By Douglas Moran
'Google memo': a lesson on not trusting news mediaUploaded: Aug 9, 2017
In the 2016 Presidential primaries and the general election, much of the "Mainstream Media" (MSM) (foot#1) was blatantly partisan in its coverage of the candidates, often seeming to compete with Fox News Channel in being unfair and unbalanced (multiple senses of "unbalanced"). Some of this was ideological and some was profit-oriented.(foot#2) During the campaign, there were some in the Liberal media who expressed concern that constant repetition of their favored candidate's falsehoods--misrepresentations and major exaggerations--about the opponent was creating a crying wolf situation, where the legitimate negative information about that opposing candidate would be dismissed or ignored as untrustworthy. However, they were only voices crying in the wilderness.
Since the election, I have seen many articles by, and interviews of, prominent media and political figures worried about the increasingly fragmented news media: A functioning democracy needs credible and widely trusted sources of information on issues as the basis for discussion and decision-making.
Note: I am more sensitized to this issue than most of you. I grew up in a town covered by a mediocre newspaper, "The Mis Leader" (hey, its lesser offenses involved its inability to get people's names right, so why should we respect its name). In my 20s, I was the spokesperson for an organization that was covered by a newspaper that was openly antagonistic. Then as a researcher, I had to deal with reporters who couldn't understand why we would have problems with them utterly mangling what we said. ... There are some interesting stories there, and maybe I will write about them later.
----The 'Google Memo'----
A now-fired Google engineer published an internal memo entitled "Google's Ideological Echo Chamber". After going viral, it became public in articles on Gizmodo and then Recode websites. I encountered the Recode article first: The introduction by the writer--not reporter or journalist--had so little resemblance to the memo that it is difficult to believe that the egregious misrepresentations weren't intentional. I then found the Gizmodo version--its version of the memo is much better formatted. Although the writer's introduction was shorter, it and the headline were also serious misrepresentations. My code of ethics puts both these articles well over the line into being dishonest.(foot#3)
Since these articles were so biased and otherwise skewed, I went to other news sources for their versions. Distressingly, they echoed the similar biases and often repeated the same distortions. "When you have lemons, make lemonade." It occurred to me that this could be a good illustrative example of mass misconduct by the news media.
I am not going to wade into the swamp of discussing the content of this memo. First, there are already plenty of discussions ongoing. Second, those other discussions demonstrate that there is negligible chance of having a meaningful one here. Consequently, I am declaring the content and issues covered there off-topic. The topic here is the media coverage. I suggest that you read the memo, and then read the coverage from various supposedly reputable news sources, and compare ground truth--what is actually written in the memo--to how it is reported.(foot#4)(foot#5) For many of the news articles that I read, I had doubts about whether the writer had actually read the memo, or not just other news articles.(foot#6)
As I am writing this blog, critiques of the press coverage are beginning to show up among the recommendations on my various news sites.(foot#7)(foot#8)
----Failure to question Google's responses----
There were three official responses from Google, from
- Ari Balogh, the VP for the memo's author.
- Danielle Brown, VP of Diversity, Integrity & Governance.
- Sundar Pichai, CEO.
The first two are in the original Recode article, and many of the other articles. The CEO's message is part of many articles in addition to being on Google's blog site.(foot#9) I was very disappointed that the "reporters" don't seem to have asked any of these three about the major disconnect between what was in the memo and how they characterized it in their public statements.(foot#10)
----Why this matters to the general public----
There has long been concern about the algorithms used by Google, Facebook... to choose what news stories to present to whom. There have been multiple experiments that have found that changes that are difficult to detect can have large enough effects to change the results of close elections. Part of the motivation of this research was to discover how to detect and prevent such changes from inadvertently happening. Naturally, this raised serious concerns that a few engineers could intentionally slip such a change into the algorithm. These could be either "rogue engineers" or ones taking directions from upper management. I doubt that outside monitoring would be effective, both because those algorithms are so complex and because they are legitimately highly confidential.
Aside: I have an appreciation for the difficulties from a relative who worked for an agency involved in monitoring sensitive manufacturing operations where that monitoring was severely limited by the proprietary processes and equipment.
Alphabet, the corporate parent of Google and YouTube, is one of the world's largest media companies--possibly the largest. Most of its income comes from advertising. This is intertwined with its extensive data collection and profiling operations, which could qualify it as one of the world's top intelligence agencies.
One of the concerns about this episode is whether Alphabet is going down a path of increased politicization, which would reduce the number of potential whistle-blowers should Alphabet misuse its incredible power in certain areas.
However, Facebook might be an even larger concern, what with its similar power and the speculation about Mark Zuckerberg running for President (in 2020). The Russians may come in only a distant third as a threat to meddle in US elections (smiley face).
1. Names for media: For searching:
The term "Mainstream Media", and especially the acronym "MSM", is widely used by Conservatives and the Right, although it also appears in general usage. It is also used by the Left, but "corporate media" seems to be more common.
2. Financial motivations:
In February 2016--early in the primaries-- CBS Chairman and CEO Les Moonves famously said "It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS" and "I've never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going."
3. Google's Ideological Echo Chamber:
Best-formatted Public Version (PDF)
These are the articles that initially made it public:
"Exclusive: Here's The Full 10-Page Anti-Diversity Screed Circulating Internally at Google" by Kate Conger, Gizmodo, 2017-08-05. Has decent formatting.
