Protests against Google are postponed as culture wars roil Silicon Valley

Conservative protesters scuttled plans to gather outside Google’s offices this weekend, putting on hold an effort to take America’s culture wars directly to Silicon Valley.

The region was long insulated from political rancor, but now has become one of the most important ideological battlegrounds. That became ever more clear Wednesday, when protest organizers said that the news coverage surrounding their plans had led to threats from left-wing “terrorist groups.”

The now-postponed rallies were inspired by James Damore, the former Google engineer who was fired last week for posting a 10-page internal memo arguing that the lack of women in tech could be attributed to biological differences. His dismissal sparked an outcry from conservatives who say their opinions are being muzzled by liberal technology companies and led Damore to criticize his former company for promoting a “particularly intense echo chamber.”

“The March on Google stands for free speech and the open discussion of ideas,” wrote event organizer Jack Posobiec, a conservative media figure who pushed the “Pizzagate” and Seth Rich conspiracy theories and recently was retweeted by the president.

Posobiec, who did not respond to questions sent to his Facebook page, had said that the planned marches would not be “alt-right” events and that he wanted to avoid the violence and mayhem experienced in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend.

The details

Protests had been planned for Saturday at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., and other company offices such as Venice, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Seattle.

Organizers say they now plan to hold the events “in a few weeks’ time.”

A post on the march’s website said the event was postponed because of threats from unspecified “alt-left terrorist groups,” including one from someone threatening to drive a car into the march.

The Mountain View Police Department, Atlanta Police Department and the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., said Wednesday morning that they had not received any reports of such threats. Police departments in several other cities did not immediately respond to requests for comment; the FBI declined to comment.

The march organizers’ repeated use of the term “alt-left” — as well as placing blame for the postponement of the protests on left-leaning groups and news outlets — echoed rhetoric used by President Trump the day before. On Tuesday, Trump used “alt-left” to describe anti-racism counter-protesters who demonstrated against last weekend’s far-right rally in Charlottesville, and he faulted “both sides” for the violence there — a contention at odds with local police accounts.

The mayhem in Charlottesville included clashes between armed white militias and counter-protesters, as well as deadly violence: A car driven by a man described by authorities as a white supremacist plowed into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a woman, Heather Heyer, and injuring more than a dozen others.

Mountain View police have said organizers of the Google protests were not connected to Charlottesville rally participants.

“We want you to know that we are working with both Google and with the event planners to ensure the protest is a peaceful one,” the department said Tuesday in a statement.

Damore told CNBC that he is not involved with the marches, adding, “I don’t support efforts to try to hurt Google directly.”

Still, his memo pointed to the clash of ideas within the technology industry at a time when its products play an increasingly bigger role in the daily lives of Americans.

Facebook, YouTube, Twitch, Snapchat and other social media occupy 5 1/2 hours of the average U.S. adult’s week, according to Nielsen, a span that has grown sharply in recent years. And the online platforms’ power to spread and enforce cultural values has become a matter of contention across the political spectrum.

Conservatives point to years of evidence of a liberal agenda in the tech industry. They’ve drawn comparisons between Damore's case and Mozilla Chief Executive Brendan Eich, who stepped down a decade ago following outrage over his support of a ban on same-sex marriage.

More recently, right-wing activists say YouTube is filtering conservative videos so that they won’t appear unless users toggle their settings to accept graphic or potentially offensive content.

Shifting politics

The conditions are a far cry from just a few years ago, when technologists were thought of as political neophytes — the descendants of a counterculture that turned hippies into billionaires like Steve Jobs. If there was a political streak in the valley, it tended to be libertarian.

But the 2016 presidential election demonstrated just how influential the region’s platforms are to American public opinion.

Where would Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign have gone without the rabid support of smartphone-wielding millennials spreading #FeelTheBern?

And how long would Donald Trump’s campaign have lasted without his supporters’ memes and the candidate’s personal Twitter account?

Jeremy Carl, a former tech worker who serves as a fellow at conservative think tank Hoover Institution, said the anger among his ideological peers stems from “egregious” actions taken by Google and other big tech companies.

Efforts to take down or stunt the growth of potentially offensive online publications have reached a “ridiculous” level, he said.

Despite Trump’s victory last year with the aid of a fearsome social media strategy, conservatives accuse Facebook, Twitter and Google of censoring their points of view by suspending accounts and firing employees like Damore who speak out against diversity training.

“The recklessness of the industry and its partisan politics have brought us to this point. They have no credibility among the right to do self-regulation,” said Carl, who has advocated for treating Google as a utility company that must provide a neutral service.

At stake is the future of news and information in a country where facts are so often viewed through a political lens. Control of these digital platforms, once thought to be apolitical, could swing the national conversation around culture and politics.

No alternatives

What also irks critics is that there are few alternatives to Google and Facebook. So conservatives who don’t like those companies’ politics feel they have no choice but to keep using their services.

“Internet people brag about freedom of expression in the U.S. relative to what’s available in China, but that’s just not the case when you look at the Internet monopolies in the U.S.,” said Ron Unz, a Palo Alto software entrepreneur who launched unsuccessful campaigns for California governor and English-only education.

“You’re talking about something closer to modern totalitarianism,” Unz added.

(By comparison, China tightly monitors discourse on its closed-off Internet, employing thousands of censors and trolls to promote the government’s positions and stifle open dissent).

Unz said he thinks tech companies should be held to the same standards as the government when it comes to freedom of expression because of their market dominance.

“If the government is legally prohibited from censoring certain forms of speech, it seems wrong to allow Google to do what the government can’t do,” Unz said.

Uncertainty about the agenda

It doesn’t help either that tech companies operate in near secrecy — driving suspicion that the Googles and Facebooks of the world are stifling conservative views with lines of hidden code.

“The tech industry’s point of view is embedded deep in the product, not announced on the packaging,” wrote Ezra Klein, editor-in-chief of Vox. “Its biases are quietly built into algorithms, reflected in platform rules, expressed in code few of us can understand and fewer of us will ever read.”

It’s been difficult for Silicon Valley to adapt to the new political order. Many companies are at odds with conservative positions on immigration, climate change and sexual identity — taking stances that seemed safely mainstream until recently.

Nonetheless, they’ve tried to appear more welcoming to Trump and his supporters.

Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook, Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos and Eric Schmidt, head of Google’s parent company Alphabet, are among the big names that agreed to advise the president on his technology council.

Google has also tried to hire more conservatives for its lobbying and policy initiatives, and Facebook donated money to the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. The social network also replaced its news editors with an algorithm after conservatives said employees were suppressing right-wing content.

To be sure, Silicon Valley counts some conservatives and Trump supporters among its list of top entrepreneurs. None is more famous than Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and a billionaire venture capitalist, who spoke strongly in support of then-candidate Trump at the Republican National Convention last year. Thiel, despite running large investment funds, has become an outcast in some circles of the industry for his work with Trump.

Times staff writer Tracey Lien contributed to this report.

david.pierson@latimes.com

paresh.dave@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

11:55 a.m.: This article was updated with new details, including information about purported threats and comments from various police departments.

7:05 a.m.: This article was updated with the postponement of the marches.

This article was originally published at 5 a.m.

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