N.B.: I am not the author.
Have any Republicans – or others in this company – had run-ins or bad experiences with the alt-right – or people who they think are alt-right – at Google? I’ve got quite a few stories to tell myself, and I’ve heard some from others, but I wanted to broach this topic more broadly to better understand the full scope of this problem. (Also, if it’s something where you’d prefer to little-r me, that’s an option, too; I suspect a fair amount of people will only be comfortable discussing it in private.)
For some context, one of my persistent worries is that the alt-right will one day cause some sort of controversy at Google, but the right will end up taking the blame for their actions. I won’t get into details here, but those worries have increased significantly as of late, and it would be fair to say that inaction could have a price here. I once told someone that we have two problems at Google: the alt-right, and those who can’t tell the difference between the right and the alt-right.
To lead this discussion, I’ll tell my own story. It’s quite the whopper, and it will also help explain why others may be afraid to speak up. Pinning down the alt-right can be difficult at times, but this story will also offer a lot of insights into who they are and how they operate. Now are there mistakes I made here, and things I would do differently next time? Of course. (Likewise, I don’t know if I got everything 100% right in how I chose to share this story, but I know that not speaking up can be a mistake as well.) That being said, it’s a story worth telling, mistakes and all. For some of the things I describe here, I know others have experienced them; for others, I strongly suspect that.
One thing I will say is that the alt-right tends to be very manipulative, and even good people can have a hard time seeing through manipulation.
The Alt-Right at Google: An Alternate Reality?
Recently, an investigative piece written by a person who managed to sneak into a white nationalist convention in Seattle has made waves in the news. At this convention, this intrepid journalists discovered that many of the attendees were white men under 30 in tech, and that many of these people operate as “secret agents” in the tech industry.
While this article surprised many in the tech industry, it did not surprise me at all. For over a year, I have seen the alt-right try and work their influence at Google, infiltrating mailing lists, infiltrating Google’s culture, and even trying to infiltrate Google’s product decisions.
1. An Introduction
Before I tell my story, I must first introduce one of its main characters: Kevin Cernekee, the face of the alt-right at Google. If some Googlers could be considered social justice warriors, then Kevin could be considered a shock troop of the alt-right. To help explain how Kevin and others on the alt-right operate, I have selected three stories to share.
Story One: Fascism, a More Intense Form of Conservatism
The first story comes when myself and another Googler were pushing a to get a bad definition of fascism fixed. When you searched for fascism, in addition to the 10 search results, you would get a knowledge box at the top of the page that listed “rightist” as a synonym of “fascist”.
However, when Kevin commented on this issue, he did so not to suggest that this definition of fascism was bad, but to argue that it was good:
Actual fascists, OTOH, self-identify as rightists; they promote a more intense form of conservatism.
Now I have seen many conservatives who constantly get stuck refuting attempts to equate conservatism with facism. However, I have never seen a “conservative” claim that fascism is just a more intense form of conservatism.
Story Two: Megyn Kelly’s Divorce Records
On some occasions, I have seen Kevin outright lie, but his most effective form of deception and manipulation is half-truths, not outright lies. With half-truths, he first presented the half that is true to lure you in, hoping that will get you to rationalize or ignore the half that is false.
On a mailing list for free speech, he once tried to organize a donation on behalf of “freespeech@Google”, one to defend the free speech of Richard Spencer, a white supremacist. However, the other half soon started to emerge, and multiple people were raising concerns. Eventually, I stepped in with this response:
In response to Kevin’s request that we “put together a group donation in the name of ‘freespeech@Google'” to help fund this bounty:
According to WeSearchr’s own FAQs, 25%* of donations to this “bounty” goes directly to WeSearchr itself. So you’re not just funding the bounty; you’re also funding WeSearchr.
Here are some of the bounties that, according to said FAQ, have been “reviewed by WeSearchr senior editors before being opened for contributions”:
- Prove Emmanuel Macron Is Gay [Editor’s Choice] –
- Put Up A Pepe Billboard –
- Let’s Open Up Megyn Kelly’s Divorce Records
Now Kevin in his own words described WeSearchr as “Kind of like Crime Stoppers or the FBI’s reward program.” I’ll let the reader decide whether Crime Stoppers or the FBI would ever issue a bounty for Megyn Kelly’s divorce records.
Kevin, would you mind explaining how providing financial support to WeSearchr promotes free speech?
*15% of every bounty goes to WeSearchr, and 10% goes to the asker of the question, which in this case is “Wesearchr Staff”.
