The open defense of an organization that has been deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center is one extreme example of an increasingly public reactionary streak in Silicon Valley that diverges from the tech industry’s image as a bastion of liberalism. Some libertarian, centrist and right-leaning Silicon Valley investors and executives, who wield outsize influence, power and access to capital, describe tech culture as under siege by activist employees pushing a social justice agenda.
Cryptocurrency start-up Coinbase recently sought to restrict political speech by employees, a move many interpreted as a shift to the right because it came in reaction to internal discussions of Black Lives Matter.
Tensions are running high even at some of the biggest tech companies. The crackdown on employee speech in response to social activism over the past year has spread to Facebook, Google and Pinterest, among others.
In September, Facebook restricted spaces for political discussions after employees protested the company’s moderation policies against hate speech affecting Black users. Pinterest shut down a Slack channel used to submit questions for company meetings and turned another Slack channel read-only, opting to use a different tool for up-voting. Employees, who had used both channels to question leadership about race and gender bias and pay equity in recent months, were upset, according to records viewed by The Washington Post.
Banister, a former partner at Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm and an early investor in Uber and SpaceX, said she applauded Coinbase’s decision. “Enough is enough. The pendulum swings and it swings back,” she told The Post. “Sometimes people just want to have a safe place to go where they don’t have to think about this stuff anymore because it’s literally everywhere. ”
Banister told The Post she became interested in the Proud Boys after Trump mentioned them during the debate. She said she does not condone white supremacy and it should have been “dead easy” for the president to say the same.
“Questioning something does not mean condoning or agreeing,” she said.
Often, the trigger for this public pushback has been social pressure around racial equity, according to diversity consultants.
The tech industry went through similar reactionary spasms around the last presidential election, revealing a different strain of libertarianism from the counterculture and cyberculture geeks coding away in their garages. At the time, the underlying tension was also around equity and injustice. But the battle was about disavowing Thiel, a Trump donor and adviser, rather than expressing support for Black Lives Matter.
Facebook declined to comment. LeMia Jenkins, Pinterest’s head of global communications, said in a statement, “We value the opinion of our employees and believe in open and transparent communication."
Andreessen and Yarvin did not respond to requests for comment.
Last week, after months of complaints about hate speech and flirtations with white supremacy on the platform, Clubhouse issued moderation guidelines that began by addressing one of the most consistent complaints. “First, we unequivocally condemn Anti-Blackness,” the company wrote on its website.
Clubhouse representative Reema Bahnasy said in a statement, “We don’t control who our users invite into conversations, but we have clear procedures in place to investigate incidents and take action if someone violates our Community Guidelines or Terms of Service. We unequivocally condemn racism, hate speech and abuse on Clubhouse, and we prohibit all forms of such speech on our platform.”
In June, some Coinbase employees staged a virtual walkout to protest chief executive and co-founder Brian Armstrong’s silence on the Black Lives Matter movement. The tipping point was an all-hands meeting where Armstrong hesitated to say whether his planned tweets would explicitly say “Black lives matter,” according to interviews with current and former Coinbase employees.
The protest itself followed a year and a half of tension around diversity and equity, according to the employees. Since June, however, employees said the dust had settled.
So they were disturbed to see Armstrong publish a widely-read blog post on Medium last week, where Armstrong announced Coinbase would stop engaging in “broader societal issues.” He said his employees should no longer debate politics unrelated to work, take on extraneous “activism” at work, or “expect the company to represent our personal beliefs.” He said he would enforce a “narrower interpretation” of his company’s mission to increase “economic freedom” around the globe — with rules that were more in line with Coinbase’s “apolitical culture.”
Armstrong’s announcement referred to the employee walkout, but not the cause. Instead, he framed the push for equity outside the company’s work building cryptocurrency exchanges as “political,” and “politics” as a “distraction.”
He contrasted Coinbase’s approach to companies that set the industry’s cultural tone for the past 15 years. “We’ve seen what internal strife at companies like Google and Facebook can do to productivity,” Armstrong wrote. Employees “want the workplace to be a refuge from the division that is increasingly present in the world.”
The next day he offered employees who disagreed with this direction a severance package.
Coinbase declined to comment.
Venture capitalists and executives who have criticized “woke” culture quickly rallied to Armstrong’s side.
“Coinbase appears to be taking the unpopular position of allowing (even encouraging) diversity of thought in the workplace. Good for them,” tweeted TechCrunch founder turned venture capitalist Michael Arrington. Arrington did not respond to a request for comment.
“I predict most successful companies will follow Coinbase’s lead. If only because those who don’t are less likely to succeed,” tweeted investor Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator, the prestigious tech incubator where Coinbase started. Armstrong’s post was “diplomatically phrased,” Graham wrote, “but the underlying message, for those who grasp it, is anything but.” Graham did not respond to request for comment.
In a since-deleted tweet, which seemed to receive as much opprobrium as Coinbase’s policy change, Costolo wrote, “Me-first capitalists who think you can separate society from business are going to be the first people lined up against the wall and shot in the revolution. I’ll happily provide video commentary.” Costolo did not respond to request for comment.
Armstrong’s diplomatic phrasing may have confused some tech observers. “Not clear to me if I am paranoid or correct in re-reading the last 6 months of Silicon Valley thought leadership as being riddled with anti-woke dog whistles,” tweeted Jill Carlson, an investment partner with Slow Ventures focused on cryptocurrency. Carlson did not respond to a request for comment.
But the chorus of support from tech leaders struck other diversity experts as noteworthy, too. Jennifer Kim, former head of people at Lever, tweeted that she had already heard about start-ups rolling out policies that affirmed Coinbase’s approach.
Joelle Emerson, chief executive of Paradigm, a diversity consultancy, said many organizations are grappling with the issue of politics in the workplace, but Armstrong’s post stood out. “I haven’t seen so extreme a position as this. ”
The amount of widespread support made Emerson question whether the industry was all on the same page. “People are saying, well, we all share the same vision for a more equitable future and we just have different approaches about the fastest way to get there,” she said. “But it makes me wonder, do they all share that same vision? Because if we did, I think we would all agree that considering the inequities that are happening in our world today would be essential to achieving it.”
One tech executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern about career retaliation, said the rhetoric from venture capitalists “seems incredibly counterproductive and unhinged. ”
Mimi Fox Melton, the acting CEO of Code2040, a nonprofit group working to improve representation of Black and Latino people in tech, said she supported Armstrong making clear statements with where he stood on racial equity, because it makes it easier for employees to assess “where we want to spend our time and invest our labor. ”
But she objected to his characterization. “This new movement is not about woke culture. It’s about self advocacy and arranging for a healthy workplace,” Melton said. “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. ”
In an email Thursday morning obtained by The Post, and later published on Medium, Armstrong said 5 percent of the company, or 60 employees, had taken the exit package, but the final number would probably be a bit higher after ongoing conversations were complete.