Rising Partisan Narratives Bring the Culture War to Silicon Valley
Long Held Beliefs about Diversity Issues Endure
Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash
August 29, 2017
By Reinhard Cate
Long before the infamous Google “anti-diversity manifesto” memo went viral, debate about diversity has been a contentious issue in Silicon Valley. Fair treatment, equal pay, and even just a work environment safe from harassment seem to have been at odds at everywhere from small start-ups to tech giants. While the memo penned by now ex-Googler James Damore has recently stoked the flames of debate, we’ve seen a constant ideological struggle over the past year. An empirical look at the narratives present in news, blog, and social media content about Silicon Valley’s diversity problem reveal an enduring public perception that a serious problem does exist. However, there are stark divisions about the details of the issue among political lines.
Behind the Analysis
We used the Protagonist platform to surface, classify, and quantify underlying deeply held beliefs, called narratives, from content in social media, reviews, blogs, and articles about diversity in Silicon Valley over the last year. The platform’s combination of computational linguistics and natural language processing together with narrative analytics provide an avenue to understand the narratives present in content.
Each article is given a score based on its volume and social engagement called narrative impact. We then can calculate the total narrative impact of each narrative and estimate a share of each narrative’s impact of the total conversation expressed in a percentage. We get to the heart of what is critical and relevant in the vast sea of data available so organizations can identify and leverage the most significant narratives.
The advantage of the narrative analytics process is that it can access and analyze more data than traditional market research and provides clearer, data-driven insight than social listening or media monitoring.
The Narrative Landscape
Among the thousands of pieces of content that create what we call a narrative landscape, each individual story is classified by the underlying beliefs present in the text. In this greater ecosystem of the conversation, an easy way to understand the beliefs is by segmenting them by those that take a favorable view of Silicon Valley, a neutral view, or an unfavorable one.
Regardless of political viewpoints, the beliefs surfaced from the data highlight narratives that mostly hold an unfavorable view of the companies in Silicon Valley because of their failure to provide a diverse and equal work environment. The largest of these narratives, Ahead in Tech Behind in Culture captures 35% of the conversation. The belief captured in this narrative is that low levels of women, and people of color in tech, have created a culture of unfairness and in some cases even harassment in Silicon Valley companies.
What’s clear from the data is that the public and the companies themselves have acknowledged the issue for well over a year. So naturally a counter belief exists where companies are instead striving to implement diversity in Silicon Valley. This narrative is Investing in Diversity and captures 22% of the conversation. The belief behind the narrative is that providing critical maternity benefits to women, hiring individuals of unique backgrounds and culture, and hiring leaders to focus on the issue of equality and diversity make Silicon Valley companies stronger and more successful. If Ahead in Tech Behind in Culture serves as a narrative indicator for companies in the valley having diversity problems, then Investing in Diversity is the obvious positive narrative where companies present in it are perceived to be doing the right thing.
Brand Performance, More Wrong than Right
None of the major tech players have had a perfect record when it comes to creating a diverse and fair work environment and each have had their share of scandals. A critical component of understanding how a company is perceived is weighing the scope of their presence in content where a certain belief is expressed, which is called a narrative signature. This measure can help assess a Silicon Valley company’s unique brand performance over the past year by quantifying their association in positive and negative narratives. To judge brand performance, we look at presence in the narratives Ahead in Tech Behind in Culture versus in Investing in Diversity using the most prominent Silicon Valley household names: Google, Facebook, Uber, and Apple.
By judging company association in the two largest narratives alone, the results are not good for any of the tech giants, with only Facebook having a somewhat positive showing. Unsurprisingly, Uber’s performance is the most troubling with a 33% association with Ahead in Tech Behind in Culture and a 10% association in Investing in Diversity, that’s a company signature three-times higher in conversation that carries beliefs about a work environment that stifles diversity and equality at the company.
For tech giants Google and Apple, the result doesn’t look much better with both companies appearing nearly twice as much in negative narrative content than positive. Google is associated 51% of the time in content from Ahead in Tech Behind in Culture, compared to only 27% in Investing in Diversity. Apple has a similar ratio with a 46% association in Ahead in Tech Behind in Culture and a 24% in Investing in Diversity. Only Facebook has a marginally positive performance with a 23% association in Ahead in Tech Behind in Culture and a 24% association in Investing in Diversity.
