James Damore, Google, and the YouTube radicalization of angry white men – The Guardian

For the YouTube CEO, Susan Wojcicki, the Google manifesto was personal and painful. After reading the news of engineer James Damore’s 10-page memo criticizing diversity initiatives, her daughter asked: “Mom, is it true that there are biological reasons why there are fewer women in tech and leadership?”

Wojcicki recounted the conversation this week in a widely cited essay on sexism in tech in which she denounced the arguments advanced by Damore as “tragic”. Her reflection did not, however, address the role that her own company’s video platform may have played in spreading the questionable scientific claim that women are biologically less suited to tech.

YouTube has in recent years become one of the most influential and powerful social media sites for conservative commentators and far-right and “alt-right” leaders, who have built large audiences outside of mainstream channels.

And it turns out the video-sharing platform, owned by Google, may even have been influential in the formulation of Damore’s beliefs.

The 28-year-old – who was fired over his memo, becoming an instant hero to the alt-right – appears to have taken some interest in the segments of YouTube that promote the idea that men are better than women at certain jobs, and that diversity programs lead to discrimination against white males.

The Harvard graduate chose the programs of two YouTube personalities with large rightwing followings for his first media appearances this week. At the end of a 51-minute conversation with Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto psychology professor famous for his anti-transgender views, Damore said he agreed to do the interview because, he said, he was a “huge fan” of the Youtube personality.

Peterson, whose lectures and commentary are popular on YouTube and Reddit, told the Guardian that another Google employee and colleague of Damore had suggested the interview and connected them.

“He’s watched a very large number of my personality videos,” Peterson said of Damore, adding that he suspected that many of his lectures may have influenced the engineer’s memo. “I guess he trusted me.”

James Damore speaks with YouTube personality Stefan Molyneux in one of his first major interviews after Google fired him.



James Damore speaks with the YouTube personality Stefan Molyneux in one of his first major interviews after Google fired him. Photograph: YouTube

Damore is not the only Silicon Valley conservative who has apparently taken interest in Peterson, a highly controversial academic who has been able to build enormous audiences through YouTube. In the days after the memo blew up, Peterson said, he heard from at least 30 Google employees who said they appreciated his work and that he was “trying to seriously address these issues”.

All of his Google-employed fans, he conceded, were men. “They are not happy about being treated like prejudicial fools,” he added.

Although YouTube has faced significant public scrutiny for hosting terrorist propaganda and enabling Isis recruitment, there has been much less discussion about whether, and if so, to what extent, the platform is radicalizing young white men in America who feel under attack by liberalism and disenfranchised by social progress.

Peterson’s personality research is published in respected journals, but his passionate criticisms of leftwing ideologies and “political correctness” that have made the biggest splash online. Last year, he earned the sympathy of the “alt-right” and grew his YouTube fame when he argued that it was his free speech right to refuse to use gender-neutral pronouns for trans and non-binary students.

The academic has also argued that the idea of white privilege is racist, the concept of cultural appropriation is nonsense, modern feminism and women’s studies are dangerous to western society and advancements in gender equality can be bad for women.

None of those views would receive much credibility in mainstream academic circles, and he has proved a divisive figure on campus in Toronto. But among some YouTube viewers, Peterson is nothing short of a celebrity.

Damore’s memo closely echoed several arguments from Peterson’s lectures, such as the claim that women have higher rates of “agreeableness” (which makes it harder for them to be leaders) and higher levels of “neuroticism” and anxiety (making them less suited for high-stress positions). “The research is rock solid,” Peterson insisted.

Many of his peers disagree. The Damore memo has been discredited and debunked by scientists, who argue that Damore’s claims of differences between men and women are overstated and rely on deeply flawed research, and that his effort to use biological studies to make sweeping conclusions about workplace diversity is irresponsible.

Suzanne Sadedin, an evolutionary biologist who wrote a critique of Damore’s arguments, said there was significant research indicating that increasing diversity enhances a company’s performance. And Kenneth Leonard, a University of Maryland associate professor who has studied gender differences, pointed to studies showing that “the men who are the most upset about diversity are the least qualified”, because they are afraid they will lose their jobs.

