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A nonprofit tried to fix tech culture, but lost control

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A nonprofit tried to fix tech culture, but lost control

Allen, a fact scientist and Massachi, a software engineer, worked for almost four years at Facebook on some of the nastiest aspects of social media, combating scams and electoral meddling. They did not know each other, but both resigned in 2019, frustrated at feeling a lack of support from executives. “The work that teams like the one I was in, civic integrity, was being wasted,” Massachi said in a recent talk at a conference. “Worse than a crime, it was a mistake.”

Massachi first conceived the idea of ​​using an expertise like the one he had developed at Facebook to draw greater public attention to the dangers of social platforms. He launched the nonprofit Integrity Institute with Allen. at the end of 2021after ex colleague connected them. The timing was perfect: Frances Haugen, another former Facebook employee, had just leaked a trove of company documents, catalyzing new government hearings in the United States and elsewhere over problems with social media. She joined a new class of tech nonprofits, like the Center for Humane Technology and All Tech Is Human, started by people working in the trenches of the industry who wanted to become public advocates.

Massachi and Allen infused their nonprofit, initially funded by Allen, with a tech startup culture. Initial staff with backgrounds in technology, politics, or philanthropy did not earn much, sacrificing salary for the greater good as they quickly produced a series of detailed reports. practical guides for technology companies on issues such as preventing electoral interference. Major tech philanthropy donors collectively committed a few million dollars in funding, including the Knight, Packard, MacArthur, and Hewlett foundations, as well as the Omidyar Network. Through a university-led consortium, the institute was paid to provide technology policy advice to the European Union. And the organization collaborated with media outlets, including WIRED, to investigate issues on technology platforms.

To expand its capacity beyond its small staff, the institute assembled an external network of two dozen founding experts to whom it could turn for advice or research help. The network of so-called “members” of the institute grew rapidly to include 450 people from all over the world in the following years. It became a hub for tech workers pushed out during widespread layoffs from tech platforms, which significantly reduced trust and security, or integrity, roles that oversee content moderation and policy at companies like Meta and X. Those who joined the institute’s network, which is free but involves passing an assessment, gained access to part of its Slack community where they could talk business and share job opportunities.

Great tensions began to build within the institute in March of last year, when Massachi released an internal document on Slack titled “How we work” that prohibited the use of terms such as “solidarity”, “radical” and “free market”, which , he said, seem partisan and nervous. He also encouraged avoiding the term BIPOC, an acronym for “Black, Indigenous and People of Color,” which he described as coming from the “activist space.” His manifesto appeared to echo labor principles that cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase had published in 2020, which prohibited discussions about politics and social issues that were not core to the company, prompting condemnation from some other workers and executives at technology.

“We are an open source project with an international focus. We are not a liberal nonprofit organization based in the United States. Please act accordingly,” Massachi wrote, asking staff to take “excellent actions” and use “old-fashioned words.” At least a couple of employees were offended and found the rules backward and unnecessary. An institution dedicated to tackling the thorny challenge of moderating speech now had to deal with those same problems at home.

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