Big tech stands with Black Lives Matter, but solidarity may be all about branding

Even tech billionaire Marc Benioff, who faced backlash over a BLM tweet, says the industrys woeful lack of diversity undermines its support for the movement

When prominent activist Deray McKesson was arrested Saturday night at a protest against the police killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, many saw the arrest as another example of the excessive policing of Black Lives Matter protests.

Others saw a branding opportunity.

Black Lives Matter activist Deray McKesson arrested while Periscoping, read the headline of an article on the incident on tech industry blog TechCrunch, which included a sidebar about the Twitter-owned live-streaming app.

Yes that is a @Twitter @blackbirds logo. Amazing to see tech as vehicle for social change. Respect, tweeted Salesforce CEO and billionaire Marc Benioff, noting that McKesson was wearing a Twitter t-shirt in photos of his arrest.

Benioff subsequently deleted and apologized for his Tweet, but the gaffe revealed the contradictions of a tech industry whose products have played a crucial role in the growth of the movement for black lives, but whose companies with their notoriously poor records of hiring black workers are frequently cited as part of the problem of racism in the US, not the solution.

That anyone could see a picture of a black man being arrested for protesting against the wrongful killing of another black man and respond Hey look at the Twitter logo, would be mind-boggling if it happened anywhere else. In the tech industry though, its par for the course, said Erica Joy Baker, a senior engineer at Slack and founding member of Project Include.

Benioff was one of several tech CEOs and companies to wade into the national debate around racism and policing, and to some, that engagement in a major issue affecting black Americans was welcome.

Silicon Valley doesnt care about black people, wrote former Facebook engineer Justin Edmund in a Medium post on 6 July, in response to the police killing of 37-year-old Sterling. It stands out just how mute Silicon Valley is when it comes to unarmed black people being shot and killed by cops.

Google and Twitter tweeted messages of concern about the police killings, and support for Black Lives Matter. Apple CEO Tim Cook referred to the killings as senseless, adding: We can and must do better.

Spotify launched a special Dr Martin Luther King-themed playlist, and Uber rolled out a feature that transformed the car icons to peace signs and pushed users to take 1 minute to reflect on gun violence while waiting for their ride.

But while some people expressed appreciation for the support from tech, others pointed out the deep irony of the statements coming from companies with black employees making up just 1-2% of their workforces.

Aminatou Sow (@aminatou) July 9, 2016

lol uber has consistently refused to release diversity numbers so we already know what’s going on over there https://t.co/wCSdOuH9cf

A peace sign and a minute to reflect on gun violence actively sidesteps the actual issues while appearing to be supportive, when its as meaningless as thoughts and prayers. Similarly, trotting out MLK every time something that affects black people comes up isnt helping either, said Baker.

She called on companies to engage as directly and forcefully in the debate over racism and policing as they do on internet privacy issues: As loud and insistent as you can get about Sopa [Stop Online Piracy Act] or some other legislation, get that loud about the fact that this society that claims to treat everyone equally doesnt even come close.

At the heart of the tension over how tech can engage with the Black Lives Matter movement are social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter, which have been fundamental to the movement by facilitating the dissemination of viral videos of police shootings, live documentation of protests and the coordination of movement organizing.

In the 21st century it is technology companies and digital content providers, even more than cable news, that can make visible the fact that owning a gun in America is a more highly valued right than the right of a black person to live through a police encounter, said Malkia Cyril, the executive director of the Center for Media Justice and an activist with Black Lives Matter.

Indeed, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was coined in a Facebook post by activist Alicia Garza in 2013, and has since become one of the defining phrases of the 21st century. The immediate aftermath of the police shooting of Philando Castile was broadcast on Facebook Live quickly and powerfully bringing the killing international attention.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged the importance of social media tools in a 7 July post that both expressed concern about injustice and appeared to take advantage of the branding opportunity for his companys live video product.

For Cyril, companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google need to do more than take symbolic gestures such as sending tweets or, as Facebook did, hanging up a sign reading Black Lives Matter.

They can help reshape the narrative and elevate new, more effective models of security and accountability if they could, for one moment, be driven more by values than profit, she said. Sadly, instead of taking urgent action to preserve black life, many technology companies are contributing to the crisis of failed political and economic leadership … we need real tech leadership, and we need it now.

Baker also had suggestions for how tech leaders could show more meaningful support for the movement: Benioff is a billionaire. He could fund the entire Baton Rouge Bail Fund with the money he makes on interest in a day. Imagine if every tech billionaire told their money manager calculate the interest Id earn on my money in a week and put that amount toward causes that support uplifting black people.

She called for venture capitalists to invest in companies founded by black entrepreneurs and be conscious of how their products can be used for or against activists.

As for Benioff himself, since facing backlash over his tweet which he believes was misinterpreted hes decided to take a step back from speaking publicly about Black Lives Matter.

When I tweeted that, I was trying to highlight what I thought was the outstanding work of the Blackbirds organization at Twitter, and Twitter itself, in playing such a significant role in providing transparency to the world, especially this week, he told the Guardian.

Now, he said, hes more conscious of the limitations of trying to show support on social media. Tech CEOs can make aggressive statements that they support Black Lives Matter, but the reality is that until we improve the number of people of color inside tech companies, we really have not done our job, he said.

Until we can be an example of the change that we are advocating, I dont really think a tweet or political statement has much to offer.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jul/12/black-lives-matter-marc-benioff-facebook-twitter-uber