he wondered if Google could filter out organized campaigns of disinformation aimed at "low information people." Google's CEO Sundar Pichai agreed they should do more and said, "I think our investments in machine learning and AI is a big opportunity here.”
As it turns out, Breitbart was not the first to have access to the tape. On March 30th, 2018 The New York Times ran a piece by Jack Nicas headlined Silicon Valley Warms to Trump After a Chilly Start. In it, Nicas describes part of the video, but only as an example of the rough start between the big tech companies and Trump. Beyond sharing small snippets that characterize some emotional displeasure, it doesn't detail the more telling statements made during the meeting. Here is an excerpt:
SAN FRANCISCO — Two days after Donald J. Trump won the 2016 election, executives at Google consoled their employees in an all-staff meeting broadcast around the world.
“There is a lot of fear within Google,” said Sundar Pichai, the company’s chief executive, according to a video of the meeting viewed by The New York Times. When asked by an employee if there was any silver lining to Mr. Trump’s election, the Google co-founder Sergey Brin said, “Boy, that’s a really tough one right now.” Ruth Porat, the finance chief, said Mr. Trump’s victory felt “like a ton of bricks dropped on my chest.” Then she instructed members of the audience to hug the person next to them.
Sixteen months later, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has most likely saved billions of dollars in taxes on its overseas cash under a new tax law signed by Mr. Trump. Alphabet also stands to benefit from the Trump administration’s looser regulations for self-driving cars and delivery drones, as well as from proposed changes to the trade pact with Mexico and Canada that would limit Google’s liability for user content on its sites.
Once one of Mr. Trump’s most vocal opponents, Silicon Valley’s technology industry has increasingly found common ground with the White House. When Mr. Trump was elected, tech executives were largely up in arms over a leader who espoused policies on immigration and other issues that were antithetical to their companies’ values. Now, many of the industry’s executives are growing more comfortable with the president and how his economic agenda furthers their business interests, even as many of their employees continue to disagree with Mr. Trump on social issues.
When Breitbart learned the New York Times had access to the tape's content back in March, it viewed this as tantamount to a cover-up. It ran an additional story on September 13th with the headline, Nolte: New York Times Covered Up Google Tape’s Most Newsworthy Details saying, "The New York Times reported on the explosive Google Tape back in March but chose not to inform its readers of virtually all the key details revealed during this company town hall."
Traditional news media outlets did seem to under-report this story. The morning after it broke I could find no correlating stories on any of the major network sites. Later in the day, I did find one on ABC's website with the headline of: Responding to leaks, Google denies political bias.
There were no real quotes from the tape in that article and what it was truly about was the first of the two significant Google leaks that happened this week. The first leak was an email given as an exclusive to Tucker Carlson whose program airs on FOX News. On his September 10th program, Carlson said Google's former head of multicultural marketing, Eliana Murillo, wrote the email and that two Google vice presidents forwarded it to additional staffers throughout the company. Carlson stated that the email shows that a senior Google employee deployed the company's resources to increase voter turnout in ways that she thought would help the Clinton campaign.
"In her email, Murillo touts Google's multifaceted efforts to boost Hispanic turnout in the election," Carlson said. "She knows that Latinos voted in record-breaking numbers, especially in states like Florida, Nevada, and Arizona."
Carlson went on to report that Murillo said that Arizona was a "key state for us," and bragged that the company used its power to ensure that millions of people saw certain hashtags and social media impressions, with the goal of influencing their behavior during the election.
In contrast, here is an excerpt from the article where ABC described the email in question:
On Monday, Fox News and Breitbart reported on a leaked email from Google's multicultural marketing chief, sent just after the 2016 election, referencing Google's efforts to boost Latino turnout.
"We pushed tp [sic] get out the Latino vote with our features, our partners, and our voices. We kept our Google efforts non-partisan and followed our company’s protocols for the elections strategy," read the email from Google's Eliana Murillo, sent Nov. 9, 2016, according to Breitbart.
The email went on to reference a Google partnership with the group Voto Latino, to pay for rides to the polls, referring to Google's activity as a "silent donation," and expressing surprise that 28 percent of Latinos voted for President Trump.
Tucker Carlson's reporting on this says the end of the email makes it clear that Google was actively working to get Clinton elected. Read and decide for yourself. In the leaked email Murillo wrote:
Ultimately, after all was said and done, the Latino community did come out to vote, and completely surprised us. We never anticipated 29% of Latinos would vote for Trump. No one did. If you see a Latino Googler in the office, please give them a smile. They are probably hurting right now. You can rest assured that the Latinos of these blue states need your thoughts and prayers for them and their families. I had planned a vacation and thought I would be taking the time to celebrate. Now it will be time to reflect on how to continue to support my community through these difficult times.
ABC's article about the leaks did not include that excerpt. Instead, it printed a response Google sent out after the tape of the TGIF meeting was leaked. ABC reported that Google sought to contextualize the meeting -- and refute any implication of bias in its statement to ABC News that read:
"At a regularly scheduled all hands meeting, some Google employees and executives expressed their own personal views in the aftermath of a long and divisive election season. For over 20 years, everyone at Google has been able to freely express their opinions at these meetings," a Google spokesperson said. "Nothing was said at that meeting, or any other meeting, to suggest that any political bias ever influences the way we build or operate our products."