After another person and Kevin got into it, Kevin eventually doubled-down:
There is nothing remotely shady or malicious about WeSearchr. It’s completely on the up-and-up. Please don’t slander my friends. 🙁
Now I have seen free speech advocates who will defend everyone’s free speech, including Richard Spencer’s. However, I have never seen a “free speech advocate” double-down when it is pointed out that exposing Megyn Kelly’s divorce records doesn’t promote free speech.
Story Three: If They Fight Dirty, So Will We…
Now Kevin would defend the free speech of his friends, but when it came to the free speech of his enemies, he tolerates them to the extent that Berkeley tolerates free speech from conservatives. I called him out on this contradiction, noting that the alt-right believes in “free speech for me but not for thee.” In response, he explicitly defended this practice.
They will fight just as dirty as their adversaries, because unlike the Libertarians or the Buckleyites, they’re actually playing to win.
The Left has stretched the boundaries of free speech for decades, if not longer, to suit their own agenda. Nary a day passes without news of them silencing somebody who speaks for us. As a conservative it is highly disappointing that you oppose the Right’s efforts to fight back. Don’t you want your own side to prevail?
At first, I didn’t believe that Kevin meant this literally; he wasn’t actually endorsing fighting dirty. Over time, I realized that he actually meant it quite literally. (And in his mind, the left – and even his opponents on the right – probably always fight dirty, which means he will do the same.)
Now I have seen conservatives criticize the “by any means necessary” mentality of the antifa. However, I have never seen a “conservative” endorse that same mentality in response.
Richard Spencer vs. Kevin Cernekee
Long ago, Richard Spencer did write for The American Conservative, but when it became clear that the conservative movement was not going to advance his agenda for “contemporary white consciousness,” he went his own way, both starting alternativeright.com in 2010, and also sacrificing any respect he had left in the conservative circles he used to frequent.
But whereas Richard Spencer left the conservative movement to go his own way, Kevin Cernekee has tried to chart a different path: normalizing the alt-right within the conservative movement. And he would be willing to fight dirty to do it.
2. The Alt-Right and Conservatives
My encounter with the alt-right began on a mailing list for conservatives at Google. As many know, Google is not the exactly the friendliest place for conservatives and Republicans. That list did not get a lot of traffic, but it nonetheless felt nice to have a community of fellow conservatives, as inactive as it may be.
Around the 2016 primary, traffic began to pick up, and a fair amount of it came from Kevin.
The Beginnings: David Duke and KKK
At some point, a heated discussion started to ensue about Donald Trump. Initially, none of it was out of the ordinary compared to other social mailing lists at Google, but that would soon change.
Eventually, the discussion turned to Trump and the problems he was having disavowing David Duke and the KKK. Something about Kevin’s defense of Trump here seemed off and different, even compared to CNN’s Jeffrey Lord and his defense of Trump on this issue.
As both a softball question and a sanity check, I then asked this question to Kevin: you’d be willing to disavow David Duke and the KKK, right? And then the discussion went off the rails.
Kevin then accused me of using liberal tactics to control your opponent. At one point, he told me “you and your lib comrades can pound sand”. And when I suggested that disavowing the KKK ought to be a non-partisan issue, he told me, “That’ll definitely stop your hipster friends from making fun of you behind your back.”
At one point, he specifically disavowed violence. As you can see, he also directed some quite specific personal attacks my way. But he never specifically disavowed David Duke or the KKK.
The Alt-Right, The Liberals, and The “Cuckservatives”
Many disagreements end with Kevin – or other members of the alt-right – branding you as a liberal. And once that happens, any tactics that were fair game against liberals in the mind of the alt-right were also fair game against you. Perhaps even playing dirty might be fair game.
And Kevin framed just about everything using that either/or mentality, where you are either with the alt-right or with the liberals. God forbid that you could be a conservative who agrees with neither the left nor the alt-right.
In the lexicon of the alt-right, they even have a special term for such people: cuckservatives. It is derived from the word “cuckold”, a term for a husband whose wife is adulterous. When the term “cuckservative” is used, it often implies that a person is weak or emasculated, and may even take pleasure in his own humiliation. Often, it carries a racial connotation as well.
The alt-right calls any conservative who “sells out” or “sympathizes” with liberal values a cuckservative, using a definition so broad and expansive that even politely disagreeing with the alt-right will get you branded as a “sellout”. And in case you are wondering, Kevin did once call me a cuckservative to my face.
