The alt-right and its predecessors have long antagonized Silicon Valley for its views and practices, but it wasn’t until James Damore that they truly mobilized to take down one of its companies. No sooner had the former Google software engineer been fired for penning and circulating a manifesto titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber” did the alt-right co-opt his narrative.
Overnight, whether or not he was in on the coordination, Damore became their Silicon Valley mouthpiece. They whisked him on to an interview with prominent alt-right YouTuber Stefan Molyneux. They carefully focused his brand as an unjustly persecuted truth-teller with an image of him wearing a Goolag t-shirt, photographed by Peter Duke, who’s known for shooting portraits of the alt-right. They used his story as a springboard to launch a Breitbart News series called the “Rebels of Google,” featuring Q&As with former and current Googlers who are alt-right sympathizers. They even called for national marches across Google’s campuses, though the organizers postponed them (paywall) after Charlottesville, citing threats from “alt-left terrorists.”
It is no accident that the alt-right chose Damore’s firing as their catalyst. This was not the first time accusations over a tech giant’s censorship of their views sparked outrage within the movement. Breitbart News has vigilantly tracked Facebook’s “war on free speech” since the 2016 US election campaign. Gab, a “free speech” social media platform popular among the alt-right, was created in response to Twitter’s censorship policies. But more than any other tech giant in the Valley, Google is synonymous with progressivism. And when the confluence of several other variables—the seemingly rational tone of the manifesto; Damore’s awkward and unassuming demeanor; the hyper-attentive mainstream media—rolled out a carpet to the national stage, the choice to attack only became more obvious. This is the “beginning of the alt-tech revolution,” Gab founder Andrew Torba told the Washington Post.
Though Google has been mired in unflattering headlines as of late, it has long enjoyed a reputation of being one of the most inclusive and progressive companies in Silicon Valley. Early in its history, the company pursued (what were at the time) radical policies to engender an employee-centric environment: internal diversity initiatives, diversity-conscious hiring practices, flexible work hours, liberal maternity and paternity leave policies. “They were the first to really do it,” says Jen Carlile, a former Google software engineer. “It became the model for a lot of other companies in the Valley.” In these ways, it embodied the ethos of Silicon Valley: be open, be transparent, use technology to change the world.
Today, in an industry roiled by diversity and sexual harassment issues, Google preserves its benevolent reputation. Externally, its community-based initiatives—Girls Who Code and Made with Code to promote women in STEM; CODE2040 to foster black and Latinx tech talent—solidify its image as a force of good. Internally, its culture is considered by many as the safest haven for minorities in tech. As I heard over and over again from minorities who worked at Google or Silicon Valley at large, no place in tech is actually good for women and people of color, but Google is as good as it gets. It’s really trying.
“Apple, Amazon, companies like that, first and foremost, they’re businesses in the eyes of the public,” Carlile says. “Google is more of a symbol than it is a business”—a symbol of radical idealism, staunch optimism, and unrelenting positive change. That Google maintains this reputation in spite of turning its fortune from harvesting, parsing, and, in many ways, exploiting people’s data is only further testament to how deep its symbolism runs.
This is what makes it the perfect target for the alt-right. For the predominantly young, internet-savvy branch of white nationalism, bred within the underground meme-ridden culture of anonymous discussion forums like 4chan, few things feel more powerful than the subversion of benevolence, authority, and political correctness. Their tactics to push white nationalist ideas into the mainstream stem from this philosophy: Find the benign, the benevolent, the mundane and “corrupt” it with associations of fear and hatred. This is how Pepe the Frog, a children’s cartoon, became a symbol of white nationalism. This is also why alt-right protesters chug milk at rallies to assert white superiority. In online forums where the alt-right thrives, the reappropriation of such symbols to troll and demoralize proliferate. “Part of this is down to the alt-right’s addiction to provocation,” writes Breitbart in “An Establishment Conservative’s Guide to the Alt-Right.” The other part is an attempt “to normalize itself and its ideas,” reports Wired. As symbols that remind people of the alt-right become more ubiquitous, the movement gains strength.
The coordinated attacks on Google neatly follow the same pattern. By brandishing Damore’s manifesto as proof of Google’s “authoritarian” overreach and evoking Big Brother-like descriptions of groupthink, the alt-right begins to pervert a once-benevolent symbol into a disturbing one. Working at Google requires suffering through “constant abuse, sneers, insults and smears from people who detest that you disagreed with them,” details one article in Breitbart’s “Rebels of Google” series. “If the company continues along its current authoritarian route, as exposed by the firing of viewpoint diversity advocate James Damore, the personal data of ordinary users would be put at risk,” writes another.
The strategy is working. Mainstream media outlets have begun to adopt the same language. In a Fox News segment aired a week after Damore’s firing, commentator Tucker Carlson described Google’s statement on the incident as “perhaps the most Orwellian statement written since Orwell himself finished 1984.” “Google has shown a willingness to distort reality for ideological ends,” Carlson continued. “A lot of us trusted Google not to be evil. … It’s now obvious that Google cannot be trusted.” A New York Times opinion piece (paywall) titled “Google doesn’t want the best for us” echoed the sentiment. “Rules set by Google are the rules we all abide by,” writes guest contributor Jonathan Taplin. But such power unchecked leaves the public vulnerable to “the heart of Google’s business: surveillance capitalism.”
Perhaps ironically, the recent activity hasn’t really disturbed Silicon Valley itself. One Bay Area-based Google employee, who has worked at the company for six years, told me that the incident hasn’t changed her experience at work, nor does she believe it will affect the company’s image among potential job candidates. A New York employee, Lauren, said that the way Google and its employees handled the situation only reminded her of why she loves working there. Based on her conversations within the San Francisco engineering and startup communities, Carlile agrees: “It doesn’t seem to have had that much of an impact on how people see Google or, if there is such a thing, the general culture of Silicon Valley.”
But ultimately, it’s the public’s, not the Valley’s, perception that matters. The public is spooked; Google is suspect. And because Google acts as a guardian to Silicon Valley’s ideology, to question Google is to question it all.
Google was not prepared to fight this fight. Though it has faced legal scrutiny before, such as with the gender pay discrimination case brought by the US Department of Labor and the anti-trust charges (paywall) in Europe, never has it handled such a wide PR scandal. What the company saw as a logical response, firing Damore, played directly into the alt-right’s playbook and blew up in its face. Sundar Pichai was slammed—New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks called for the CEO’s resignation (paywall)—while founders Sergey Brin’s and Larry Page’s responses were, as usual, notably absent. An all-hands meeting on Aug. 10 that was supposed to help employees decompress had to be cancelled after an internal form that employees had been using to anonymously submit questions was leaked. The day before, alt-right pundit Milo Yiannopoulos doxxed eight employees who had criticized Damore’s memo.
Google has since scrambled to clean up the mess. On multiple occasions, spokespeople have emphasized the company’s staunch support for freedom of expression and “strong policies against retaliation, harassment and discrimination in the workplace.” After the cancelled all-hands, Pichai spoke at a girls’ coding event hosted by Made with Code. But the tech giant is having a hard time sweeping the incident under the rug. Last week, Damore’s hiring of prominent Republican lawyer Harmeet Dhillon provoked a fresh wave of media scrutiny.
Two weeks after the memo was first released, I called a close friend who had worked as a software engineer in Silicon Valley, though not Google, to ask her thoughts about Damore and the suddenly apparent alt-right sympathizers working within the company. Was she surprised? I asked. Not really, she admitted. She had never really bought into Google’s and the Valley’s pristine veneer. But “this is a strong reminder,” she added, a reminder that there is ugliness lurking in the dark.