WASHINGTON — Breitbart News posted a leaked video on Wednesday of top Google executives expressing emotion and dismay at an employee town hall shortly after Donald Trump’s election victory in November 2016.
Trump’s campaign has quickly seized on the video as evidence that Google is biased against conservatives in its search results and rankings, a theme that the president has recently driven in tweets.
After the video posted, Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, tweeted that “Google needs to explain why this isn’t a threat to the Republic. Watch the video. Google believes they can shape your search results and videos to make you ‘have their values’. Open borders. Socialism. Medicare 4 all. Congressional hearings! Investigate.”
Undoubtedly, the video will act as further fuel for the right, despite reality being much more nuanced. But the administration is taking the issue seriously: Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced recently that he is setting up a meeting with state attorneys general, and that competition (i.e. antitrust) will be on the agenda.
Google’s take: “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. 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. To the contrary, our products are built for everyone, and we design them with extraordinary care to be a trustworthy source of information for everyone, without regard to political viewpoint.”
Here is what the video, running just over an hour, does — and doesn’t — say.
Not for Trump. Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin, along with other top executives Kent Walker and Eileen Naughton, CEO Sundar Pichai and CFO Ruth Porat express various forms of shock at Trump’s election, and it’s clear that they did not support him and have serious concerns over the direction of the country.
“Most people here are pretty upset and pretty sad because of the election,” Brin tells the employees. “Myself, as an immigrant and a refugee, I certainly find this election deeply offensive and I know many of you do, too. And I think it’s a very stressful time and it conflicts with many of our values.”
None of this, though, is a surprise. Silicon Valley’s executive ranks have long leaned left, just as they do in Hollywood, and it was hardly a secret who some of the Google officials backed. Porat, for instance, was among the campaign bundlers that Hillary Clinton’s team disclosed during the campaign.
The meeting itself has the air of a post-election coping session more than anything else. At one point Porat asks those in the audience to hug each other. Yes, it’s a bit unusual for corporate America, but this is Google and, as the executives note, it was a most unusual election.
Walker frames Trump’s victory as a response to fears of globalization and the rising tide of nationalism and populism, but he doesn’t doubt that the election was a “fair and democratic process.”
“There are cycles of these things, that can last five, 10 years before people feel that they have had a chance to vent that anger,” he says. “And yet, we do feel that history is on our side, in a profound and important way.”
He then tries to raise the spirits of dejected employees by paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr.
“I would say that the moral arc of history is long, but it bends toward progress, and out of progress comes rising living standards and better healthcare and ultimately the ability to transcend those forces of tribalism,” he says.
‘Have their values.’ Porat gets somewhat emotional as she talks about the election result, which she says felt like a “ton of bricks dropped on my chest.”
She quotes from Clinton’s concession speech.
“‘Please never stop believing that fighting for what is right is worth it.’ And that is critical. We all have an obligation to fight for what is right. And that is one of the many things I think that makes this company so beautiful.”
She continues, “Our values are strong. We will fight to protect them, and we will use the great strength and resources that we have to continue to advance really important values.”
What she doesn’t say is that Google will “fight to protect” those values by altering search results. During the hour, the Google executives try to address questions on topics like immigration and LGBT rights, but don’t make specific mention of influencing their core business.
Rather, the reference to protecting “values” is now a common form of corporate speak, as even non-Silicon Valley companies increasingly wade into the partisan fray.
After the Charlottesville unrest, for instance, companies like Campbell Soup and Johnson & Johnson dropped out of a White House manufacturing council in protest of Trump’s response. The CEO of 3M said that “diversity and inclusion are my personal values and also fundamental to the 3M vision.”
Conservative ‘Googlers’ felt uncomfortable. Naughton, the VP of People Operations, said that conservative employees “haven’t felt entirely comfortable” revealing their political opinions.
“We need to do better. We need to be tolerant and inclusive,” she says, adding that they need to “try to understand each other in this area.”
Google’s conservative detractors, though, often cite the case of James Damore, an engineer who was fired in August after he wrote a memo that criticized the company’s efforts on diversity and that it was using race and gender as factors in promotions. “Only facts and reason can shed light on these biases, but when it comes to diversity and inclusion, Google’s left bias has created a politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence,” he wrote. Google said that he violated its code of conduct and that he crossed the line “by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”
Damore has since filed a class action lawsuit.
Google is in the hotseat. In the video, executives talk about what Trump’s election will mean for issues like net neutrality and immigration, but they do not foresee the onslaught of D.C. scrutiny ahead.
On Thursday, the Federal Trade Commission is starting the first of a series of hearings on issues including data collection, privacy and competition.
The company faced criticism from lawmakers after it declined to send Page to testify at a Senate hearing last week. Instead, the Senate Intelligence Committee left an empty chair at the witness table next to Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg.
Democrats share concerns over tech platforms — just not the claims of political bias. At a later hearing with Dorsey last week, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said that it “appears to be just one more mechanism to raise money and generate outrage,” and a way to rally the base by “fabricating a problem that simply does not exist.”