When peaceful protests are being countered with aggressive, violent responses from police and other authorities nationwide, it’s become clear that the White House will not lead the change that thousands of protesters have been calling for. Outside of the government, the organizations with the greatest impact on our daily lives — and the most powerful megaphones — are part of Big Tech. And those companies have failed to deliver in any meaningful way.
Tweeting positive messages, postponing launch events, and offering small donations that barely register a minor percentage of a company’s total value is not enough. That is the bar, the basic, ground-level actions that are expected of all of us.
Big Tech has the money and lobbying power to push for concrete change. It could donate huge portions of its massive profits to worthwhile causes, and even work to develop ways to help lift communities out of poverty or make up for racial injustice. Instead, these companies have done the bare minimum.
Multiple studies have found that the world’s biggest companies have a huge amount of power during a crisis. Analyst firm McKinsey & Company wrote that “global corporations have never had as much power as they do right now to leverage their scale to benefit society in the time of global crisis.” The report found that companies should be obligated during these times to make an indelible mark with human support and empathy, and that purpose is greater than it has ever been.
The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report found that companies are statistically more trusted than government right now, and as such need to do more to address important societal issues.
By these measures, all of Big Tech has failed.
A crisis of leadership
With more than 2.6 billion monthly active users, Facebook is one of the most influential companies on the planet, but CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s response to the recent upheaval has been pitifully unacceptable.
Despite the considerable internal outcry against his decision not to delete a violence-inciting post from President Donald Trump, which then caused at least two employees to publicly resign from the company, Zuckerberg has proven inept at facing the current moment. Even a group of prominent former staffers called Zuckerberg’s inaction “cowardly” and a “betrayal” in an open letter.
Zuckerberg has failed spectacularly as that force for change that his employees have demanded him to be.
The same can be said of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who has for years allowed Trump to use Twitter as a platform for misinformation and violence-inducing statements that, were he not a prominent figure, would be justifiable cause for a suspension from the platform. Dorsey’s years of inaction emboldened the president, and finally blocking some of his most egregious tweets now, after years of abuse, has only made the situation worse.
When Activision/Blizzard publicly gave its voice to support the protesters, it did so with a very recent history of taking action against this exact kind of outcry when it suspended and stripped a victory title from an e-sports player who publicly backed the Hong Kong protests. Though it publicly says it denounces racism, it is still struggling to address the rampant racist gamer tags that abound on one of its most popular franchises, Call of Duty.
Only after repeated and pointed criticism on its subreddit did Call of Duty: Modern Warfare developer Infinity Ward make a statement to address the racist player names in their game.
— Infinity Ward (@InfinityWard) June 3, 2020
Addressing a situation after it becomes unpopular and even then only promising to make an attempt to fix it falls well below the bar.
While Big Tech is capable of doing far more toward supporting societal change than simply releasing action-free platitudes, that appears to beas far as they are currently willing to go.
Microsoft has published multiple statements from select employees who advocate for societal change. CEO Satya Nadella said the following:
There is no place for hate and racism in our society. Empathy and shared understanding are a start, but we must do more. I stand with the Black and African American community and we are committed to building on this work in our company and in our communities. https://t.co/WaEuhRqBho
— Satya Nadella (@satyanadella) June 1, 2020
As uplifting as this is to hear, such a response is passive. He’s only stating a desire for a society that promotes empathy and shared understanding, but has not provided a path for tangible, actionable means to achieve that societal goal. The company fails to take the onus of that responsibility onto its own formidable shoulders.
Apple CEO Tim Cook finally decided on Thursday to speak on behalf of his company, but his response, too, feels lackluster. Though he does make commitments to help groups that desperately need it, he makes no specific promises and offers no action items that either he or Apple will take to help the current situation.
Today, as Minneapolis gathers and the nation memorializes George Floyd, we mourn a life ended in its prime and everything it represents. We feel a duty to channel grief into action, and we hold to the hope that a single soul may yet change the world.
— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) June 4, 2020
For Cook and his company, it is not enough to simply “hope” for change.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is particularly guilty of doing what can be considered less than the bare minimum. Bezos himself is the richest man in the world and even with Amazon’s undeniable economic power, he has elected to do nothing for societal change. Instead, he posted an essay about trying to understand the plight of Black workers.
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The pain and emotional trauma caused by the racism and violence we are witnessing toward the black community has a long reach. I recommend you take a moment to read this powerful essay from @goldinggirl617, especially if you’re a manager or leader. “We’re biting our tongues, swallowing our rage and fighting back tears to remain professional because expressing that hurt caused by witnessing black death is considered more unprofessional, than black men and women actually being killed. So if you can, please, be mindful. Your black employees are dealing with a lot.” A link to the whole essay is in my bio.
Bezos sharing this article is peak hypocrisy and incredibly insulting given his history. In March, Amazon fired a black worker who was attempting to unionize at one of their facilities, and Bezos was present for a meeting where the company strategized how to smear the man by saying he was “not smart or articulate.”
These and many other public responses to this crisis by Big Tech are simply inadequate. When they hold considerable power, property, and prestige, statements of support that are devoid of action on the ground will always ring hollow.
Civil rights group Color of Change has listed a set of concrete policy demands that it hopes to see fulfilled as a result of these protests in order to put a stop to police abuses and systemic racism. These policy goals would increase support for education, health care, and communities while holding police departments more accountable — particularly for officers with records of misconduct.
Big Tech has the ability to act on those demands with its considerable lobbying power. Instead, it chooses only to release statements.
In short, Big Tech cannot simply say “we are with you.” Words are cheap. They cannot fall back on, “we don’t know what else to do.” Big Tech must actually step out and be there, and it is not just something they should do. It is something they have an innate responsibility to do.
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