It was five years ago, but I have to tell you, it feels like yesterday. It was my first day on the job at Facebook. I had a two hour commute in front of me. Oh, but not to worry. The company provided a free bus service for employees — not a yellow school bus, mind you, or even a city bus — but a luxury coach with seats high in the air.
High enough so we could pass by the throngs of people in San Francisco looking at us half angry, half jealous, as they waited in their long public bus lines. Oh, and behind me was the Google bus, and behind that, Genentech’s bus. It was the morning tech parade.
When we arrived, we were met by an earnest, smiling millennial. She escorted our group over to a long, open-air walkway, and right in the middle was a plaza which was called Hacker Square. This little corporate Main Street stretched for about a quarter mile.
Pastel buildings surrounded me with cute shops, themselves filled with smiling earnest millennials — there was an arcade, an ice cream parlor, a barber shop. I would later find out that most of these were free of charge.
And then, hovering above us and impossible to miss, was a giant digital screen broadcasting the names of employees who were celebrating, well, their own start date, years in the past. Facebook had a word for this, like they do with everything else. It was called “Faceverseries.”
The woman escorting us noticed that our group was looking up at the sky, like we’d just seen a U.F.O. We were mesmerized, and so she decided to keep giving us the hard sell, “We have laundry service here, a gym, a dentist, and a doctor’s office on site, too.”
But up and down the walkway, there was a different picture. Young, almost exclusively white Facebookers were themselves leisurely strolling. And every so often, I spotted some folks of Asian background, like me. But very few Black or Latinx people.
The uniform of the day was millennial sartorial chic — t-shirt, your obligatory hoodie, faded jeans, five o’clock shadow, and sunglasses. That lovely look of not a care in the world. So, not surprisingly, I was feeling a little out of place in my ironed white dress shirt and khakis.
In fact, the only other collared shirts I could see around me were a small army of uniformed men and women. They were the security guards, the cafeteria workers, and the cleaners. And they were on the lower end of the wage scale at Facebook. They were most of the people of color on site. I wondered if they were even allowed to use the free pinball machine.
Silicon Valley is a study of contrasts just like this one. And I have to admit that I’ve been curious about this ever since I went to work there. The racial inequity in tech, it was glaring from my very first day walking around Hacker Square.
This lack of diversity…. it’s not just an issue at Facebook. It’s across the industry. In 2020, the big tech companies had about four to seven percent Black workers and five to six percent Latinx workers. But, well, the tech companies do a pretty good job of getting you to look the other way when it comes to these racial disparities.
All those perks, well, it makes the place that you work at seem like some futuristic, even progressive utopia. There is so much great about working there that I didn’t complain that often. I mean, who wouldn’t love all that free stuff, right?
There’s also this veneer of tolerance, of empathy, that surrounds you. I mean quite literally. Posters on the wall shouting, “Be Your Authentic Self,” and there’s the obligatory murals of civil rights leaders and activists from around the world.
It can be easy to forget the injustice that’s lurking about. And that’s where this week’s guest comes in:
Jade MAGNUS: My name is Jade Magnus Ogunnaike. I’m a senior campaign director at Color of Change.
Color of Change is a racial justice organization. So, how does an activist for racial justice end up taking on the world of tech?
Well, there’s two parts to Jade Magnus Ogunnaike’s work on the tech industry: The first is that she advocates for people of color who work there. Second, Jade and her organization put pressure on the social media platforms to get rid of hate speech. Specifically the kind from white supremacists that end up making people unsafe.
In the way that they work, Jade and Color of Change couldn’t be more unlike tech. Jade pulls on a very different set of levers: good ol’ fashioned agitation. Labor organizing. Protests and boycotts.
MAGNUS: Tech has invested probably millions of dollars in this public relations image of tech as the new frontier. We grow up watching The Jetsons and we have this idea that technology is going to solve all of our problems. And what we found is that in many ways they just complicate existing problems that we already had and then, beyond that, create new problems.
