When Palmer Luckey, co-founder of Oculus Rift, revealed in an interview last week that he is a financial backer of a pro-Donald Trump group, he received immediate backlash from the virtual reality community – many threatened to pull partnerships with Oculus if Mr. Luckey remains in the company.
The reaction highlights the pervasiveness of political liberals – and how difficult it is to be a practicing conservative in Silicon Valley. But the backlash against Luckey also drew criticism of the tech industry for attempting to silence free speech. Some see a familiar pattern of intolerance: Two years ago, Brendan Eich stepped down as chief executive officer of Mozilla Foundation after 15 days on the job when it was revealed that he supported a California proposition against gay marriage.
“In the Bay Area there tends to be a habit of not creating a safe space for people to express themselves, so they actually feel like they can’t openly talk about issues,” Aaron Ginn, founder of Lincoln Initiative, an right-of-center effort to combine technology and public policy, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an interview. “They’re afraid they’re going to be called names or ostracized in their business.”
In recent elections, some of the most high-profile Silicon Valley executives have been publicly donating to Democratic candidates. Republican employees in the tech sector, however, have been reported to hide their identities and views for fear of judgment. Tensions may be particularly acute this year as the Republican presidential candidate has attacked tech giants – Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg, and Apple CEO Tim Cook – for their position on policy issues ranging from privacy to immigration.
But after PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel’s high-profile endorsement of Mr. Trump and Facebook’s outreach to Republican groups after allegations of bias in excluding conservative news sites in its trending topics, more scrutiny is being placed on what some call Silicon Valley’s lack of ideological diversity.
“I’d say it’s getting better because more people are willing to vocalize themselves,” Mr. Ginn says.
Luckey funded Nimble America, a group that specializes in circulating internet memes criticizing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. One of the memes it created includes an image of Mrs. Clinton’s face with the words “Too Big to Jail.”
Luckey, using the name “NimbleRichMan,” announced in a Reddit site dedicated to Trump that he would match any donations given to the group. He revealed his identity to The Daily Beast following the publication’s article about his involvement with the group.
“I reached out to the leaders of this community because I am doing everything I can to help make America great again. I have already donated significant funds to Nimble America, and will continue to do so,” Luckey wrote in a deleted post, as reported by The Guardian. “Let’s generate some success of our own. Make America great again with your meme magic, centipedes of The Donald!”
Since then, several high-profile game developers have condemned Luckey’s involvement with Nimble America. Scruta Games announced on Twitter it would cancel support for Oculus unless Luckey leaves, and Tomorrow Today Labs, a virtual reality video game company, also said they will pull support for Oculus, calling Luckey’s actions “unacceptable.”
Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe published in a Facebook post clarifying that ”everyone at Oculus is free to support the issues or causes that matter to them, whether or not we agree with those views” and that Luckey’s views don’t represent the company.
Some of his critics also made clear that they are not punishing Luckey for his support of the Republican Party, but for the organization that he funded, with one VR animations producer differentiating it from “mainstream conservatism” that is “quite uncontroversial.”
Luckey has since apologized on Facebook for his actions for “negatively impacting the perception of Oculus and its partners,” clarifying that he is a libertarian with plans to vote for the party’s candidate, Gary Johnson. He denies writing as “NimbleRIchMan” and deleting the account, but admits donating $10,000 to the group.
“I contributed $10,000 to Nimble America because I thought the organization had fresh ideas on how to communicate with young voters through the use of several billboards,” Luckey wrote.
The increased attention, however, has not translated to more Silicon Valley political diversity, Justin Danhof, general counsel for the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative political foundation, tells the Monitor in an interview.
“I think it’s more just a recognition,” Mr. Danhof says. “There is more light being shed on the fact that they are liberal and unwelcoming to conservatives but I think the light hasn’t done anything. In fact, there has been more impunity.”
After Eich’s incident at Mozilla, Danhof says his organization pushed for tech companies to include explicit wording in their employee handbooks that prohibit discrimination on the basis of political beliefs. He also suggests that in technology company boards of directors, there should be ideological diversity alongside the usual search for diversity in gender and ethnicity.
“I think it’s better for the company rather than everyone having groupthink,” he says.