In Silicon Valley, engineers are king. Tech companies succeed or fail based on the talent of their developers, which gives those workers the leverage to shape the company culture. So when your engineers tell you there’s a problem, you listen. That was clear again this week when Twitter engineers took to the site to push back against CEO Jack Dorsey’s comments about why notorious conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is still on the platform when other tech companies have banished him.
Dorsey responded to his engineers publicly, thanking them for their thoughts, and pledging to do better. It’s a moment that underscores, again, how highly skilled employees within organizations have the chance to be powerful advocates for change. “Engineers have the loudest voices in companies. In my experience when engineers really rally around something the leadership really changes it,” former Google product lead Kathy Pham told WIRED earlier this summer, shortly after tech employees at Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Salesforce rebelled against what they saw as unethical policies. Most of these campaigns started internally, before they hit the public eye.
In response to another article I wrote about these movements, Google Cloud Platform engineer Liz Fong-Jones wrote, “Tech employees are speaking up about a lot of things, most of which don’t make it into the news; making it into the news is a failure mode that indicates management intransigence, not a lack of concern by employees.” Twitter has spent much of the past year discussing the “health” of its platform, both internally and in public. The topic came up again last week at a company offsite, Kara Swisher reported in the New York Times. The company has also introduced measures to decrease the reach of accounts it deems unhealthy.
Impartiality and free speech have long been cherished values at Twitter, and its argument for not banning hateful accounts on the site. Even as other social media sites have cracked down on hate speech and dehumanizing language, Twitter has been called out for remaining a place full of harassment and pointed attacks—by not changing its policies to keep up with the forms of abuse on its site, and by not applying those policies consistently.
The pressure on Twitter to ban Jones from its platform grew exponentially this week, though, after other major companies like Apple, Facebook, and YouTube started taking action against him for violating their terms of service. On Tuesday, Dorsey tweeted, “We didn’t suspend Alex Jones or Infowars yesterday. We know that’s hard for many but the reason is simple: he hasn’t violated our rules. We’ll enforce if he does. And we’ll continue to promote a healthy conversational environment by ensuring tweets aren’t artificially amplified.”
Dorsey further explained that Twitter couldn’t ban Jones based on “succumbing to outside pressure,” and he called on journalists to continue to fact-check him. This didn’t go over well with journalists—many pointed out that we spend a lot of time fact-checking nonsense, but that it’s not our job to keep a viral disinformation incubator healthy; it’s our job to report facts. The defense also fell flat with some current and former Twitter employees.
“There is no honor in resisting ‘outside pressure’ just to pat ourselves on the back for being ‘impartial,’” Twitter engineer Marina Zhao tweeted. “I agree with @ekp that Twitter does not exist in a vacuum, and it is wrong to ignore the serious real-world harm, and to equate that with political viewpoints.” @ekp is Ellen Pao, formerly of Twitter and Reddit, who had earlier replied to Dorsey, “We tried treating @reddit as a silo, and it was a huge mistake. People got harassed cross-platform. Also if your site is the only one that allows this hate and harassment, it will get overrun and collapse.”
Mike Cvet, another current Twitter engineer, tweeted, “I don’t agree with everything Twitter does or doesn’t do. If we can consistently enforce the policies and terms of service for the platform, that’s a good thing. But it doesn’t mean we should be satisfied with the policies we have.” He added, “It is impossible to promote healthy dialog with bad-faith actors, who regularly produce toxic, dangerous and demonstrably false conspiracy theories; the objective of which is to mislead, radicalize, divide.”
It wasn’t only engineers speaking out, though. In the same thread, Dorsey went on to say that Twitter had never been good at communicating its decisions in the past. His former head of communications, Emily Horne replied, “.@jack, please don’t blame the current state of play on communications. These decisions aren’t easy, but they aren’t comms calls and it’s unhelpful to denigrate your colleagues whose credibility will help explain them.”
Former Twitter engineers applauded Cvet and Zhao on Twitter. Ben Sanger, now an engineer at Etsy, tweeted that he was glad they were speaking up, but added in a separate tweet that “The only time I ever truly saw Twitter leadership looking worried was when @deray and others pledged not to tweet. Tweeting angrily about Twitter leadership will not trigger changes. Leaving the platform en-masse will.”
In this case, the tweets clearly got Dorsey’s attention. He replied to Cvet: “Definitely not happy with where our policies are. They need to constantly evolve. Doing that work. Thanks for the thoughtful tweets and push, Mike.” He also responded to Horne.
The next day, Twitter’s VP of Trust and Safety Del Harvey emailed employees about making changes to how it evaluates bad behavior on the site, such as dehumanizing speech. After the memo was leaked to Charlie Warzel at Buzzfeed, Harvey also tweeted it herself. “We’re shifting our timeline forward for reviewing the dehumanization policy,” she wrote in a bulleted list. “We’re going to move up our timeline around evaluating a policy governing off-platform behavior.” The latter policy, if enacted, could mean that even if Jones or someone similar didn’t break Twitter’s terms of service on the platform directly, his behavior on other sites could count against him.
The power engineers have to hold their bosses to account also underscores how important it is for tech companies to address gender and racial imbalances within their ranks. Engineers shape products that have enormous impacts on society—Twitter, with its influence on everything from geopolitics to Hollywood’s bottom line, is a perfect case in point. But engineers also shape the companies where they work. For both reasons, it’s essential that they actually reflect the society over which they hold such sway. Speaking out publicly against your employer can be very risky, and can be a privilege only afforded those with job security. As Horne noted, that these engineers felt comfortable doing so says something good about company culture at Twitter. Now we wait to see if anything changes.