Jade is an outsider. And she knows how to use that to her advantage. In this conversation, we’re going to dive in to see how she tries to make change from that position.
I want to raise a centuries old question about the best way to bring about change in society. What do you think? Do we shout from outside the walls of Big Tech? Or do you try to get inside the castle — or in this case, the swanky cafeteria — and break bread with the executives? Which would you use? The carrot or the stick?
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Jade began her career after college by organizing workers for S.E.I.U. That’s the Service Employees International Union. After that, she went to work for Color of Change. That was started after Hurricane Katrina to boost the power of Black activists.
One of Jade’s first big campaigns was called Quit the Council. It was back in 2017. Black activists were angry at President Trump’s reaction to the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville. Maybe you remember? It’s when Trump said this:
Donald TRUMP: You also had people that were very fine people on both sides.
So, Color of Change began to put pressure on all the C.E.O.’s who were on Trump’s councils of business leaders to quit. And it worked. In fact, so many C.E.O.’s quit, the councils were disbanded. Some of those C.E.O.’s were from tech companies.
MAGNUS: That was my first time thinking about tech work and the intersection of tech and racial justice and civil rights. Previously I had just been like everyone else. I used Twitter and Facebook socially. I thought of them as these amorphous, wide playgrounds. I didn’t really think of them as corporations with interests and desires and agendas.
Sudhir VENKATESH: You had this experience moving through the world of labor organizing, which has always had a complicated relationship to race-based activism.
VENKATESH: And how do you think that that has influenced you today? What are the ways in which having that experience of understanding the situation of workers informs the way that you think about campaigns and how you develop your strategy?
MAGNUS: Initially, as a young Black woman, my lens was around race. It’s a key way of thinking and understanding the world. And it’s also important in understanding the way that labor works, because there are many people who will look at the state of the world and say that the only real issue is economic justice, and that once we have a social safety net that things will be better for everyone.
And that may be true. But there are also a separate set of issues that singularly impact Black people. You have the leftist, what we would call a class reductionist, who’ll believe that any conversation about race is shallow identity politics. In my experience, I just simply know that’s not true.
Even when we’re talking about Facebook and Twitter. Yes, these companies are renowned for this progressive utopia, right? You go to Facebook, and you go to Twitter, you go to Google and you get free gourmet lunch every single day and you get endless vacation days, gyms and pools at work. When the truth of the matter is that there’s a secondary workforce that is largely racialized, that’s largely Black people, who aren’t afforded the same protections and pleasures.
These people are a second class of workers who are contractors. Particularly with tech, the way that race and class and worker status intersect is really, really interesting and something that’s not talked about pretty much at all.
VENKATESH: Can I just ask you to go a little deeper? You were saying that there is another class of workers at these tech companies that maybe aren’t in the public eye or that we may not associate with tech or that we just don’t see. But they’re integral to the working of the industry. Are they doing different jobs or are they doing the same jobs, getting paid less?
MAGNUS: There’s a second class of workers who I actually organized, which is the cafeteria workers and the security guards at these companies. They contract these positions out, particularly for security. I was on an organizing drive back in 2016, knocking on the doors of these security guards and cafeteria workers and saying, “What about this discrepancy? How do you feel when you’re at work and you see a progressive utopia of young people who are having the time of their lives at work and you cannot even pay rent in your apartment near Oakland or San Jose?”
VENKATESH: What’s some of their responses? I’m curious to know how that conversation goes with them.
MAGNUS: I probably knocked on, I can’t even count, 500 minimum one-to-ones with workers across the board, from the security workers at Facebook and Twitter and Google. I think workers get it. I think that they understand. But it was a long period. And there were a lot of hard conversations.
Many people are not looking to join institutions. What they’re looking for is to get paid and put their head down. They don’t want any trouble. They want to do their work and go home. But, overall, there’s a mistrust of institutions. And that includes not only employers, but also includes unions and social justice organizations. There’s an intrinsic feeling that power can be scary and that powerful institutions can do wrong by you.
