Firing of James Damore, engineer behind controversial anti-diversity memo, sparks ire from ‘alt-right’ reminiscent of 2014 Gamergate harassment campaign
Google cancelled a company-wide meeting on Thursday after several of its employees became targets of a Gamergate-style campaign of harassment by internet trolls angered by the firing of an engineer who had written a controversial memo about diversity.
“We had hoped to have a frank, open discussion today as we always do to bring us together and move forward,” CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in an email. But following the leak of proposed discussion questions, he said “Googlers”, a term used internally to describe employees, were being personally named on websites.
“Googlers are writing in, concerned about their safety and worried they may be ‘outed’ publicly for asking a question in the town hall,” he said.
The town hall meeting had been scheduled to give Google employees a chance to discuss the fallout from a document written by software engineer James Damore that began circulating widely within the company last week, and was leaked to the press over the weekend. The memo criticized Google’s diversity programs, arguing that the company was intolerant of conservative ideologies and that the wide gender disparity at Google could be explained by biological differences between men and women.
Damore was fired Monday, after CEO Sundar Pichai called some of the memo’s contents “contrary to our basic values and our code of conduct”.
Damore and his memo have quickly become a cause celebre within various rightwing internet communities, including Breitbart News, “alt-right” Twitter and YouTube personalities, Redditors, and disgraced former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos. Breitbart has published a series of articles singling out individual Google employees as “social justice warriors”, in some cases accompanied by screenshots of internal chats about diversity.
The leak of screenshots to Breitbart suggests that at least some current Google employees may be participating in the campaign.
The controversy marries twin preoccupations of the online right: threats to free speech against conservatives, and the perception that white men are discriminated against by those seeking to promote historically disadvantaged groups. The loose coalition of agitators includes many of the forces that engaged in the Gamergate harassment campaign in 2014. Indeed, the Google memo is a major topic on the main subReddit for Gamergaters, known as r/KotakuInAction.
“Alt-right” internet personality Jack Posobiec announced plans to hold coordinated protests at Google campuses around the country on 19 August. Meanwhile, Damore debuted a new Twitter account and professional photographs of himself wearing a shirt with the slogan “Goolag”.
He gave his first major interviews to two YouTuber personalities who are popular among rightwing viewers and have promoted anti-feminist views.
Some of the Google employees whose profiles were publicized by the “alt-right” appeared to be getting harassing messages on Twitter. Others made their accounts private. Danielle Brown, the chief diversity and inclusion officer who sent out the first internal response to Damore’s memo, has faced significant backlash from far-right accounts and commentators and was the subject of numerous harassing memes spreading online. She also closed her Twitter profile.
One Twitter user who publicly criticized Damore’s memo and was named in a Breitbart article subsequently received graphic and violent death threats, according to screenshots.
The action taken against Google now echoes similar campaigns of harassment and activism by the “alt-right” during the 2016 presidential election and by Gamergaters in 2014. Both movements were dominated by angry men, sometimes using anonymous online identities, who felt disenfranchised and wanted to see a radical overhaul of the status quo.
Ostensibly, Gamergate was also concerned with ethics in game journalism and protecting the “gamer” identity, but it manifested itself as a right-wing backlash against progressivism.
Gamergate was the warm-up: an online movement that began because a man wanted to punish his ex-girlfriend. It escalated into a sustained period of harassment against progressive figures in the gaming industry – mostly women – including game developer Zoe Quinn, feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian and developer Brianna Wu.
The “alt-right” developed political influence when Donald Trump appointed Breitbart’s Steve Bannon to run his campaign. Breitbart was the media outlet of choice for disaffected young white men infuriated by “social justice warriors” and it became skilled at whipping them up into a fury with headlines like “birth control makes women unattractive and crazy” and “would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?”.
Breitbart’s followers proved influential during the presidential race, forming an army of pro-Trump keyboard warriors organizing on Reddit and 4chan and amplifying the Republican candidate’s message on social media.
Google did not respond to a query about what, if any, measures it was taking to protect staff. A spokesperson said, “We’ll find a better way to help our employees connect and discuss these important issues further.”