Google is tightening rules on internal message boards as 'new world creates urgency'

Key Points
  • Google is expanding its internal content moderation practices, requiring employees to more actively moderate resources they control and to go through training, according to documents viewed by CNBC.
  • The company believes there is an "urgency" to focus conversations as employees work from home and political and social tensions arise, stated an internal community management team.
  • The new system comes as the company tries to strike a balance between pleasing its employees and cracking down on heated conversations.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai.
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Google is asking employees to take a more active role in moderating internal message boards, as those discussions get more heated and employees remain working from home, according to documents obtained by CNBC.

The company has recently seen a rise in posts flagged for racism or abuse on its message boards, according to a recent internal blog post by Google's internal community management team. The group attributed this to Google employees sharing more as they work from home and to the rise of "tough global conversations."

As a result, the company is expanding a content moderation pilot it started in 2019 to span more than 75 discussion groups on various platforms, documents show. It will require most owners of discussion groups to serve as active moderators, to complete mandatory moderation training, and to create a "charter to define their group's purpose" as well as make sure conversations stay "inclusive" and in line with their charters.

"Our world is going to get more complicated as the year continues," the team stated in the internal blog. "Tensions continue specifically for our Black+ community with Black Lives Matter, and our Asian Googlers with coronavirus and China/Hong Kong. All of this is compounded by the additional stress of working from home, social isolation, and caregiver responsibilities — to name a few. This new world creates urgency to keep work a welcoming place."

The effort shows how leadership is attempting to appease employees' desire for transparency and open dialogue, while still cracking down on divisive distractions as staffers work from home through summer 2021.

In August 2019, the company created a formal policy cracking down on internal political discussions, which signaled a significant culture shift for the company. Some employees pushed back against the restrictions, saying they were too broad.

Google, unlike other corporations, has long boasted of being a debate-friendly, free-thinking company whose idealism was baked in early by founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who stepped down from their formal executive roles in December (although they're still the largest shareholders). The company's leadership shake-up under current Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai has been accompanied by a gradual clampdown on this freewheeling culture.

The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Where the problems lie

The internal community management team pointed to problematic conversations taking place on Dory, Google's question proposing system used at live events and meetings, and Memegen, its internal meme generator and platform. 

Approximately half of Google employees believe Memegen was "rarely" respectful, the group stated from survey findings. "While the vast majority of content shared on our platforms is perfectly fine, more flags have been submitted on Dory and Memegen in 1H 2020 than all of 2019," the team stated.

The flag category "Harassment/Discrimination" was reported most often and had the most action taken, the team added. "It's uncomfortable to acknowledge that there has been content on our platforms that reinforce negative racial stereotypes, used harmful gendered phrases, or insulted Googlers based on their nationality."

Google's internal community management team also proposed a framework for moderation where forums will fall into three buckets: "Required Moderation," which is any "content" or communities that reaches a broad audience, such as Memegen; "Recommended Moderation," which includes all-hands meetings; and "No Moderation," which are for smaller, more private groups such as employee resource groups.

In preparation for the rollout, the group teamed up with the company's user experience researchers as well as created support groups for moderators, documents show. It has also held monthly forums in recent months to get employee feedback and plans to roll it out "slowly and intentionally."

"Google has the world's best work culture and we are dedicated to getting this right," one email from the group states. "We hope this strikes the right balance between keeping Google the open culture you expect while also putting in safeguards that keep our communities welcoming to all kinds of Googlers."