For the past week, cities across America have erupted in protests, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. It’s been a moment for collective grief and anger, as protesters demand both attention to systemic racism and action on racial justice. In Silicon Valley, where several cities have imposed nightly curfews, protesters have heard their messaging echoed by the giants in the tech industry.
Companies including Facebook, Apple, Google, Twitter, Uber, Amazon, and Airbnb issued statements denouncing racism and expressing solidarity with protesters. “The inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people in our country must stop,” Amazon wrote in a tweet. “Together we stand in solidarity with the Black community—our employees, customers, and partners—in the fight against systemic racism and injustice.” On Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg shared a post on the responsibility to fight racism and injustice, and #saidtheirnames: “We stand with the Black community—and all those working towards justice in honor of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and far too many others whose names will not be forgotten.” Twitter changed the bio in its corporate account to “#BlackLivesMatter,” and its profile picture from its cheery blue logo to a somber black and white one. The genre has become so rote that one Twitter user came up with a pitch-perfect satirization: “A statement from [Brand]®.”
In some cases, the statements are accompanied by at least the beginnings of action. Facebook announced plans to donate $10 million to racial justice organizations, though the company did not specify who would receive money or when. (Facebook did not reply to a request for comment.) Apple and Google each pledged to donate to the Equal Justice Initiative, which provides legal representation to the falsely imprisoned; both companies offered to match employees’ donations. Google’s YouTube promised $1 million to social justice organizations, and Uber donated $1 million to several criminal justice reform groups, “in solidarity with the Black community and with peaceful protests.”
Here’s what’s less clear: Will one of the world’s most powerful industries translate rhetoric into action? “Nobody wants tweets anymore,” says Mary-Hunter McDonnell, who researches corporate activism at the Wharton School of Business. “Giving money to organizations that are out on the front lines is more helpful, but it’s also to some extent passing the buck. People are tired of that.”
A truer test, McDonnell says, is whether the tech companies will lobby for legislative and structural change. Companies like Google, which have spent nearly half a billion dollars on lobbying over the past decade, already have a seat at the table with lawmakers, and they can have a greater impact on policy than almost anyone—including the nonprofit organizations they’ve funded. “You can talk to any social activist NGO and they’ll tell you that the primary adversary they face is corporations,” says McDonnell. “So what people want to see them doing is using that platform to make, and lobby for, some of the big structural changes that we need to happen.”
Tech companies have occasionally shown that they can. In 2017, after President Trump issued an executive order restricting travel to the US from predominantly Muslim countries, Alphabet—Google’s parent company—significantly ramped up its lobbying efforts to oppose the policy. Facebook also spent money lobbying, after Zuckerberg publicly opposed the executive order. Tech leaders abandoned the president’s economic advisory council in droves. But the tech industry’s lobbyists have been notably absent from other political conversations. Facebook put up huge “Black Lives Matter” banners at its headquarters in 2016, after a video of police shooting Philando Castile was shared widely on the platform. But there’s no evidence that Facebook applied political pressure or lobbying resources to address police brutality.
It has proven difficult for the industry to break from its roots, and a history of products made by a certain kind of person for a certain kind of person. For one, the companies have pledged in recent years to devote money and attention to initiatives to diversify their overwhelmingly male, white, and Asian workforces. But Google reported this year that just 5.5 percent of its 2019 hires were black, compared with 4.8 percent the year before. (The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.) Facebook has almost doubled its number of black employees since 2014, but the number still sits at 3.8 percent.
“There’s strange parochialism in tech that has informed product design and user interfaces and the questions about what we need to bring into the world and who we are serving,” says Margaret O’Mara, a professor of history at the University of Washington whose latest book, The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America, details the history of the tech industry. “There’s a blindness there.”
Many early valley techies, O’Mara says, were steeped in the leftist and anti-establishment ethos of the late ’60s. They believed they might build a better world just by building explicitly nonpolitical tools to connect people. “There is a deeply baked-in notion that you can fix a lot of the society’s injustices with widely available computer access,” she says.
To a degree, that’s proven out. As Zuckerberg noted in a post on Sunday, the video of Floyd’s death was posted on Facebook. “We all needed to see that,” he wrote. But it’s clear that information alone will not solve the twin problems of racial injustice and police brutality—and that tech platforms also sow division and exacerbate the world’s inequities. Disinformation peddled on Facebook, for example, fueled violence against a minority group in Myanmar. Far-right extremists and conspiracy theorists of all stripes have found a home on YouTube.
One significant difference between now and five years ago is that rank-and-file workers are making more noise. On Monday, Facebook workers reportedly staged a virtual walkout over executives’ decisions to allow Trump to post inflammatory messages on the platform, ones that had already been flagged by Twitter. Some employees even posted their own statements, though they lacked the gloss and somber .jpegs of their bosses’ statements. “I’m deeply disappointed & ashamed in how the company is showing up the world rn,” one Instagram employee wrote on Twitter, urging others to use their “Zuck bucks” to show solidarity by walking out of work.
“The talent is the most valuable asset these companies have,” says O’Mara. “It’s why they fall over themselves to provide snacks and perks and thousand-dollar office chairs.” Enough clamoring from them just might change the world.
More Great WIRED Stories
- What happened when I switched from Mac to Windows
- How Kickstarter employees formed a union
- 5 simple ways to make your Gmail inbox safer
- Quarantine has transformed not-TV into essential TV
- Let’s rebuild the broken meat industry—without animals
- ? What is intelligence, anyway? Plus: Get the latest AI news
- ✨ Optimize your home life with our Gear team’s best picks, from robot vacuums to affordable mattresses to smart speakers