Fighting Dark Forces Online? Focus On The Tech Vendors They Need To Spread Hate.

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9 mins read

Image credit: Lucasfilms


Parler is being forced to change tech platforms after being ejected from Amazon AWSGoogle Play Store and Apple App Store. How can tech firms be persuaded to consider democratic ideals in addition to profits?

“Parler has emerged as a haven for conservative users who have fled more mainstream Silicon Valley sites that crack down on harmful, viral falsehoods online.” (WaPo). Parler is partially funded by Rebekah Mercer, a prominent Trump supporter. Her father, Robert Mercer co-founded Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting firm that harvested raw data from up to 87 million Facebook profiles for the 2016 Trump campaign. Parler has said that it will move to another technology platform.

Online services require many software building blocks. Savvy organizers should focus on the firms that provide the essential technologies they need, forcing them to develop their own software or finding a different vendor. Tech firms in turn rely on investors, employees and customers which give organizers fighting for democratic ideals several points to target with persuasion campaigns.

Tech doing good

Cloudflare provides tools that protect websites from cyberattacks and allows sites to load content more quickly. Cloudflare removed The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi hate site, from its service after the violent Charlottesville, VA rally and removed 8chan in the wake of the El Paso shooting. He characterized the site as a “lawless” platform that had willfully ignored warnings about violent extremism.

Cloudflare CEO, Mr. Prince, said in part because Cloudflare does not host or promote any of the site’s content. Most people would agree, he said, that a newspaper publisher should be responsible for the stories in the paper. But what about the person who operates the printing press, or the ink supplier? Should that person be responsible, too? … If we see a bad thing in the world and we can help get in front of it, we have some obligation to do that,” he said.” – NYT

Cloudflare currently serves Gab and Discourse. “Gab is an American alt-tech social networking service known for its far-right and extremist userbase. Widely described as a haven for extremists including neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and the alt-right, it has attracted users and groups who have been banned from other social networks.” – Wikipedia

Technologies used by groups spreading hate speech online.
Technology foundation needed to deploy a complex web service like Parler.

Employee power

Tech firms struggle to attract and retain talent which lets employees influence corporate decisions.
“More than 300 Twitter employees have signed an internal petition calling for President Donald Trump to be permanently banned from the platform following a raid on the US Capitol on January 6th. Roughly an hour and a half after we published this story, Twitter apparently agreed — President Donald Trump has been permanently banned from Twitter.” – The Verge

Google on the other hand recently fired Timnit Gebrua star AI ethics researcher, one of a few Black women in the field. Her paper found AI language models — including one built by Google — exhibited structural bias against women and ethnic minorities.
We’ve Had Enough’: Google Employees Form Union. A group of 226 Google employees in the U.S. have set up a union that will be open to all employees and contractors of the tech giant’s parent company Alphabet, a major move that comes on the back of protests by tech workers who have accused Silicon Valley companies of unfair labor practices and unethical business deals. – Forbes

Investor power

Tech firms rely on funding and connections from their investors. These VC funds raise money from wealthy investors who may also have an interest in knowing how their funds are being used. Are they supporting firms that strengthen democratic values or firms being used to spread hate speech and plan sedition? A quick search on Yahoo Finance shows a firm’s investors, such as CloudFlare for instance in which three investors own a third of the company.

  • Fidelity Management – “Making a Difference. We are committed to investing in the communities we serve—through education, environmental sustainability, diversity and inclusion, and more. Our commitment to the community is at the core of everything we do. We make a difference by investing in where we live and work.”
  • Baillie Gifford – “We believe it is in the long-term interests of companies to maintain strong relationships with all stakeholders, treating employees, customers, suppliers, governments and regulators in a fair and transparent manner… companies must always respect the rights of all equity owners.”
  • Venrock – “Entrepreneurs are the center of everything we do. We help in almost every dimension of building your company: hiring, strategy, financing, scaling, introductions and managing a great exit.”

Help others see the light with online activism

Rules for Radicals is a practical handbook for activists written by Saul D. Alinsky. It shares ten lessons on how a community organizer can accomplish the goal of successfully uniting people into an active grassroots organization with the power to effect change. The book was written in 1971, but is just as relevant today. (Download your free copy here). This is how his rules might be applied to encouraging tech firms to prevent the spread of hate speech and threats to democracy, adapted from an article by Americans for Prosperity Foundation.

  • Pick the Target: Identify the tech executive or investor who is the decision maker or key influencer. Who decides how their tech platform will be used? Who do they want to do business with? How will they allow their technology to be used?
  • Freeze It: A target will try to shift responsibility to get out of being the target. Don’t let your target deflect, diffuse or obfuscate. If they make the wrong decision, the public, their customers, employees, partners and investors have a right to know and they need to be held accountable.
  • Personalize It: Blaming a company or group isn’t effective. Identify the individual who is responsible for the decision. Hold them accountable by name. Their constituents deserve to know the truth.
  • Polarize It: You need to draw a line in the sand when it comes to standing up for democracy. Some executives may be tempted to abandon their principles for profits or when they think no one is watching. Make it clear that there are only two sides—standing up for democracy or not. There’s no middle ground.

Takeaway: The executives, employees and investors of a technology provider have to decide how their solutions will be used. There is no monopoly on solutions. Let the dark forces develop their own solutions.

Deepak
DemLabs


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Democracy Labs is a hub for ongoing technology and creative innovation that serves progressive campaigns and organizations at the national, state, and local levels.

Our focus is on long term, sustainable and affordable solutions. An approach that is longer than an election cycle, and isn’t purely dependant on volunteers, can enable more qualified candidates to run for office and for more issue groups to bring about positive social change.

Democracy Labs is a project of the Tides Advocacy Fund.

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