In 2017, there were about 3,000 of the security guards who were working on the campuses for tech companies like Facebook and Twitter. They ended up ratifying their first union contract. It was a big deal. And it was a big win for Jade and her fellow organizers.
Now, they still aren’t technically employees of the tech companies. They work mostly for security firms like Allied Universal and Securitas. But they did end up winning higher pay and better benefits.
Besides labor organizing, Jade’s work collides with the tech industry in another big way. She and her fellow activists, they have to use the social media platforms to get their word out, to spread their agenda. And she says most people don’t even really think about how powerful the Silicon Valley gatekeepers can be. For example, both Twitter and Facebook in recent years have imposed various degrees of bans on political ads.
MAGNUS: We do have to buy ads in order to be seen. And I think it’s a discussion of, what does it mean to be political? What is a political ad? Color of Change putting out ads demanding fair housing or a higher living wage? What separates it? Is there a difference between the Trump campaign or Biden campaign buying an ad saying “Vote for my candidate”?
VENKATESH: It sounds like from the Facebook side of the fence, your work on social change is being grouped in with people who are political candidates. It doesn’t really capture the ways in which the work that you’re doing is different than the work of a political candidate.
MAGNUS: Yeah, absolutely. Color of Change is affected by the ban on political ads that happened after the election. And the truth is that Facebook has created an algorithm that makes it extremely hard to reach your audiences organically. We can’t simply post it on our page and hope that it gets seen.
What makes one political and what makes them nonpolitical? You know, most of the ways that we move in the world and the things that we discuss are impacted by our politics, whether those politics are underneath the surface or right in our faces.
VENKATESH: I managed the Facebook hate speech team. We were trying to work on improving our capacity to use automation to make correct judgments. And we struggled because speech is just unlike spam or something like that where you’re like, “Okay. well, that’s spam. Let’s get it off.” There’s nuance. There’s, who said it? Why were they saying it?
And a big issue for us was just taking down the accounts of activists and people who were using speech in a way that our computers failed to recognize. I don’t know if you recall. We were taking down the accounts and removing the content of a lot of Black activists around the world.
VENKATESH: Do you recall some of the ways that impacted your work and Color of Change at that time?
MAGNUS: I was at the organization during that time and we worked with tons of Black activists and talked to many who were impacted by Facebook disproportionately taking down Black activists’ pages and their content for maybe using the N-word or whatever.
MAGNUS: I think it was particularly a large contrast for us because at the same time, the Proud Boys and Richard Spencer are organizing on Facebook. And because maybe they’re not using language in the same way, companies like Facebook, they didn’t see them as a problem.
And then, tragedy in Kenosha:
CLIP: We’re learning more now about the 17-year-old who’s been charged with the murders of two people in the wake of the Jacob Blake police shooting on Sunday. Kyle Rittenhouse, who was seen on video shooting three people Tuesday night on the streets of Kenosha. Rittenhouse was officially charged with five felonies today.
MAGNUS: One of the top things that comes to my mind is what happened this summer with Kyle Rittenhouse. Kyle Rittenhouse was a young white man who heard about a protest, a protest of a protest, on Facebook organized by a far right militia. The event was flagged many times by people who saw it as the possibility to be violent. And Facebook made a decision to keep that event up. I think we need to continue to tie the real world tragedies to the decisions made by Facebook, Twitter, and Google.
After the Kenosha shooting, so many people were holding Facebook accountable for what happened that, as a response, C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg released a video statement:
Mark ZUCKERBERG: There have been a bunch of media reports asking why this page and event weren’t removed sooner, especially when, in this case, a bunch of people did report the page. And the reason for this, it was largely an operational mistake. And the contractors, the reviewers, who the complaints were funneled to, didn’t pick this up. And on second review, doing it more sensitively, the team that was responsible for dangerous organizations recognized that this violated policies, and we took it down.