Smaller Narratives Get Political
Yet like most narrative landscapes perception and belief comes on a gradient scale. The remaining smaller narratives provide varying interpretations about the core beliefs captured by the two largest narratives. The first of the two neutral narratives Correction Misfire captures 9% of the conversation and focuses on the issue of blowback in repairing diversity issues at companies. Stories and content carry the belief that “knee-jerk” reactions to make companies more diverse can instead make companies less competitive or even potentially stymie free speech.
The second of the two neutral narratives Make the Change Now captures 14% of the landscape. Content argues from a belief that changes companies have made to implement diversity in Silicon Valley have really only been surface level, instead of real changes by putting women and people of color in leadership positions. Similar to the contrast between the two largest narratives Ahead in tech Behind in Culture and Investing in Diversity, the narrative Make the Change Now runs in stark contrast to two smaller narratives that have an unfavorable view of Silicon Valley. In this smaller narrative battle, we see a clear ideological divide in rhetoric and the sources of content.
Silencing Conservatives captures 11% of the conversation and its content holds the belief that moves by tech companies to protect diversity and equality are simply a cover for shutting down conservative voices. The remaining negative narrative Salacious Allegations captures 1% of the conversation and takes the argument against diversity a step further. Content in this narrative expresses the belief that allegations of unfairness and lack of equality in Silicon Valley are falsehoods that are pushed to get unqualified people into high paying roles they don’t deserve.
Both Silencing Conservatives and Salacious Allegations are driven by politically conservative sources, with Breitbart, The Daily Caller, and Fox News among the top sources for both Silencing Conservatives and Salacious Allegations. Compared to Make the Change Now, the narrative is instead driven by more politically left leaning sources with the New York Times, USA Today, and The Atlantic driving the most narrative impact. If we look at the overall narrative balance of the top ten sources in the data set, we can see a similar story.
Among the top ten sources more left leaning publications reflect a narrative balance biased toward narratives that also lean more liberal. The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, Huffington Post, and the Washington Post all have a significantly large share of left-leaning narratives. Whereas Breitbart, the lone conservative publication in the top ten sources, reflects a narrative balance that is primarily right leaning and conservative.
Topical Spikes versus Enduring Beliefs
Politically-centric narratives tend to be heavily event-driven and will spike in tandem with the news cycle. When we examine narrative trends over time grouping favorable, neutral, and unfavorable narratives together, we see smaller spikes over the year. The largest spike occurs in August of 2017.
The event behind this spike is coverage and conversation about James Damore’s anti-diversity memo at Google. The resulting increase in negative narratives is driven primarily by Silencing Conservatives. In August, the overall narrative impact of Silencing Conservatives is four times larger than its second highest month. This is a clear sign of a massive spike in volume and social engagement for this conversation.
James Damore’s firing activates a new audience by triggering beliefs present in the narrative: it is perceived as a sign of a continued push by institutions on the left to muzzle conservatives. The data reflects this when we look at the impact of James Damore overall. Damore’s influence on the landscape is massive, he’s responsible for 23% of the overall narrative impact, but particularly in Silencing Conservatives he drives over 50% of the narrative impact.
The event is telling in the increasing politicization of the conversation around Silicon Valley’s diversity problems and the power of events to activate beliefs. It’s critical to also view the entire picture, as when we step back the overall size and scope of Silencing Conservatives is still relatively small compared to the two largest narratives in the landscape Ahead in Tech Behind in Culture and Investing in Diversity. One way to see this is that the average monthly narrative impact for Ahead in Tech Behind in Culture is three times higher than Silencing Conservatives. This tells us that the beliefs that drive Ahead in tech Behind in Culture are more enduring and constant over the year than those that drive Silencing Conservatives.
The Narrative Take Away
The data has serious implications for Silicon Valley companies. First, enduring beliefs exist that something is seriously wrong in the workplace in tech and these issues are critical to address and understand. Company signature in Ahead in Tech Behind in Culture, can serve as a compass for what’s wrong and provides a better understanding of the positive narratives in the landscape can help a company navigate the necessary changes they need to implement. One thing is very certain, it’s crucial for Silicon Valley companies to minimize their brand presence in this Ahead in Tech Behind in Culture and increase and amplify presence in Investing in Diversity.
Secondly, it’s critical to understand how events can trigger beliefs and ultimately impact a company’s audience by shifting or amplifying it. The massive spike we saw in Silencing Conservatives showed how a new audience entered the conversation that was not consistently present before. While it’s crucial to manage and influence beliefs that are more consistent and enduring, the opening of a new audience can be a boon or bust if communication isn’t managed properly. The best way to do this is by managing and understanding the narratives or underlying beliefs about your brand consistently. Don’t wait for a crisis to occur.
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