Twitter has a blog post up and apparently also spoke to reporters about its efforts to curb abuse and harassment on the platform. The company released data about the improvements it’s made over the past year and the positive effects it says these are having, such as acting on ten times as many abusive accounts, removing twice the number of repeat offenders, and so on. But there’s nothing in the new data or the blog post about why so many reports still get dealt with as false positives, as reported by BuzzFeed earlier in the week. And there’s no real transparency about how the decisions are made, by whom, or what exactly the guidelines are. Twitter clearly is making progress here – the numbers show that – but the fact that BuzzFeed had no trouble quickly finding cases where it’s still falling short suggests it’s far from done here yet. And though Twitter is clearly taking the problem more seriously today than it was even six months ago, before this current effort began, it’s still too often defensive and closed rather than transparent and honest in talking about why abuse and harassment are still such issues. At root, it feels like Twitter is still erring too much on the side of maximum freedom of speech rather than on the side of protecting users from abuse, while much behavior by Twitter users is utterly unacceptable and yet likely goes unreported simply because it’s not directed at a specific individual.
Twitter is Still Mishandling Abuse and Harassment Reports (Jul 18, 2017)
This article dropped on Friday evening as I was logging off for the week, so I’m only getting to it now. But this article was something of a bombshell, detailing not just the scale of harassment, assault, and other misbehavior by men against women in venture capital, but also naming specific names including some who hadn’t been accused previously. There really seems to have been a tipping point in the last few weeks on this topic, where far more women are now willing to speak out about their bad experiences and name their abusers and harassers. That, in turn, has suddenly exposed many man within venture capital and their past bad actions. This was a much needed change, and although the venture capital world and companies like Uber remain single small pockets in which the real state of things is finally being revealed, I can easily see this movement spreading and penetrating much of the rest of the tech industry. Justice Brandeis’ famous quote about sunlight (publicity) being the best disinfectant seems apt here: the more of these cases come to light, the more some of the perpetrators (like Justin Caldbeck and Dave McClure) will be moved out of roles or dumped by their employers altogether. None of this represents an overnight change, but it does feel like things are finally moving in the right direction, and those who have been protected out of a combination of fear on the part of would-be accusers and collusion on the part of colleagues are finally being exposed to some real consequences. There’s clearly a long way still to go, but breaking the wall of silence feels like a big step forward. Increasing diversity still feels like one of the most obvious ways to prevent this issue in future – at many companies, the overwhelming gender dominance of men is clearly a big part of the cultural problem, even though women seem to have protected some of those accused as well, either covering up bad behavior or dealing with it too quietly (as in the case of 500 Startups). Update: on Monday, per Axios, Dave McClure was asked to resign completely from 500 Startups, and did so, a step which should arguably have taken rather sooner.
Instagram Uses AI to Filter Spam and Abusive Comments (Jun 29, 2017)
Instagram is announcing today that it’s now using artificial intelligence to filter spam and abusive comments in the app. Wired has a feature (also linked below) which dives deeper into the background here and makes clear that what Instagram is doing here builds on Facebook’s DeepText AI technology, and that Instagram has been working on it for some time. The spam filter works in nine languages, while the comment moderation technology only works in English for now, but both should clean up the Instagram experience. Importantly, though both spam and harassment are issues on Instagram, neither are as bad there because so many people have private accounts – I haven’t seen an official statement from Instagram on this but some research and testing suggests it’s likely between 30 and 50% of the total number of accounts that are private. Those accounts, in turn, are far less likely to receive either spam or abusive comments, since they’ve explicitly chosen to allow those who might comment to follow them. However, for the rest, and especially for celebrities, brands, and so on, these are likely far bigger issues, so cleaning them up in a way that doesn’t require the same massive investment in manual human moderation as Facebook’s core product is a good thing all around.
