Silicon Valley had somewhat of a reckoning this year. The tech overlords finally had to face the music: their products and services aren’t as wholesome and life-changing as they preached them to be. Turns out, a bunch of white men didn’t anticipate issues that might impact their non-white-male users. Like sexual harassment. And biased machines. And Nazis. God, so many Nazis.
And so, users awaited their apologies. A sign that the leaders of the tech world had the capacity for empathy. Because they fucked up. So much. God, so much. And so the CEOs (or, more likely, their very well-paid publicists) strung together some words to convey that they care about their users while at the same time evading any culpability for whatever the latest screw-up was. Their favorite scapegoats included glitches and technical issues, as if they (most notably, Google, Facebook, and Twitter) aren’t the ones responsible for creating the machines that they deploy.
And look, I’m positive that I’m missing some “apologies” here. That’s because it feels like a tech company messes up every damn day, whether it really was a glitch or maybe a human gone rogue. Also, disconcerted employees at these companies as well as users are still waiting on an apology from all of the tech leaders that willingly accepted a seat at Trump’s table. These are just a sample of some of this year’s most absurd offenders. To those upset that I’m missing some: I’m sorry. (See, overlords? That wasn’t so hard.)
Last month, Donald Trump retweeted a disturbing and violent anti-Muslim video. Twitter kept the videos up, citing the company’s media policy, which still caused some confusion, so Dorsey tweeted from his personal account to help elucidate things. Only his tweet was barely comprehendible.
“We mistakenly pointed to the wrong reason we didn’t take action on the videos from earlier this week,” he starts, adding that the company is still investigating its policies on the matter. I read that sentence two, nay, three, NAY, four times, stripping it of its negative phrasing in an attempt to better wrap my head around it. “We were wrong” would have sufficed.
After multiple women accused Robert Scoble of sexual harassment and assault, the tech evangelist penned a lengthy blog post—“No, of that I’m innocent.”—in what appeared to be an absurd attempt to absolve himself. It’s a doozy. Not only does he meticulously detail each woman’s account in an effort to discredit their allegations, but he also not-so-slyly mentions his wife a dozen times. And, most incredulously, he reveals a deeply flawed understanding of sexual harassment.
In October, Zuck and Rachel Franklin, who is on Facebook’s social virtual reality team, showed off Facebook Spaces in a livestream, transporting themselves into devastated Puerto Rico. The virtual trip was immediately called out for being tone deaf—it was hard not to, watching their cartoonish avatars excitedly discuss a new Facebook feature amid the post-hurricane destruction. The two never acknowledged the storm, but they did swap a sweet high five in front of a flooded home.
“One of the most powerful features of VR is empathy,” Zuck said in response to a Facebook comment on the livestream. “My goal here was to show how VR can raise awareness and help us see what’s happening in different parts of the world. I also wanted to share the news of our partnership with the Red Cross to help with the recovery. Reading some of the comments, I realize this wasn’t clear, and I’m sorry to anyone this offended.”
While Zuck did apologize for offending people, he still doubles down on the positive motivations behind the livestream. Sure, virtual reality can afford us a powerful tool for education, but that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to use a hurricane-ravaged neighborhood as the background for a PR stunt.
To pick just one Uber apology would be a disservice to the mind-melting apology tour the ride-sharing company had to embark on this year. It feels as though not a day goes by that it doesn’t make headlines, whether it’s for a shady business practice, a sexual harassment allegation, a security breach, or perhaps all of the above. So I’m not going to. Instead, I will just point to a few of this year’s most egregious: apologizing after Uber Bangalore sent users a “totally inappropriate” promo for “Wife Appreciation Day,” after Uber execs grossly mishandled a rape victim’s medical records, and after a then-board member made a sexist comment during an all-hands meeting addressing sexual harassment. And who can forget former embattled CEO Travis Kalanick’s promise to “grow up” after a video of him yelling at a driver leaked online.
The largest search engine in the world has a misinformation problem. While many of us rely on the Google search bar to pull up answers to our queries, to blindly accept what it spits out would be a detriment to the truth. In one of the most insidious instances this year, Google promoted 4chan threads that misidentified the Las Vegas shooter.
“Unfortunately, early this morning we were briefly surfacing an inaccurate 4chan website in our Search results for a small number of queries,” a Google spokesperson said. “Within hours, the 4chan story was algorithmically replaced by relevant results. This should not have appeared for any queries, and we’ll continue to make algorithmic improvements to prevent this from happening in the future.”
It is unfortunate, especially given it took Google hours to remedy the incorrect information from an inarguably untrustworthy source.
In September, a new startup might have broken a record in how quickly it could own itself. Said startup, Bodega, is not, in fact, a bodega. It is a bougie vending machine. But people were quick to point out that former Googlers behind the venture were not only stealing the name of a beloved community locale, but that the product itself aimed to displace them. That same day, after the backlash, one of the co-founders wrote a blog post addressing the criticism, noting that they are not trying to put corner stores out of business.
“The name Bodega sparked a wave of criticism on social media far beyond what we ever imagined,” CEO Paul McDonald wrote. “When we first came up with the idea to call the company Bodega we recognized that there was a risk of it being interpreted as misappropriation. We did some homework — speaking to New Yorkers, branding people, and even running some survey work asking about the name and any potential offense it might cause. But it’s clear that we may not have been asking the right questions of the right people.”
This is a familiar (and tremendously avoidable) problem coming out of Silicon Valley. And I’m not just talking about trying to solve a non-problem with a glorified version of a product or service that already exists. Rather, not “asking the right questions of the right people.” A simple measure that could preemptively solve a lot of problems instead of the usual game of whack-a-mole.
