A leaked video of Google executives trying to console employees who were upset after the election of President Donald Trump has infuriated conservatives, who say the remarks illustrate the search giant’s political bias and should prompt regulators to take a close look at the company.
The new controversy stems from a roughly hour-long recording published Wednesday by Breitbart. It shows executives such as Sergey Brin, the president of Google parent Alphabet, and Sundar Pichai, the chief executive of Google, addressing staff at a private meeting days after the 2016 election, the outcome of which Pichai said caused “a lot of fear within Google.”
As they expressed their dismay, Google executives sought to assuage employees, especially immigrants, given the incoming president’s pledge before Election Day to toughen security at the border. In doing so, Google’s leaders encouraged their workers to be understanding of “all sides of the political spectrum,” said Eileen Naughton, the company’s vice president for people operations.
But conservatives quickly seized on the leaked video Wednesday as evidence that Google is trying to undermine Trump and silence his supporters – and some White House allies even suggested investigating the company as a result.
“They control 91% of all search and they get to decide what everyone sees. If this isn’t a Monopoly I don’t know what is,” tweeted Donald Trump Jr.
Brad Parscale, the president’s campaign manager, said the company “needs to explain why this isn’t a threat to the Republic,” adding in his own tweet: “Congressional hearings! Investigate.”
In response, Riva Sciuto, a spokeswoman for Google, defended the search giant’s meeting. “For over 20 years, everyone at Google has been able to freely express their opinions at these meetings,” she said in a statement. “Nothing was said at that meeting, or any other meeting, to suggest that any political bias ever influences the way we build or operate our products.”
Still, the video’s publication – on Breitbart, a right-leaning news site once led by Stephen Bannon, the president’s former top strategist – could prove problematic for Google in the nation’s capital.
Like Facebook, Twitter and its other tech peers, Google for months has weathered allegations that it stifles conservative news and views. Trump accused Google in August of having “rigged” search results to display negative stories about him – a charge that Google strongly denied. And this week, GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., even threatened to drag Google to Capitol Hill to answer for its political leanings. “An invite will be on its way,” McCarthy tweeted. The GOP lawmaker similarly helped orchestrate an entire congressional hearing focused on allegations of conservative bias at Twitter, raising the specter that one of Google’s executives could soon be forced to appear in front of their Republican critics.
The video unearthed by Breitbart provides a glimpse into how executives and employees in Silicon Valley – a liberal-leaning part of California that overwhelmingly backed Trump’s Democratic foe, Hillary Clinton – thought about the company’s changing role in the immediate fallout from the 2016 election. Trump’s surprise victory sparked soul-searching in the technology industry over echo chambers, fake news and coastal elitism. Employees, meanwhile, pushed their leaders to fight Trump’s agenda – particularly on immigration, given that the tech industry employs large numbers of high-skilled foreign workers.
Some tech companies did not immediately take responsibility for playing a role in shaping the election. Days after the election, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said the idea that fake news spread on Facebook influenced the outcome of the U.S. election was “crazy.” Zuckerberg later said he regretted his “dismissive” comments.
The executives at Google, however, directly addressed these concerns in the meeting. When asked about misinformation and how its personalization algorithms shape peoples’ opinions, Pichai said in the video that YouTube plays a big role in the discussions about social media. He also acknowledged there “seems to be a selection bias” around how people are able to access information.
To Breitbart, however, the recording reflected “a determinism to thwart both the Trump agenda and the broader populist movement emerging around the globe.” The site seized on comments from executives like Kent Walker, who now oversees Google’s policy operations around the world. Walker spoke broadly about the rise of populist movements globally, fueled by forces like fear and “xenophobia.”
Yet the article omitted the full context of some of the exchanges between executives and their employees. For one example, a Google employee asked Google’s leaders if they see “anything positive from this election result.” Breitbart noted they burst out laughing, and that Brin said, “Boy, that’s a really tough one right now.” But it did not detail a moment when Pichai and Page highlighted potential benefits: That Trump could improve U.S. infrastructure or that it could be the end of congressional gridlock.
Brin then said that no one knew what to expect from a Trump presidency.
“Maybe he’ll do something great, who knows?” Brin said. “It will take a little bit of wishful thinking.”
© The Washington Post 2018