Tech workers aren't known for political activism. But that may be changing

Ayelet Bitton never thought she’d get involved in politics. Like many of her Silicon Valley peers, the 25-year-old software engineer cared about social and political issues, but didn’t think it was her place to speak up. 

“I used to stay away from political conversations because they could get awkward,” said Bitton, who develops software for San Francisco ride-hailing firm Lyft. 

This changed Nov. 8.

Donald Trump’s presidential victory sent a shock wave through the socially liberal but generally politically detached tech industry, catalyzing something of an awakening in Silicon Valley. Some tech workers who had long toed their companies’ apolitical lines saw Trump’s win as a turning point: the moment when they should become more vocal about their views. 

In the months since the election, some workers have organized protests. Others have joined fledgling activist groups such as the Tech Workers Coalition or the recently formed Tech Solidarity. Many are now looking for ways big and small to allay their own fears of how a Trump administration might affect issues such as privacy, immigration and civil rights.

“It’s no secret there’s a lot of privilege here in Silicon Valley,” said Bitton, who acknowledged that the affluence of the sector and the liberal bubble of the Bay Area meant that few tech workers had realized the stakes of the election or thought that Trump would win. “But now I feel compelled to stand with movements that don’t directly affect me,” she said.

For Bitton’s part, she immediately upped her monthly donation to Planned Parenthood. She started donating to the American Civil Liberties Union. She signed an online pledge to never build software that could be used for the mass deportation of immigrants. And she walked in the Women’s March in Oakland — the first time that she’d ever taken part in a protest.

The recent election has also made some in Silicon Valley reflect on the industry’s responsibility as creators of services used by governments and political candidates.

Last Wednesday, around 70 tech workers protested against their own outside the headquarters of Palantir Technologies, a data analysis start-up co-founded by Trump supporter Peter Thiel. The protesters feared that Palantir — which already has government contracts — could use its data analytics tools to assist in deporting immigrants or building a registry for Muslims, as Trump called for on the campaign trail. (Thiel has said Palantir would not help craft a Muslim registry.)

“The part of our job we love is to promise people new possibilities,” said Sophie Xie, 28, a freelance designer and former Facebook employee who attended the Palantir protest. “The part that we don’t like is to dwell on the consequences.” 

Like Bitton, Xie was shocked into action by Trump’s win, and started giving more thought to the moral dilemmas technologists face when building products that are either used by or affect large swaths of society. Xie lent her design skills to the protest by building the event’s website.

Other techies have also found ways to make their technical skills useful to organizations that may need their help. 

In San Francisco, Kate Bertash, an employee at mobile e-learning firm Elevate Labs, is organizing an abortion access hackathon in March that will connect people from the tech sector with nonprofits in need of volunteers. Across the Bay, tech workers on Friday took part in Oakland’s General Strike Against Trump by manning a drop-in “tech clinic” where nonprofits could get help building websites, creating mailing lists, and with basic tech troubleshooting. Since the election, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights nonprofit, has seen a surge in interest and a spike in donations from members of the tech community.

“The lid is lifting,” said Shahid Buttar, the EFF’s director of grass-roots advocacy. “Comfortable people are waking up. It’s easy to be aware when you’re uncomfortable; a lot of people have lost their comfort and their complacency.”

For generations the Bay Area has been a hotbed of activism, but in recent years tech firms and tech workers have been the ones being protested, not the protesters. 

Demonstrations have targeted the tech industry for driving up the price of housing to exorbitant levels, for blocking public bus stops with its employee shuttle buses, for failing to diversify its own ranks, and for increasing the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

“Two years ago, many of my friends would have never wanted to organize a protest or be public about their political beliefs,” said Lea Yu, 28, a product manager in the tech industry who helped organize the Palantir protest. “I think it’s millennials maturing. Some are now more secure in their employment and are able to take more risks.”

Data suggests there’s a disconnect between the politics of tech employers and tech employees. Of the tech workers who made presidential campaign donations, 95% supported Hillary Clinton, according to nonpartisan campaign donation tracking group Crowdpac. Yet of the $3.6 million given to House and Senate candidates by four political action committees formed by Facebook, Amazon, Google and Microsoft, nearly 60% went to Republicans, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Large tech companies have generally been reticent about taking political positions for fear of alienating some users. But to take no position is to support the status quo, some tech workers said, and when tech executives sat in a meeting with President-elect Donald Trump in December without kicking up a fuss about his campaign rhetoric, it became apparent to them that they would have to take up the fight themselves.

So far, major tech employers have been staying out of their employees’ way. Facebook last year updated its political engagement policy for employees, allowing them to “participate in personal political activities on their own time and with their own funds.”

Communications specialists who have worked at tech companies in the Valley also said that firms have started to realize they have little control over what their employees think or say. With censorship a touchy issue (Facebook went to great lengths last year to assure conservatives that right-leaning news wasn’t being censored on its platform), they said it would look worse if a company tried to restrict its employees’ political participation. 

Which means this is just the beginning, according to techies who have taken first steps into political activism. 

Expect more protests, hackathons, apps and willing volunteers. And, in Bitton’s case, political conversations. She used to stay out of them because she was worried they’d get awkward. “Now I don’t care anymore.”

tracey.lien@latimes.com

Twitter: @traceylien

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