In early January, Google systems reliability engineer Liz Fong-Jones announced she was leaving the company after 11 years, leaving behind, by her account, a half million dollars in stock, to work at the startup Honeycomb.io. An outspoken advocate for inclusion and diversity, Fong-Jones quit citing dissatisfaction with leadership around ethics of products and working conditions. She didn’t specify any particulars, but these issues have been the subject of recent campaigns like the Google walkout over the company’s mishandling of sexual harassment and assault cases, and protests over Google’s involvement in a Pentagon’s AI drone programme.
On the anonymous discussion app Blind, some of Fong-Jones’ coworkers celebrated her departure in the private channel for Google employees. These messages were among hundreds shared with Gizmodo by a Google employee who did not want to be identified over safety concerns. The selection of responses to Fong-Jones’ announcement below is full of bigoted and derogatory comments, many aimed at her identity as a transgender woman of colour.
“Best news I’ve heard all weekend. I’m hoping all the jackasses that sympathize follow her out the door.”
“What a piece is [sic] shit human being.”
“Malignant tumor finally removed !”
“It’s a happy moment for Google.”
“I love you fong time, not”
“What did she do when at google? Leader of SJWs?”
“Pretty much. Good riddance.”
“If you think Google is a breeding ground for racism, microaggressions, and bigotry, there is no place that will be safe for you. You are a perpetual victim that needs mental help.”
“So.. I always wondered. What is Liz? Is she a trans woman? Looks like a dude.”
“Yes, she was a dude”
One person included a link to an even more hateful thread about Fong-Jones on a site used for harassment and doxing. (Many of the Blind postings about Fong-Jones have been removed since they were first posted.)
A Blind screenshot (Screenshot: Gizmodo/Blind)
A Blind screenshot (Screenshot: Gizmodo/Blind)
In response to the postings, Fong-Jones, who left Google on 1st February, told Gizmodo, “It’s frankly scary to know that these are some of my coworkers. And that they’re saying out loud viciously hurtful things that they know aren’t allowed by our workplace communication policies. I can take criticism, but there is a difference between criticism and hate on the basis of my gender identity.”
Launched in South Korea in 2014 before expanding to the West in 2015, Blind is a social app that allows employees of certain large, mostly tech, companies to join private anonymous discussions groups that can only be accessed with accounts created with a company email address. There are also public, searchable Blind discussions with participants from different companies. Blind claims it doesn’t store email addresses in its database and doesn’t track data that can identify users. Blind’s mission statement says the platform was built to “empower every individual in the workplace” and “uplift voices that have been silenced.” But increasingly, the forums seem to be growing toxic, making some employees feel unwelcome or unsafe.
(There are two important caveats to consider when reading anonymous Blind messages. In some cases, contractors who are not full-time employees are issued company email addresses. Also, employees can stay on private forums after they have departed a company.)
Blind says it currently has more than two million users—approximately 49,200 are employees from Microsoft, 34,800 from Amazon, 13,500 from Google, and 10,500 from Facebook.
Two weeks ago, and two weeks after Fong-Jones announced her departure from Google, CNBC reported that Sophie Alpert left her position as an engineering manager at Facebook because she had been harassed by other employees after she was critical of the lack of diversity at Facebook. Alpert did not share the reason publicly but wrote about it on Facebook’s internal communications platform, and her comments were circulated. In the post, she reportedly wrote that she had been harassed on Blind.
“Facebook is good for many people, but it’s not the right place for me right now,” Alpert wrote, according to CNBC. “I want to spend my time at a place willing to push further on diversity and inclusion. One where it’s not OK to write on Workplace that white privilege doesn’t exist. One where if I call out that our board has too many white men, I don’t get harassed by other employees on Blind with transphobic messages saying I should be fired.”
Alpert did not respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
“We do not tolerate harassment of any kind,” said Facebook spokesperson Anthony Harrison, “and we have clear policies about how people should communicate with and treat each other at Facebook. The last thing we want is to for people to have a bad experience—it’s not good for our employees and it’s not good for Facebook. We investigate all complaints. In this case, the comments in question were made anonymously on a third-party service, so we weren’t able to find out who posted them.”
Blind spokesperson Kevin McCarthy told Gizmodo that he would not talk about the specific content in Facebook’s private Blind channel related to Alpert, but said, “It is unfortunate, and I’m sorry to hear that that happened. But I mean, we are actively trying to make sure that that does not happen. And I don’t know if she experienced that on other social networks as well.”
After the report, Fong-Jones tweeted about her similar experience. “Calling this out more explicitly: both @sophiebits and I have been harassed with transphobic/racist slurs, rhetoric, and threats on @teamblindapp,” she wrote. “Neither our employers nor Blind has done anything about it.”