The above is yet another example of how divided our national news media outlets are. Many will try to dismiss Tucker Carlson as a right-winger just stirring up trouble to get ratings. Like all commentators he can occasionally get wound around the axle of an issue others see differently, but I think Brit Hume, who has worked for both FOX and ABC summed up the tepid response to this story from liberal and traditional media in a tweet he made about Buzzfeed's story.
I too believe the strongest quotes from the tape are missing from most reports. So in case you don't have the time or inclination to listen to the entire hour-long meeting, I'm going to share some of those quotes with you now.
I'll start with the emotional quotes, but honestly, these are not the ones that I find the most revealing. Let's start with Ruth Porat, who serves as the Chief Financial Officer for both Alphabet and Google. Alphabet is Google's parent company.
She came to the podium and described how on election night in 2016, she sent a concerned text to a friend on the Clinton campaign who was at the Javits Center. She said the return text read, "People are leaving, staff is crying, we’re going to lose.” Visibly upset, Porat continued, "That was the first moment that I really felt like we were going to lose and it was this massive kick in the gut that we were going to lose and it was really painful." A few moments later she added, "And it did feel like a ton of bricks dropped on my chest."
She was not alone in the sentiments she shared. Sergey Brin, Alphabet President and Google Co-Founder said, "Myself as an immigrant and refugee, I certainly find this election deeply offensive, and I know many of you do too. I think it is a very stressful time that conflicts with many of our values."
The end of that quote, where he talks about "our" values is what I find more telling than their emotions. In the press release, the company line is that these executives were merely expressing their personal opinions. However, if you listen to the entire hour of this meeting, it is clearly more than that. They repeatedly speak of their values, not just personal, but company values.
Brin went on to say, "There are two dominant reasons to be upset. One is because so many people apparently don't share many of the values that we have."... "And secondly, confronting the reality of an administration that is now forming, look we have no idea what it is going to do."
Google's CEO, Sundar Pichai echoed Brin's feelings. "It has been an extraordinarily stressful time for many of you" he said. "There is no easy way through this … all of that makes it a very hard cycle, especially with our values."
"The values that are held dear at this company transcend politics, cause we’re going to constantly fight to preserve them," said CFO Ruth Porat. "That is one of the many things that I think makes this company so beautiful, our values are strong, we will fight to protect them, and we will use the great resources and reach we have to continue to advance really important values."
"We are so deeply committed to our values, [as] Sergey mentioned at the start, nothing will change, we will stand up always for the values we believe in." To applause Pichai added, "and especially in a society, you stand up for people who are minorities, that is what defines a society, and we will continue to do that."
So they say they will never stop fighting to protect their values, and they will use company resources and reach to do it, but what are these values? Some mentioned during this meeting are, to stand up for minorities, raise the standard of living around the world, fight for better health care, and foster the attitude that living in a global town square and not walling ourselves off is best. Insuring a liberal immigration policy was also cited as being important.
Kent Walker currently serves as Senior Vice President for Global Affairs and is the Chief Legal Officer at Google. He said, "We are trying to figure out what our right next steps are in that, but we recognize that globalization and the internet have been an incredible force for change."
"Google is a trusted source of information for people around the world. That is incredibly valuable at times like this. To make that happen, to figure how we are going to navigate, not only to continue to make transformative products, but making the world a better place, and yeah I’ll say it even though they mock silicon valley for believing it." Walker went on the say, "We need to be able to work together. We need to have each other's back. We need to stand together at a time that is going to be incredibly difficult, as we advocate for our values and we see what not only the US administration. but other administrations around the world, how they take shape over the next few years."
The main takeaway of this town hall meeting was laid out in a question of an employee who asked, "The main message I have gotten from you today is that these elections are just a hiccup in history's arc toward progress, but what makes you so sure about that? Is this a relatively new arc or one that includes two world wars?"
Walker answered by admitting there or no guarantees, and while it is not smooth, he believes the ace does go up. “History teaches us that there are periods of populism, of nationalism, that rise up, and that's all the reason we need to be in the arena, that’s why we have to work so hard to make sure it doesn’t turn into a world war or something catastrophic but is instead, is a blip, is a hiccup."
“I would echo Kent’s last sentence.” Porat then said, “We have to fight for it, or it can end up going the wrong direction.”
Brin then added, “I think it is worth being very vigilant and thinking about these issues and what can we do to lead to maybe a better quality of governance decision making and so forth.”
Becoming the self-appointed guardians of human values seems like a lot of responsibility and influence for a company that is meant to regurgitate information almost exclusively produced by others. Just in case you are wondering if the rhetoric expressed in 2016 has waned, check out this tweet from a guest speaker scheduled by Google this week.
Jamie Susskind's bio on google says he is an author, speaker, and practicing barrister. A past Fellow of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, it says he studied history and politics at Magdalen College, Oxford and that he lives in London. The day after the TGIF tape became public, Susskind's tweet did not get the response he expected. In an attempt to clarify his position he tweeted a follow-up. Most who replied questioned his sincerity.
You only have to take one look at the people sitting in the Google auditorium to realize that the vast majority of Google employees drank the kool-aid before they ever walked in the door. So good for them, Google has a happy workforce, except that is for the few miserable closet conservatives or anyone else with views that differ from the leadership's. It is not surprising that a former employee, James Damore, is suing Google for claims that he was fired because he dared to speak out against the established and accepted Google culture.
The question we need to be asking isn't if it is ok for corporate leaders to be emotional about their political views and by sheer expression force those views on their workforce. The question we should be asking is do we want an information platform that currently routes 90% of all internet queries to dictate what we find according to its values, the values set by a small group of unelected, corporate executives.