It is precisely those men who may turn to YouTube personalities and communities that validate their anxieties and affirm their beliefs.

“Where YouTube is effective is it provides a vehicle for this pseudo-intellectualized bigotry,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University. “It’s marketed to a young white male audience that feels disenfranchised and feels a sense of unease at things going on at universities and workplaces.”

YouTube has changed the game for people like Peterson, who started using the site in 2013 and now broadcasts high-quality videos of his lectures, which can get tens of thousands of views. “It’s an astounding platform … a Gutenberg revolution, as far as I’m concerned,” he said of YouTube. “It’s expanded [my audience] to a degree that is almost unfathomable.”

He believes the reason his YouTube audience is predominantly male may also be rooted in biological differences. “I convey very large volumes of very philosophically interesting and practically useful information,” he said. “You see that men are higher interest in ideas and women are higher interest in aesthetics.”

Women, Peterson claimed, were therefore more drawn to other media platforms, like Tumblr and Pinterest.

Dark corners of the internet

Peterson is not an alt-right figure and cannot be held responsible for the “recommended” content that his viewers come across on YouTube. But YouTube, and its parent company, Google, should be.

YouTube algorithms have been criticized for drawing viewers into ever more extreme content, recommending a succession of videos that can quickly take them into dark corners of the internet.

However viewers of Peterson’s videos arrived at his YouTube channel, research by the Guardian suggests they can quickly be pulled into alarming content.

Within just a few clicks of supposedly “related” content, a viewer watching a Peterson lecture can end up on a video entitled “How Savage Are Blacks In America & Why Is Everyone Afraid To Discuss It?”

A top suggested video next to Peterson’s interview with Damore is a rightwing video targeting specific Google employees who publicly spoke out against the memo and are now facing online harassment reminiscent of the 2014 Gamergate bullying.

Damore’s memo, his firing, and the backlash against Google have spurred a fierce and escalating debate this week. The engineer at the heart of the controversy appears to be embracing his newfound status as a free-speech hero, posing for photos wearing a “Goolag” shirt and holding a “fired for truth” sign.

On Friday, Damore used a Wall Street Journal article to denounce what he called a “particularly intense echo chamber” at his former employer.

But the very same argument can be made about the social repercussions of Google services, which, like Facebook and Twitter, have been accused of creating filter bubbles and drawing groups into ever more polarized – and extreme – ideologies. It is a frequent complaint about YouTube.

“It drags you further and further,” said Keegan Hankes, research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The more you watch it, the more indoctrinated you get.”

YouTube declined to comment on far-right extremism on the site and pointed to its recent efforts to expand its counter-terrorism work. That includes placing videos that are flagged and contain “supremacist” content, but aren’t illegal, in a “limited state” so that they aren’t recommended or monetized.

Hany Farid, senior adviser to the Counter Extremism Project, argues YouTube needs to be more aggressive and proactive in blocking all kinds of extremist content. “The reach that a platform like YouTube gives you is phenomenal compared to how these groups used to recruit, which is in their local towns.”

But the video-sharing platform is also criticized for being too quick to censor conservative content. In a post calling for coordinated protests against Google for firing Damore, the far-right internet personality Jack Posobiec wrote: “YouTube is censoring and silencing dissenting voices by creating ‘ghettos’ for videos questioning the dominant narrative.”

Pressured from all sides, YouTube is not in an easy position, and has sometimes had to backtrack on its decisions.

One possible victim of overzealous censorship may in fact have been Peterson, who earlier this year reportedly complained that Google had locked him out of his account over a breach of terms of conditions.

(A YouTube spokesperson confirmed Peterson was briefly locked out of his account, but said his videos and his profile had not been not taken down. The spokesperson did not give a reason why the professor was temporarily blocked YouTube.)

Email the author: Sam.Levin@theguardian.com

James Damore, Google, and the YouTube radicalization of angry white men – The Guardian