Calling this out more explicitly: both @sophiebits and I have been harassed with transphobic/racist slurs, rhetoric, and threats on @teamblindapp. Neither our employers nor Blind has done anything about it. https://t.co/rXRDC6pYzE
— Liz Fong-Jones (方禮真) (@lizthegrey) January 17, 2019
In addition to the above transphobic and racist comments, the Blind messages obtained by Gizmodo, which were all written in recent months, contained several more posts criticising Google’s diversity efforts. As noted previously, it’s impossible to verify that every message comes from an active employee; however, as a whole, the posters have information that would only be known by insiders, and they can be seen posting on other public threads about non-controversial topics relating to their employment.
Users complained that Google is now “Drowning in SJW [social justice warrior] propaganda,” because office “walls are littered with SWJ [sic] propaganda. Entire art installations are up promoting SJW propaganda.”
Specifically, users called out Google-branded Black Lives Matters shirts and the addition of tampons to all bathrooms. “I know the motive... but why so many Tampons? I feel like a better investment would be something useful like lotion. Or maybe mints. Or maybe Reese’s Peanut butter cups.”
Several posts also show users, who are almost certainly Google employees, defending sexual misconduct. When someone posted a New York Times article about Google paying Android software developer Andy Rubin $90 million (£69 million) and keeping quiet about sexual misconduct allegations against him, someone responded to the article writing, “How can Google verify if something was coerced or consensual? It if was consensual, then who cares.” Someone responded, “Spit vs Swallow?” Another chimed in, “Spit vs swallow vs gargle.”
A Blind screenshot (Screenshot: Gizmodo/Blind)
Someone noted that the news of Google’s actions relating to Rubin “pisses me off.” Then someone responded telling them, “you suck. Leave. You wont be missed.”
Another responder suggested that someone leaked the story to the New York Times because they “got greedy, zealous and wanted to get more compensated by the NYTimes.” (The New York Times does not pay for stories.)
Someone else added, “If you are having a relationship with a woman (even if extra conjugal) how could you have forced a BJ? That sounds like BS.”
Early on, Blind was touted as a platform that allows people to organise and voice their opinion on issues like harassment and compensation. And there are examples of workers being empowered through the app. For instance, Korean Air employees used Blind to anonymously discuss a response to the 2014 “nut rage” scandal, when a company executive’s daughter assaulted a crew member. Then, after Susan Fowler spoke out about sexual harassment and toxic culture within Uber in February 2o17, many employees spoke about similar experiences on Blind. Uber blocked employees from using the app in the following weeks, then stopped after Business Insider reported on Uber’s censorship effort.
But as Blind use has become common within larger work communities, especially at big tech companies, work harassment of the kind described above is cropping up.
It’s worth noting that virtually any anonymous forum is going to breed harassment and a toxic culture. But as Fong-Jones suggested, there’s a major difference between a forum that any troll can join and a community comprised almost entirely of your colleagues. Especially when several of those colleagues are sharing abhorrent views that you find threatening.
After the Google memo criticising diversity efforts was passed around the company, workers reportedly posted Blind their approval or disgust with the screed. After the writer James Damore was fired by Google, the Blind app hosted a public poll users from various companies about the decision and of the 441 respondents who seemingly worked for Google, almost 56 per cent reportedly voted that Damore should not have been fired.
Google did not respond to a Gizmodo request for a response to questions related to this story. But in an interview, Blind spokesperson Kyle McCarthy discussed how the company moderates content. He said in the public forums for all users, Blind actively moderates posts and checks posts that are flagged by users, and removes them if the content violates community guidelines.
The guidelines state that harassment may include content that is abusive, humiliating, hurtful, “unwanted sexualisation” or “sexual bullying.” The rules suggest that when “harassment crosses the lines into a malicious attack it should be flagged,” but when users are just being “mildly annoying, they should be ignored.” The rules also prohibit discrimination and hate speech, which Blind defines as posts that promote violence against a person or group based on attributes such as race, ethnicity, religion, disability, gender, age, veteran status, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
In private channels, McCarthy explained, Blind relies largely on users flagging comments. Moderators review comments that have been flagged to determine if they should be removed. Comments are automatically removed after they receive a “few” flags (McCarthy would not say how many times constitutes a few).
“We do not want people being bullied on there,” McCarthy said. “For people to be using it to attack specific people or just bully other people, that’s not what this is for at all. That’s not a sustainable way to have a community. We want people to be able to bring light to what’s going on at the workplace.”
He wouldn’t speak about any of the cases directly, but when asked whether Google could have asked Blind to remove the posts about Fong-Jones, McCarthy said he doesn’t believe Blind received any emails from anyone at Google, “So if it was taken down, it would have been from the flags from the users, or it was flagged, and we hit it after that.”
The system also automatically flags certain discriminatory words. McCarthy would not say what words, but said many are words “that would be harmful to the LGBTQ community.”
Fong-Jones, who is at the end of her time at Google, is concerned about how Blind postings could affect other Google employees. “I think it’s the modern day equivalent to graffiti of nooses in the locker rooms,” she said. “It’s terrifying to anyone who’s a gender or racial minority to see or know about their coworkers talking about them that way. It creates a hostile workplace environment where people can’t do their best work.”
Featured illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Shutterstock)