Jul 2

Big Tech Takes A Stand Amid U.S. Protests

Editorial Staff
Aug 4, 2020

Image: Morning Brew on Unsplash

In the current oversaturated news cycle, one thing seems consistently true – if there is a story, the technology industry is involved. In the past two years, big tech has been the subject of presidential candidates’ political agendas and was directly affected by the U.S. administration’s trade war with China.

Most recently, it has become one of the leading forces in the “coronaconomy”, as FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google) stocks hit record highs at a time when other market players are struggling to survive. It comes as no surprise that the ongoing social movement against police brutality and racial injustice, which has arguably become the largest movement in recent U.S. history, not only took over online platforms, but also forced tech companies to speak up.

Big tech speaks up

American companies have traditionally shied away from taking a public stance on sociopolitical issues. Yet in the “woke” world of 2020, where silence is equated to complicity, FAANG tech giants have decided to push for positive change in order to strengthen its reputation as the driver of progress – an image that appeals to both their young userbase and the new generation of professionals whose loyalty is crucial to the future success of big tech.

According to a new report by market research firm Piplsay, 65 percent of Americans think brands should take a stand against racism. More than half of consumers are most willing to buy from brands that speak out against racism, with Gen Z-ers and millennials overindexing at 60 percent. Glassdoor’s survey of employees demonstrates an even more drastic picture: 75 percent of American employees ages 18-34 expect their employer to take a stand on important issues affecting the country. Traditionally driven by data, tech companies cannot ignore these numbers, and their recent statements in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement are a testament to that.

FAANG companies have published messages of support on social media and their websites. In late May, Google added a supportive statement on Black Lives Matter to the front page of its search engine. Amazon and Netflix took to Twitter to express words of support, and Apple posted a “Speaking out on racism” message on its website. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg went on his personal Facebook profile to mourn the deaths of Black victims of police brutality. He further used his platform to elaborate on his personal views on the Trump administration’s response to the protests, and explained why Facebook was not willing to take down Donald Trump’s messages that many have perceived as a racist attack against his own citizens. The companies were also reported to express their condemnation of police brutality and racial injustice to their employees internally.

Unsurprisingly, the messages did not universally resonate with the public. Some members of ideologically polarized userbases provided their negative feedback. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos posted an email from a dissatisfied customer who disagreed with the “Black Lives Matter” rhetoric of a banner posted on Amazon’s website. Bezos also included his response to the customer.

“‘Black lives matter’ doesn’t mean other lives don’t matter. Black lives matter speaks to racism and disproportionate risk that Black people face in our law enforcement and justice system,” the Amazon CEO said in his email response, also writing in an Instagram post that this was a customer he was “happy to lose”.

In word and in deed

Yet while some customers thought that tech companies went too far, many media sources and social media users voiced their expectation that powerful FAANG corporates would walk their walk as they talk their talk. It is worth mentioning that the companies’ initial statements were not free of action plans. Google has pledged to donate $12 million to civil rights groups, while Facebook and Amazon are donating $10 million each to groups that fight against racial injustice. Apple announced a new $100 million Racial Equity and Justice Initiative that would “challenge the systemic barriers to opportunity and dignity that exist for communities of color, and particularly for the black community,” according to Apple CEO Tim Cook. Meanwhile, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has personally donated $120 million to historically Black colleges and universities.

The companies also went beyond immediate donations. Facebook made a $100 million in cash and ad credits available to support Black-owned businesses and creators, and pledged to spend at least the same amount with Black-owned suppliers. In addition, Facebook demonstrated the commitment to internal change – Mark Zuckerberg announced a plan to have 30 percent more employees of color, including 30 percent more Black people, in leadership positions. Similarly, Google CEO Sundar Pichai vocalized the intention to improve Black representation at senior levels and increase leadership representation of all underrepresented groups by 30 percent by 2025.

Netflix, in turn, used its platform to amplify Black voices and stories – the company created a curated list of titles that tell the stories of racial injustice and Blackness in America. Since the beginning of the Black Lives Matter protests, the streaming platform has also actively featured Black films and TV shows on its social media platforms. Soon after, the company announced Bozoma Saint John’s appointment as its new chief marketing officer, making her the first Black C-suite executive at Netflix.

More room for action

Despite public approval of these initiatives, the companies’ users and employees have made it clear that FAANG companies have plenty of room for improvement. The recently established group Google Workers Against Racism has launched a petition signed by 2,000 employees at the time of this writing, demanding that Google stop selling its technology to police departments. Google’s Black employees also came forward with personal stories of racial biases within the company that prevent them from achieving the same recognition as their white colleagues.

Like Google, Amazon has been accused of maintaining commercial partnerships with police forces and mistreating its non-white employee organizers. Public records have shown that the company has sold its facial recognition software Rekognition to police forces. This move was criticized in a joint letter by 40 human rights groups back in 2018, which stated that the software was proven to disproportionately misrecognize people of color and is therefore able to “violate rights and target communities of color”.

On July 20, thousands of U.S. workers – among them many tech industry employees – participated in the “Strike for Black Lives” to demand that corporations confront systemic racism and police brutality. And while tech giants have already admitted they have a major role to play in resolving racial injustice, it is up to them to make sure that meaningful actions extend beyond the wave of protests. For as long as technology defines our future, society will continue to pressure tech companies to make sure the future is equally bright for all.       

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