" Google has hired a diversity VP -- just as it struggles with a sexist memo from an employee Apparently, dudes can code -- the ladies not so much." by Kara Swisher, Recode, 2017-08-05. The copy of the memo here is poorly formatted, but it has the responses from the two Google VPs.
Note: "TL;DR" stands for "Too Long; Didn't Read" and is often used to mark a brief summary of a long article.
4. Examples of purportedly reputable news coverage vs. reality:
When reading news articles such as these, remember the memo's statement "I'm simply stating that the distribution of preferences and abilities of men and women differ in part due to biological causes and that these differences may explain why we don't see equal representation of women in tech and leadership. Many of these differences are small and there's significant overlap between men and women, so you can't say anything about an individual given these population level distributions ." (emphasis added) You will see many of the articles claiming he said the opposite. Also remember his take on assistance for women and racial groups overcoming barriers: He supports it, but argues that it should be extended to everyone facing those same barriers. Again, you will see the news articles claiming he was arguing to end those programs.
- "A Google engineer who bemoaned racial diversity has sparked anger in Silicon Valley" - The Washington Post (tiered subscription), 2017-08-06. Original headline: "A Google engineer wrote that women may be genetically unsuited for tech jobs - women wrote back". Both headlines are flagrantly false, not to mention the content.
- "Here's what Google workers are saying about an employee's controversial diversity manifesto" - LA Times (tiered subscription), 2017-08-07. See "due to biological differences" and the social media posts whose inclusion implies that they are valid responses.
- "Google Has Fired the Employee Who Wrote an Anti-Diversity Tirade, Report Says" by Ryan Kilpatrick - Time, 2017-08-07. Headline and false claim "He also argued that the shortage of women in the tech industry is attributable to biological differences...".
- "Google employee fired for anti-diversity memo referencing women, race" by Lilian Kim - KGO/ABC News, 2017-08-07. Headline and "argued that women didn't have the biological makeup to succeed in Silicon Valley."
- "Report: Google fires anti-diversity engineer" by Ethan Baron, Mercury News/Bay Area News Group, 2017-08-07. Headline and "suggesting women are biologically unsuitable for tech jobs and leadership".
- "Google Fires Engineer Who Wrote Memo Questioning Women in Tech" by Daisuke Wakabayashi - NY Times (tiered subscription), 2017-08-07. Headline and false statement "argue that the low number of women in technical positions was a result of biological differences rather than discrimination".
There were many similar news articles that have large overlap of content--including what quotes were used--indicating that they were re-writes of shared base material, be it social media, news service, or each other. For example, NPR's piece is very similar to the LA Times piece, even in which tweets it used: "Google Grapples With Fallout after Employee Slams Diversity Efforts" (2017-08-07), updated and re-titled "Google Reportedly Fires Employee Who Slammed Diversity Efforts".
5. Promoting disreputable information:
Many of the news articles I saw had a link to an essay -- "So, about this Googler's manifesto" by Yonatan Zunger -- whose opening sentence contains two substantial falsehoods. For me, that would have been disqualifying.
Disturbingly, the author and this essay are highly regarded by Google management, that is, if you can believe what you read in several news articles.
6. Did the writer actually read the memo in question?
An example where I see no good evidence that he did, and presumably is only using the events to write about his agenda: "Opinion: Outrage over Google memo is misplaced" - CNN, 2017-08-07.
7. Recommendations from various news sites:
I appreciate the recommendations produced by various news sites, such as Google News--it produces articles that I would otherwise not see. However, their profiling of me tends to be overly aggressive. Looking for information on a particular topic is often quickly followed by an increase in similar articles on that topic, with my longer term interests getting submerged. This is particularly annoying for political issues, because the offerings often slide into more and more extreme positions. Consequently, I have three different browsers installed on my computer, each attached to a different online account (plus anonymous browsing). One is for me being profiled as a conservative, another as a liberal.
I strongly recommend "The Most Common Error in Media Coverage of the Google Memo: Many headlines labeled the document 'anti-diversity,' misleading readers about its actual contents" by Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic, 2017-08-08.
- "Opinion: Google Can't Seem to Tolerate Diversity: Silicon Valley won't solve its gender issues if political correctness shuts down every conversation" by Elaine Ou - Bloomberg, 2017-08-08.
- "Opinion: Congrats, Google, you found the worst way to build diversity" by David Mastio, USA Today, 2017-08-07.
"Why Google's firing terrifies social conservatives so much" by Erick Erickson - Washington Post (tiered subscription), 2017-08-08. A conservative perspective focused more on the specific details.
- "Google Receives 95 Theses of Diversity and Inclusion" by Michael Brendan Dougherty - National Review, 2017-08-08. Original title "Google's Anti-diversity Memo Threatens Political Correctness Religion". In my opinion, not worth reading unless you want to know what various conservatives are reading.
9. "Response from Google's CEO".
10. Issues for Google responding:
"That Google Manifesto Really Put Executives in a Bind" - Wired, 2017-08-07.
As expected, this article also make false statements about the memo, for example, "The document cited purported principles of evolutionary psychology to argue that women make up only 20 percent of Google’s technical staff because they are more interested in people than in ideas ..."
An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.
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