Bimbos and Conspiracy Theories
Now while Kevin initially did manage to successfully push my buttons a fair amount, at the same time I did not get baited by everything he said. For example, I just rolled my eyes and moved on without saying anything when he started promoting conspiracy theories on how Clinton “has literally murdered people who didn’t take the hint”.
On another occasion, however, he ended up sharing a Breitbart article titled, “Why Bill’s Bimbos Fear a Hillary Presidency.” Given how the word “bimbos” was used in that headline, I did raise the concern that this article may not be the best one to share in the workspace. When I objected, it could not just simply be a matter of me being right or wrong; someone else had to accuse me of displaying “fake outrage” on the issue.
To Protect Free Speech, We Will Silence You
Eventually, Kevin started a thread promoting a new code of conduct for the mailing list, which also suggested bans for those who didn’t follow it. The whole post was downright bizarre. In one breath, Kevin made an appeal to free speech; in another breath, he was talking about the need to have a safe space for his views.
A part of me suspected the whole thing was just a pretext to get me kicked off the mailing list for speaking up, but surely that would never happen. Until it did. At one point, one of his friends intervened and banned me. The ban came completely out of the blue as well; the person who banned me never talked to me at all or even gave me a prior warning.
So, in summary, Kevin’s solution to the alleged threats to his free speech was to censor and ban his opponents. How charmingly fascist. But, as Kevin once said, fascism is merely a more intense form of conservatism. Needless to say, quite a few were shocked at the ban.
The Aftermath of the Ban
At this point, I decided to file a complaint with HR, though it ultimately went nowhere. I did debate whether to talk to them or not in the first place. On the one hand, the whole incident happened on a social mailing list, not in the course of my actual work. On the other hand, it still happened in a workplace environment.
Furthermore, I later heard from my others that my ban had only emboldened Kevin (and others) on that list. While I do not have the full context of what happened after that, I learned enough to understand that the boundaries continued to be pushed even further.
Of course, I’m sure others may have objected to this new normal, but the next person to object could also be the next person to be banned, so I’m sure some opted just to remain silent.
In my dealings with Kevin, it was never the case that if you cut him some more slack, in turn he would try not to use up all that slack as well. Rather, he would use all the slack you would give him, and he would pull the rope even harder if you refused to give him any more slack.
3. The Alt-Right and Free Speech
I also happened to be on another low-volume mailing dedicated to free speech; Google itself has historically emphasized the importance of free expression on the web, and free speech also has been an important part of Google’s culture.
After my ban, traffic on that mailing list started to jump as well, and a lot of it was again generated by Kevin Cernekee.
Now free speech can produce some strange alliances; for example, both Berni= e Sanders and Bill Maher spoke up to defend the free speech of Ann Coulter at Berkeley. That being said, neither Bernie Sanders nor Bill Maher would defend Ann Coulter’s views.
Kevin, however, often had a different version of free speech, where he would defend both the free speech of a controversial group, but he would also defend their views as well, claiming both under the mantle of free speech.
The Golden State Skinheads
In one thread about a protest that turned violent, questions were raised about whether the protesters were neo-Nazis or not. One person pointed out that the Golden State Skinheads were there, and quick look at their website showed they were indeed neo-Nazi.
And in stepped Kevin to distort the record on the Golden State Skinheads.
In this situation the GSS stood up for free speech and free association. They defended a peaceful, non-hateful gathering against antifa who showed up armed with bricks, bats, and knives — a clear sign of premeditated violence.
And here’s what skinheads’ own website said about their role in the protest= :
“… a gathering of Nationalists will merge and stand united under a single banner and for a single purpose! The Traditional Workers Party has become the voice of our people. No other political party holds the views or interests of the Traditional European-American Family in the forefront of their agenda … And we have the right to exist as White people!!! No longer will we sit aside and let alien cultures dictate our decline. We stand firm in our values and we do so united.”
Kevin also said the term skinhead had some unfortunate baggage, and I responded by highlighting some of the content on their webpage.
One picture showed members making a Nazi salute. Another picture superimposed the swastika on top of a land of paradise, while also superimposing the Star of David on top of the barren wasteland. One paragraph spoke about how “The realization that the European mind contains far more potential then has ever even been realized … yet it seems the goal of those in power to simplify the complexities of life and to dumb down the masses in order to maintain and to spread the power of their current Zionist regime.”
I’d say that baggage was not unfortunate, but clearly well-deserved.