When you think about people who are organizing for change — whether it’s workers’ rights or racial justice — what kind of images come to mind? For me, it’s often large groups of people on the street protesting or perhaps outside a factory in a picket line.
To hear Jade talk about the challenges of fighting online racism — well, it just proves that the digital technologies we use are really changing everything about how we live. When you’re fighting online, it’s not like marching downtown. Where do you start a picket line when any phone, any laptop, any tablet is a possible place for spreading racial hatred?
Jade’s work can be challenging for this reason. For her, the battle lines are constantly being redrawn. And she’s dealing with some pretty powerful players.
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I asked Jade, plain and simple: Is the tech industry racist?
MAGNUS: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s helpful for people to understand that corporations don’t have souls, right? Corporations can have viewpoints, but they’re not like people, right? And so when we say, “Is tech racist?”, it’s challenging because at this point in our discourse I often ask myself, what does racist even mean?
When I say something is racist or somebody is racist people take it as, like, I’m saying that they’re irredeemable. That they have a scarlet letter and should be cast out into the ocean and never heard from again. And actually racist is a starting point. It’s like, is Facebook racist? Yes, sure. Can Facebook change? Also yes, sure. Is it going to take an incredibly intentional and long journey? Also yes.
In the past few years, that journey has involved some conflict between Facebook and Color of Change as a whole. The New York Times reported back in 2018 that Facebook actually hired an opposition research firm to discredit Color of Change as well as other activists. They linked them to the liberal billionaire George Soros. Soros has been an outspoken critic about companies like Facebook and Google. He says that they have monopolies over the tech industry. He is also a frequent target of conservatives.
Color of Change responded to Facebook’s tactics by calling for a meeting.
MAGNUS: And once that information was released that is when we began to meet with them and we’ve campaigned and met with Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg a few times and gotten them to do civil rights audits to examine the ways that discrimination and bias are showing up on every level of the company. But, yeah, Facebook is not a neutral entity.
Another one of Jade’s major efforts was a campaign that involved not only the tech companies like Facebook, but also other elements of corporate America more broadly. Pushing the companies to do more than offer just platitudes or pay lip service to racial justice — that was the crux of a campaign that Jade led. It was called “Beyond the Statement.”
MAGNUS: “Beyond the Statement” is so close to my heart, because, when Trayvon Martin was killed, it was extremely controversial to say “Black lives matter.” You definitely didn’t have corporations saying “Black lives matter.” They were reluctant to discuss anything about race at all. So 2020 happens. We’re in a pandemic. We’re in a racial justice crisis with the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade.
We have all of these things happening and corporations are no longer at the point where they can ignore what’s happening, right? They can’t continue on with business as usual. They have to address what’s happening. So they say that Black lives matter. The easiest thing on earth is to say, “We’re going to put out a statement. We’re going to do some great graphics for Black History Month. We’re going to give our employees off for Juneteenth.” Right? That’s the great and easy thing to do. What’s actually harder is to have a team of lawyers and forensic investigators and accountants go through your company and evaluate the ways that discrimination and bias show up on pretty much every level. That is actually the hard thing. That’s the commitment.
“Beyond the Statement,” it pushed the company to put their money where their mouths were: to make real changes that would improve the wages and the working conditions of people of color.
Another project, dubbed “Stop Hate for Profit,” targeted Facebook by putting pressure on its advertisers. Using old-school boycott tactics, Color of Change persuaded more than 1,200 companies to pull their ads from Facebook until the company refused other advertising that contained hate speech or disinformation.
MAGNUS: Facebook, it seems, will take anybody’s money to run ads. Yes, we had hundreds of corporations pull out, some of the biggest advertisers, like Procter and Gamble, pulled out. Many of the corporations did end up going back to advertise on Facebook. But, what it did more than anything was shine a light to corporations and also consumers about the ways that Facebook makes their money. Because I don’t think most people think about that.
