TimnitTimnit Gebru had expected her colleagues to rally around her when she was abruptly fired from Google on December 2nd. She was a well-respected AI ethics researcher, her termination as controversial as it was sudden. What she hadn’t anticipated was becoming a catalyst for labor activism in Silicon Valley — or the subject of a harassment campaign that surfaced alongside her supporters.
Her firing came weeks after Google managers asked her to retract a paper on the dangers of large language models, like the ones that power the company’s search engine. Gebru pushed back, saying the company needed to be more transparent about the publication process. Employees saw the termination as a blatant act of retaliation, and thousands of workers, researchers, and academics signed an open letter demanding an explanation.
In early December, as media attention mounted and tech workers across the country came to her defense, Gebru waited to see how Google would respond. What is this company capable of? she asked herself. She didn’t have to wait long to find out.
“Twitter enabled Gebru’s colleagues to stand up for her; it also made her vulnerable to a small but very active group of harassers”
On December 4th, Jeff Dean, Google’s head of AI, published his views on Gebru’s dismissal. He said she had resigned — a fact she openly disputed — and that her paper hadn’t met the bar for publication. His words lay the groundwork for a very different type of campaign, one which used the groundswell of support surrounding Gebru’s firing as a stand-in for the ills of cancel culture. Twitter enabled Gebru’s colleagues to stand up for her; it also made her vulnerable to a small but very active group of harassers.
Over the next two months, Pedro Domingos, a professor emeritus at the University of Washington, and Michael Lissack, a Wall Street whistleblower turned admitted harasser, promoted the narrative that Gebru’s work was “advocacy disguised as science.” They said she’d created a toxic environment at Google and was “obsessed with being a victim.” They wrote off her supporters as sycophants and “deranged activists.”
On Twitter, the campaign gained momentum with the help of anonymous accounts. Gebru suspected they were sock puppets, fake profiles created for the sole purpose of harassment, since many had popped up around her firing. Some claimed to work in tech, using phrases like “pro-DEI minority,” “She/them,” and “LBGTQ Latinx” in their bios. When Emily M. Bender, a computational linguistics professor at the University of Washington and Gebru’s co-author on the paper, reported one of these accounts for harassment, Domingos implied she was being prejudiced.
““He enables these people, and gets to distance himself because he’s not the one saying ‘go back to Africa’””
To Gebru, the harassment wouldn’t be possible without Jeff Dean, who stayed quiet about the campaign for months, despite being tagged in numerous posts. “He enables these people, and gets to distance himself because he’s not the one saying ‘go back to Africa,’” she says. “Pedro [Domingos] is smart enough not to say these types of things, too. They hide behind civility and enable the trolls. That’s how they get away with it.”