Alt-right finds a new hero: ex-Googler James Damore

Alt-right finds a new hero: ex-Googler James Damore

A rogue poster meant to protest a recent firing at Google, near the company's offices in Venice Beach, California

Alt-right finds a new hero: ex-Googler James Damore

Side by side posters at a Venice Beach, California park bench protest a recent firing at Google.

“Upper management started shaming me, calling the document harmful and unacceptable and not what Google stands for,” Damore told conservative talk-show host Michael Medved Friday. He said he had not claimed that women were incapable of doing technical jobs, just that they were less interested in them, he explained.

In a bylined submission to the Wall Street Journal Friday, he repeated his original memo's criticism that Google was existing in a "ideological echo chamber" by preventing questioning of its diversity efforts. "I committed heresy against the Google creed by stating that not all disparities between men and women that we see in the world are the result of discriminatory treatment," he wrote.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who has defended Damore's firing, told girl coders on Thursday "there’s place for you in this industry, there’s a place for you at Google. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise."

Pichai made his comments after the Mountain View, Calif., company canceled a town hall meeting to address fallout from Damore's memo, which it said was out of concern for the safety of Google employees. Their names and questions began appearing on alt-right sites before the scheduled meeting.

The 28-year-old engineer's ascension into the limelight stands in contrast to the culture of Silicon Valley, broadly liberal with a strong dose of libertarian thrown in. Its biggest companies have supported the rights of a transgender student in Virginia, opposed President Trump's travel ban, and in Google's case, funded efforts to fight racial injustice. Most recently, Airbnb said it would  cancel the accounts of customers trying to use its platform during the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

But to their users, social networks including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have stressed that they're value-neutral platforms, designed to allow the free exchange of ideas. A new wave of younger, tech-savvy conservatives have capitalized on these networks' ability to reach geographically dispersed, like-minded followers. 

"Silicon Valley businesses are creating products that have become platforms for political speech and have in fact changed political speech," said Margaret O'Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington in Seattle who studies the political history of the tech world.

Until the late 1980s, Silicon Valley was reliably Republican. What changed was the political culture around it. “The Google memo moment is really bringing a lot of these things to the fore, at a scale and a velocity that’s bewildering to everybody — and I’m sure especially in the C suite at Google,” said O'Mara.

Outrage over Damore's firing by his supporters has given a name and face to complaints that tech companies and their powerful news feeds silence conservative voices while their leaders throw financial heft and influence behind liberal causes.

Distrust in tech's political objectivity came to the fore last year when Facebook was attacked for allegedly keeping conservative stories off its trending news sidebar. Facebook denied the charge. 

"World of Warcraft" to November 2016

While the culture wars — in their 2017 manifestation — may be relatively new to Silicon Valley, some of its most popular products have helped shaped them. 

Steve Bannon, President Trump's adviser who oversaw Breitbart News Network and crafted his successful campaign, told a reporter he learned to harness the power of a troll army — legions of anonymous online users who attack and promote around a single belief — from the hit multi-player game World of Warcraft.

He recruited Milo Yiannopoulos, an author who often plays the role of alt-right provocateur, to spearhead technology coverage at Breitbart. Much of that conservative news start-up's tech coverage was on cultural issues including Gamergate, a long-lasting online argument over gaming culture and media coverage that lead to physical harassment of women who criticized female portrayal in video games. 

Trump has used Twitter and other social media like no other president or candidate, rallying supporters and denouncing his opponents. His campaign capitalized using Internet platforms like Facebook Live to bypass the traditional media and give followers a raw connection to the candidate. 

Tech companies have tried to walk a fine, avoiding the perception of censorship while responding to criticism that their sites enable hate speech, harassment and enable violence and terrorist recruitment. Twitter's removal of some alt-right accounts in November sparked a wave of criticism that it was biased against conservatives. It eventually reinstated white nationalist Richard Spencer one month after he and others associated with the alt-right movement were kicked off.

"So what we have is a country that is very divided on the kinds of issues that Mr. Damore has now come to symbolize, which are cultural," said Rita McGrath, a professor of management at Columbia Business School. "Things like attitudes toward equality and diversity, attitudes toward immigration, and so on."

Damore, she said, "came out and said what a lot of people were thinking, and I think the fact that it showed up in the context of Google, technology and Silicon Valley makes the story even better for those who feel that they are on the wrong end of efforts to promote greater equality by companies."

More: Diversity debate divides Silicon Valley

More: Ex-Google engineer files complaint over firing

More: Diversity programs at Google discriminatory, engineer claims in anti-diversity manifesto

More: Google manifesto spotlights enduring sexism issues

More: Google CEO to girls: You belong in this industry and we need you

Follow USA TODAY's San Francisco Bureau Chief Jon Swartz @jswartz on Twitter and Elizabeth Weise @eweise.

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