And people begin to think, “Well, wait, hold on, how does Facebook use their money? So, Facebook is actually getting money from these corporations to advertise to me?” I don’t want to call it a lightbulb moment, but maybe a connect the dots moment for many consumers and many users on Facebook.
In addition to switching on that lightbulb for many Facebook users, Jade also counts another victory. Her work contributed to Facebook creating a new civil rights team. It’s a move that Color of Change had been demanding for quite some time. And veteran civil rights attorney Roy Austin Jr. just joined Facebook in January as its new Vice President of Civil Rights. But Jade isn’t finished.
MAGNUS: What we actually wanted was a C-suite level person to report to Mark Zuckerberg on civil rights. So close but no cigar. And now the question is, as with any demand that’s being met, are you actually going to give Mr. Austin the resources and tools he needs to actually create effective results for our communities and really deliver on civil rights? But ultimately, what we’re going for with Facebook is, you know, we want government regulation.
At the end of the day, I benefited quite a bit from working at the very wealthy companies like Facebook and Twitter. They treated me well. They paid me well. I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t admit it.
And I really love the history of Silicon Valley. I love the early pioneers who challenged the stuffiness of our older industries. I love the fact that they gave their employees a lot of freedom to express themselves, to build things, to grow.
But, these days, the mature version of Silicon Valley is showing us a really different side. Across tech companies, there’s this way of looking at the world, I call it “the Myth of Self-Sufficiency.” The belief is that we in tech don’t need you outsiders messing around. We can solve our own problems, thank you, because, well, we have the smartest people who work for us.
And for building products, this mantra can be an effective motivation. I saw it firsthand. It can really help you believe in yourself. It helps teams focus on the task in front of them. But for complex social issues, it ends up being harmful. Especially when your leadership and your workforce still overwhelmingly lacks Black and Brown people.
You think you can handle things yourself, and that makes you resistant to outside ideas. You walk around with blinders. In my experience, tech executives are really, really bad at recognizing problems like racial injustice and staying interested enough to do something about it. There’s too much work to do and way too much money to make.
My friends and coworkers and I? We were all very conscious of the fact that we were not having the greatest impact on the world. But as I was saying, the money’s too good, you’ve got to support your family; there’s always an excuse for not doing more, not doing better.
So, at the end of the day, it’s usually a group of well-meaning insiders who come together. They’re the ones who end up doing a little here, a little there to improve our companies. But is that enough?
That brings us back to the question that we started with: How do you make real change in Silicon Valley?
What’s funny is that, when you’re in the tech world, you’re always talking about change. There’s no shortage of people who want to fix social media, who want our companies to be more diverse — on it goes. But, to be honest, it usually ends up coming from a place of guilt. And that’s a feeling I shared!
But the way that Jade and her organization Color of Change push the tech companies to go beyond the statements, to go beyond the platitudes, that’s something that we can all learn from. A new playbook for making change in our digital society, but one based on some of the older ways of thinking and doing.
If there’s something in the world of tech that feels wrong to you, that bothers you, whatever it is, Jade’s found a model for making change: organize, agitate, and don’t let up.
We’ll be back in a few weeks with new episodes. I’m going to be diving into the world of e-sports. A fascinating industry. But if you have questions or ideas for this show in the meantime, it could be about e-sports or anything you’d like us to try to untangle about our crazy digital world, I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, that’s S-B-T-I at freakonomics.com.
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Sudhir Breaks the Internet is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, and is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher. This episode was produced by Matt Hickey and Tricia Bobeda. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Joel Meyer, Mark McClusky, Greg Rippin, Jasmin Klinger, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, and Jacob Clemente. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. Thanks for listening.
MAGNUS: I would never forget, I’m not going to say the company, but, you know, I’m talking to one of the, the largest clothing retailers in America, maybe in the world, about what they can do. I said, “you need to pay your Black employees.” And they said, hmm, well, Juneteenth is coming up, you know, like Juneteenth, you know?