A Jew-Tracking App
Kevin started another thread about how the Chrome Web Store had removed the “Coincidence Detector” app. Essentially, this app was a Jew-tracking app. It put three parentheses, or (((echoes))) as they’re known, around Jewish names as a means of targeting the Jews.
The echoes were a harassment tactic, as they were often followed shortly by death threats, images of concentration camps, and many other forms of anti-Semitic filth. Even for those used to anti-Semitic barbs, the harassment provoked by echoes was on an entirely different level.
Again, Kevin went beyond trying to argue that echoes were free speech, defending and minimizing the practice itself:
I was just surprised that Google banned an app for adding silly punctuation marks to web pages.
But as for anyone who disagrees with them, he described them in less than innocent terms.
Google stands for free speech and we should have thoroughly discussed the implications of censoring the app, rather than succumbing to knee-jerk reactions just because an internet journalist wrote a misinformed article to stoke outrage. We owe it to our users to give them a fair shake, not bow under pressure from the dishonest, sensationalist, clickbait media.
Alt-Free Speech vs Free Speech
As for me, I sided with Google on removing the app. Now I could explain the technical details of how it was different from other forms of anti-Semitism that were protected speech, but more than that, I intuitively understood the intent of this app: to create less speech, not more speech.
The alt-right was not merely disagreeing with the Jews and at times saying offensive things. They were harassing Jews until they decided it would be better to self-censor and remain silent.
When we talk about free speech as a set cultural values, it entails a number of healthy intellectual habits, as described in the book Freedom from Speech:
These values incorporate healthy intellectual habits, such as giving the other side a fair hearing, reserving judgment, tolerating opinions that offend or anger us, believing that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, and recognizing that even people whose points of view we find repugnant might be (at least partially) right.
The alt-right’s version of free speech, or alt-free speech as I call it, is completely removed from these values. If you support them, then even severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive harassment will be defended as free speech. If you oppose them, then even reasoned criticism of the alt-right will be described as threatening, harassing, and not worth protection.
4. An Alternative Set of Rules
While Kevin was freely extolling the virtues of neo-Nazi groups such as the Golden State Skinheads, I was rebutting him with one arm tied behind my back. I eventually discovered that the same friend of his who banned me from that mailing list for conservatives was also an owner of this mailing list for free speech.
Thus, at times I had to self-censor myself in responding to Kevin, as I was constantly worried about this person issuing another arbitrary ban against me.
An Attempt to Expose the Alt-Right
Eventually, I did decide to try a different strategy: telling the story of my ban on a few related mailing lists. Admittedly, I did not execute this strategy perfectly and made some mistakes, but then the alt-right made the matter much worse by circling the wagons in response.
They launched all sorts of personal attacks my way, and often made grandiose accusations with little substance. Frequently they tried to use the word “threatening” to describe my behavior, but when I asked specifically which words of mine were threatening, I was met with silence.
At one point, someone did out me for having talked to HR about my ban in act of retaliation. That was the last straw for me, and reluctantly, I decided to go to HR about the matter again.
Eventually, they decided to punish neither myself nor Kevin, but they sent us both to mediation with someone from outside Google. As for the person who outed me for having to talked to HR, I had to be quite persistent about that matter before they would address it as well.
Face-to-Face with the Alt-Right
Dealing with Kevin face-to-face is…an experience. A lot of people treat face-to-face meetings as a magical panacea that will cure all communication issues, but dealing with the manipulation, the personal attacks, and the crazy rhetoric in person was quite the ordeal. He also would frequently make demands of me, but he would offer nothing back in return.
To some extent, it’s something that can only be experienced, not understood.
Kevin also was pretty loose with the truth. Initially, he claimed to have no role in banning me from the mailing list for conservatives, but with some of his later comments, it became clearly evident that he was quite involved, and the person who banned me was a good friend of his.
A Brazen Liar
Shortly after mediation, Kevin brazenly lied, claiming to someone else that we had agreed to something in mediation that I had never agreed to. Even more brazenly, he told this lie with me on the recipients list. I contacted the meditator about this, and she confirmed it was a lie as well.
After I confirmed his lie, I immediately contacted HR as well, but they let him get away with the lie. They gave a really weird explanation as to why he did not lie, and when I followed up to show why that explanation was wrong, they never replied back to me. If you wanted one incident that accurately captures HR’s role in this whole mess, it would be this one.
For the first time, I actually was legitimately scared of Kevin a bit. I had never seen such brazen and gross misconduct, and I never expected him to get away with it. He really does fight dirty.