The long-awaited investigation by Eric Holder and Tammy Albarrán of law firm Covington & Burling into the workplace culture at Uber has concluded and its recommendations made public. The fact that the report contains twelve pages of recommendations is evidence in and of itself just how broken the corporate culture at Uber has become, and quite how much it needs to change. That change, the recommendations suggest, needs to start at the top with the composition, independence, and responsibilities of the board, and work its way down through the CEO, Travis Kalanick (some of whose responsibilities should be handed over to others), and on from there. The changes recommended are sweeping, which seems appropriate given just how badly things have gone, and importantly they include many layers of accountability with real consequences attached to both good and bad behavior from performance reviews to financial incentives. Travis Kalanick is apparently going to take a leave of absence, partly to grieve for his mother who was killed recently in a boating accident, but partly also to get some time away from his job and reflect on all that’s gone on, which seems very sensible too. But one of the most notable aspects of this whole thing is just how much of a role Kalanick and the culture he has personally created at Uber is responsible for so many of the issues, and one of the biggest questions remains whether he personally can change enough to fit in with all the other changes that will be made both immediately and over time. All that’s gone on at Uber should also serve as a cautionary tale for many other tech firms, some of which will be looking down at Uber at this time but many of which have many of the same cultural flaws, even if to a lesser degree (or merely less publicly). The recommendations in the Holder report would almost all be considered best practice in the fields they cover rather than merely remedies to be applied after a major failure. I suspect every company would be better off by following the majority or even all of them.
The first of two concurrent investigations at Uber has resulted in the termination of over 20 employees over harassment and other inappropriate behavior, while 57 incidents are still under investigation, and some 100 of 215 HR claims have been dismissed without action. That such extensive action should be taken only as a result of an independent investigation by a law firm even though Uber’s own HR department took no such action on these issues is pretty shocking. But in some ways even more shocking is the fact that Uber’s head of HR played down harassment and other similar issues in comments as recently as last week, when she and other executives at Uber must have known this was coming soon. Her comments last week no longer seem merely disingenuous or tone deaf but downright misleading, which raises real questions about why she would make such claims just as they were about to be proven false. The only theory I can come up with to explain it is that Uber’s management disagreed with the action taken this week, and that was their way of saying so, but even that seems pretty far-fetched. Regardless, the other shoe is still to drop in the form of the more wide ranging second investigation and the recommended actions, which are likely to go well beyond action on individual cases.
In what’s really not a great sign ahead of the release of Uber’s “independent” investigation into its workplace culture, it’s HR head has said she has found that discrimination and harassment really weren’t major issues internally relative to other employee concerns. That doesn’t really answer several other questions including whether they are issues at all, and whether perhaps employees don’t feel comfortable sharing their real feelings with internal management for all the reasons others have said. It’s still possible that the investigation will reach different conclusions, but this quote feels tone deaf and designed – as with past comments from board member Arianna Huffington – to get the retaliation in first. That doesn’t seem likely to be successful: the reaction I’ve seen on Twitter today to the quotes in the piece has been very negative.
via USA Today
Uber says its delayed report from its internal investigation into reports of harassment and other issues will finally be made public the week of June 5. The report was due to have published earlier but was pushed back when those leading the investigation said they needed more time, which seemed at the time as a sign that key personnel at Uber weren’t cooperating with the investigation. That’s going to be a busy week for news, with Apple’s WWDC keynote on the Monday, but I would guess this report will attract plenty of attention anyway. As has been the case from the start, the big question is how honest and critical the report ends up being, because if it’s anything less than forthright it will do more harm than good.
Report Shows Unfair Treatment a Major Reason for Tech Departures Among Underrepresented Groups (Apr 28, 2017)
A new report out studies the reasons why people choose to leave jobs in the tech industry, and concludes that unfair behavior or treatment was a factor for many employees, and underrepresented groups reported it was a factor at higher rates than white and male respondents. The findings are disheartening if not surprising given the prevailing narrative about diversity in tech. Women, people of color, and LGBT respondents were all likelier to report unfair treatment and to have left jobs because of it. If the industry is going to keep treating employees from these groups in this way, it’s going to continue to lose them, which is going to make increasing diversity even slower. It’s particularly striking because many employees within the industry don’t seem to think there’s a problem at all. It’s well worth reading the piece linked below for the full details of the survey.
via USA Today
The Uber investigation into harassment and discrimination claims is being extended by another month or so because the people running it haven’t finished their work yet, and importantly haven’t been able to interview several key people including HR execs. While it’s certainly better to be thorough than quick in a case like this, that seems worryingly like a sign of lack of cooperation from key people, which makes me wonder how effective the investigation will end up being. One would assume that Arianna Huffington and other board members would be putting significant pressure on executives and employees in general to cooperate, so any barriers to that cooperation are signs of some pretty deep dysfunction within the company (not that that would be surprising at this point). But it also means all this will be hanging over Uber for even longer than previously anticipated.