The wave of women coming forward with sexual harassment and assault allegations this year has been often described as “the floodgates.” They are sweeping across industries, and tech is no exception. More specifically, a number of investors have been accused of sexual misconduct. While the responses have been predictably belated and weak, one venture capitalist’s attempt at a comeback is hopelessly unconvincing.
Justin Caldbeck was accused by half a dozen women of making unwanted sexual advances. Caldbeck has since tried to absolve himself by repositioning himself as a repenting ally, but his distasteful LinkedIn bio change (he is now the “Head of Self-Reflection, Accountability & Change”) as well as apology emails to women that have identical wording—“I also completely understand that you may not believe my actions yet to be sincere and it is up to me to demonstrate over time that they are.”—cast doubt on his earnestness.
This year, a Palestinian construction worker wrote “good morning” in Arabic on Facebook. The company’s automatic translation service translated the post to “attack them” in Hebrew and “hurt them” in English, prompting the Israeli police to arrest the individual.
Necip Fazil Ayan, an engineering manager in Facebook’s language technologies group, told Gizmodo in a statement that the system “made an error.”
“We apologize to him and his family for the mistake and the disruption this caused.”
Referring to being unjustly arrested and then questioned for several hours as a “disruption” is insulting, I don’t care how much Silicon Valley loves to disrupt shit, this guy deserved a better apology than that.
The issue here isn’t that the enthusiastic response fundamentally sucked, but that it wasn’t the company’s first response to the incident. It seemingly came in response to a less-than-satisfactory statement addressing the issue.
Following a catastrophic flood hit Houston this year, a Best Buy in the region was selling packs of water for upwards of $42 a pack. As someone pointed out on Twitter, the store was also selling $29 bottles in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. A Best Buy spokesperson told CNBC that “this was a big mistake on the part of a few employees at one store on Friday.”
“Not as an excuse but as an explanation, we don’t typically sell cases of water,” the spokesperson said. “The mistake was made when employees priced a case of water using the single-bottle price for each bottle in the case.”
Machines aren’t free from bias, and Samsung’s virtual assistants were no exception. In the menu for its assistant, Bixby, the female voice was described as “chipper” and “cheerful,” compared to her male counterpart, who is “confident” and “assertive.”
Samsung told Gizmodo that it’s “working diligently to remove the hashtag descriptions from the Bixby service,” and that it’s “constantly learning from customer feedback.”
I think it’s great that tech companies are constantly learning from us. They should! We are the ones most impacted by their products. But a glaringly obvious sexist description shouldn’t have necessitated customer feedback. They should’ve figured this one out on their own before they launched the product.
During a panel in Colombia this year, Apple’s VP of inclusion and diversity Denise Young Smith made a baffling comment regarding the inclusion of particular groups. “There can be 12 white, blue-eyed, blond men in a room and they’re going to be diverse, too, because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation,” Smith said.
Not a particularly winning comment from an executive leading inclusion and diversity efforts at a company that is predominantly white and male. Smith was called out for her comment and subsequently sent an email to her team to apologize.
“I regret the choice of words I used to make this point,” Smith said in the memo. “There can be 12 white, blue-eyed, blond men in a room and they’re going to be diverse, too, because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation.”
It requires some mental gymnastics to understand how this statement, which is the exact same phrasing as the original quote, is an apology.
ProPublica discovered that Facebook was letting advertisers exclude users from viewing their content based on race and ethnic group, and while the company said that it would no longer enable this type of filtering, it did. A more recent ProPublica report showed that the social networking service still let advertisers exclude black, Jewish and disabled users from seeing their ads. The company blamed a “technical glitch.”
“This was a failure in our enforcement and we’re disappointed that we fell short of our commitments,” Facebook said in a statement. “Earlier this year, we added additional safeguards to protect against the abuse of our multicultural affinity tools to facilitate discrimination in housing, credit and employment. The rental housing ads purchased by ProPublica should have but did not trigger the extra review and certifications we put in place due to a technical failure.”
As I mentioned earlier, tech companies love to point fingers at machines behaving badly. They spend a lot of time exalting their beloved algorithms as a solution to many of life’s grand problems, but they will not skip a beat before throwing them under the bus for the latest fuck-up. There is a hypocrisy in trying to boost one’s image using the same tools you’re exploiting as a scapegoat.
The role Facebook and Twitter played in foreign election interference was a contentious topic this year. It became clear the social networking sites were being used to spread propaganda, but what also became clear was that these companies were getting flushed with cash because of it. An American intelligence report determined that Russian-state media organizations RT and Sputnik attempted to influence the 2016 election, prompting Twitter to remove all advertising associated with the news outlets from its website.
“This decision is restricted to these two entities based our internal investigation of their behavior as well as their inclusion in the January 2017 DNI report,” Twitter wrote in a blog post. “This decision does not apply to any other advertisers. RT and Sputnik may remain organic users on our platform, in accordance with the Twitter Rules.”
This sucks because it feels extremely belated. The spread of propaganda aimed at misleading voters on Twitter has long been a topic of conversation. And the company might’ve been aware of the threat Russian influence on its platform for years. It was seemingly only after months of outcry and a call to testify before Congress that Twitter tried to clean up its act. And even so, this is a drop in the bucket. Optics, baby.
Speaking of foreign election interference, Zuckerberg finally admitted that he was incorrect when he said that it was “a pretty crazy idea” that hoaxes on his website had the ability to influence an election.
“After the election, I made a comment that I thought the idea misinformation on Facebook changed the outcome of the election was a crazy idea. Calling that crazy was dismissive and I regret it. This is too important an issue to be dismissive,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post. It’s almost as if he doesn’t really understand how his platform works.