This is probably about as much as Facebook can be expected to do on an issue such as this – there’s no easy definition for revenge porn as such, and therefore no way to train a computer to look for it, so the only way Facebook can police it is to match images being shared with ones it’s been told about in the past. That’s obviously far from solving the issue, but it’s a start and should help with cases where the same images are being shared over and over.
via The Verge
Uber Press Call Highlights Huffington’s Conflict of Interest (Mar 21, 2017)
One of the more troubling things about the sexual harassment investigation at Uber is that Arianna Huffington, who is helping to lead that investigation, is also currently acting as both Uber and Travis Kalanick’s most visible public defender, undermining claims that the investigation is independent. Either Huffington is committed to getting to the bottom of what has happened (and may still be happening) at Uber, or she can defend it and its leadership, but she can’t do both. That she reiterated those public defenses of Kalanick personally on this press call today just reinforces that point. Meanwhile, the call itself revealed little that was new, by all accounts – a previously promised diversity report is indeed on the way, and both the investigation and the COO search are ongoing, with nothing new to report for now. Meanwhile, Kalanick himself was apparently too busy with that COO search to appear on the call, while Uber’s (female) HR manager was available. (The headline here is mine – the headline on the Axios piece linked below focuses on the diversity report.)
There has been a slew of these stories lately, the main tenor of which is that Uber is unfortunately not as much of an exception as we might like to think in Silicon Valley and the tech world more broadly. This piece has both some trend data and some specifics about other individuals beyond Susan Fowler, who wrote the story about her time at Uber recently. All of this, of course, is in large part an outgrowth of the lack of diversity in tech companies and the prevailing culture among engineers more broadly. Lots to digest here and lots of work to do, well beyond Uber and its current troubles.
via USA Today
I’ve been very critical of Twitter over its poor response to abuse and harassment on the platform, so I don’t think they should get a free pass now just because they’ve finally decided to do something about it. However, kudos to them for finally acting on these issues after the years of bizarre prevarication on this point – they’ve now moving quickly, as promised (here are two other steps taken in the last few weeks). These latest changes are actually some of the best they’ve announced during this period, because they actually remove content proactively from your feed based on algorithms. This has always seemed like it would have to be a big part of the answer – human curation was never going to be able to deal with the volumes involved here. But another positive change is more feedback on abuse reports users submit, which has been largely missing from the app itself so far. There’s still a risk of false positives and Twitter definitely needs mechanisms for appeal and reinstatement where those occur, but it does finally feel like Twitter is making meaningful progress here.
Uber’s SVP of engineering is out after he did not disclose he left Google in a dispute over sexual harassment allegation – Recode (Feb 27, 2017)
Another day, another ugly story about Uber. This time, it’s that its brand-new SVP of engineering, who joined Uber just last month, appears to have left Google under a cloud surrounding allegations of sexual harassment. There was an initial investigation and apparently some planning towards firing Singhal, but as he resigned proactively those plans were never carried out, which certainly helped keep the allegations under wraps. But Singhal apparently failed to inform Uber of these circumstances when he left, and he’s now been asked to resign from Uber. I suspect that, were Uber not having the month it’s having, Singhal might have survived, but in the circumstances there was no way he could be allowed to stay. Singhal’s hiring was seen as a coup when he arrived (see the comment linked above), and it’s into such a senior role I wonder how Uber is going to fill the gap. Clearly, it though that was less important than making a quick, clean break here.
How Uber got into this human resources mess – Recode (Feb 21, 2017)
Some great reporting here from Johanna Bhuiyan, with lots of digging behind the scenes into not just the corporate culture at Uber but more specifically the HR department and its lack of resources over the last several years, which likely contributed to the events Susan Fowler wrote about this week. It’s fairly clear that Uber underinvested in some of the aspects of HR not related to hiring and firing, but also that CEO Travis Kalanick continues to drive the company culture very much from the top down, including in a number of negative ways.