The first tech company to ban the Trump campaign

Banning the GOP & Trump 2020 for promoting racism is uncharted territory. Here’s why Hotjar did it anyway.

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Hotjar is a popular behavior analytics platform that you’ve probably only heard of if you work in product or marketing. It’s by no means a household name. But last week, Hotjar made software history.

They became the first tech company to openly suspend the accounts of the Trump 2020 campaign and the GOP. In an industry where banning hate groups rarely happens, banning a political party is unthinkable. What were they thinking?

We had a front seat ticket to this story in more ways than one: Nandini kicked off the Twitter firestorm that first alerted Hotjar to their ties with the Trump campaign.

This week, we spoke to Hotjar’s Mohannad Ali about what made this decision the right move for them, and what happened behind the scenes in their unprecedented move to terminate the account of a sitting president’s re-election campaign.

Hotjar had a problem

On August 17, Nandini called attention to Hotjar for claiming to be antiracist and providing services for the Trump campaign. Her tweet created a flurry of attention and caught the eye of Twitter user @CarterD, who sent an email to Hotjar’s customer support team.

This is the reply he received back:

Talk about making things worse. Mohannad says they initially decided to play it low-key and neutral, but neither the team nor the leadership was happy about it.

“In the beginning, we tried to take a bit of a neutral approach to the situation and our response was a “business as usual” thing. We didn’t really spend a lot of time with leadership to work on this. The result was unfortunately that the people involved in this. Particularly, the customer support rep who responded to the ticket, felt very uncomfortable with the message we had suggested. This isn’t how we wanted to show up and we certainly didn’t want to put [our rep] in that kind of position.

But their response received universally negative feedback — and the situation was starting to slip out of control.

After catching heat both in public and internally, they decided they needed to step back and try again.

We thought, “Hey let’s take a second to think about how we want to act as an organization, as a team, and as individuals. This is when we started to have a more organized response and leadership discussion.”

“We want to be able to act quickly on our values”

Mohannad admits they were clueless about where to start. He and Hotjar’s CEO David Darmanin had a vision, but weren’t yet sure how to translate it into a company-wide policy:

We all land on different parts of the ideological spectrum, but there is a consensus on core values at our company. So we started thinking about how we can word our Acceptable Use Policy in a way that really maps to our values.

We realized that adding a statement like this opens up room for abuse. People might end up bombarding us with all kinds of websites. But the way we thought about it is: What’s the worst that can happen? We just want to have enough ammunition to make a strong case for why we’re taking a website down. For example, a merchandise shop that benefits a white supremacist group.

We want to have the right policy to be able to take accounts like this down quickly, even if the merchandise itself isn’t hateful.”

There is no known way to be objective

The team needed a way to think about this issue. Two tech companies inspired them and helped them hone their thinking:

  1. Patreon’s approach to content moderation called Manifest Observable Behavior
  2. Shopify’s Acceptable Use Policy, which Shopify updated in 2018 to ban products that were not explicitly illegal, but “intended to harm.

These companies had both initially tried to be neutral, but found the position to be untenable.

In their search for a new policy, Mohannad realized it would be fruitless to try and achieve objectivity or universal consensus. They would have to bring their own values to the table.

If you ask people whether they think certain things Trump said are racist or a certain executive order is racist, many of us might agree that it’s unequivocally racist, but there will never be universal consensus.

At the end of the day, there’s a degree of human arbitration that will have to happen. There are certain individuals who will have to make a decision on whether they think this is hateful or not.

In the end, they decided to implement an Acceptable Use Policy that gives them the right to suspend accounts that promote hate, division and discrimination both directly and indirectly.

You can read their full statement here.

“The most important thing: the trust of our team”

Hotjar leadership opened up a discussion in Discourse for their employees, who work remotely from 24 countries.

The biggest responsibility you have as a leader is to your team, even before your customers. Our risk was losing confidence or our team. Of admitting that we are falsely advertising who we are. Backlash is something you might get over, but breaking the trust of your team is not.

I think one of the good moves we made was to ask for everyone’s opinions. We didn’t intend to have a majority vote kind of thing. We just wanted to explore different opinions and surface all the arguments and bring the team with us on our journey. They need to be part of the exercise and discourse.”

While the final decision was up to them, Mohannad and David still worked hard to present their decision to their team, because buy-in was important to them.

Our internal message was different than the one we shared with the public. We went a lot more in-depth, showed our methodology, and a long list of evidence.

In the internal statement we made to the team, we explained our identity and values. We started talking about some of the behavior we saw Trump demonstrate. The point we were trying to make: It’s not about the person. It’s not about Trump. We’re not here to be a judge of character. But it’s clear this particular statement was racist. This particular action did target marginalized groups and so on. And we believe that these are credible threats to the community.

We presented this to the team. We said we expect it might lead to some backlash, we acknowledge this might happen on our team as well, but this is what we’re going to stand by.

“I was always more worried than I should have been”

We asked Mohannad if he had concerns before he took the message public. He said he was worried the whole time — about employees, about the GOP and the potential ways this could go wrong for them.

At every step of the way, I was always more worried than I should have been. Nothing happened. The team took it extremely well. A lot of people who initially suggested we don’t suspend anyone, after we explained it, they said “You know what? You’re right.” What you’re saying makes a lot of sense, and I stand by you.

It crossed our minds that we could be sued. We worked with lawyers and confirmed that our terms of service are legal. Especially in the US, the law is liberal for denial of service.

But the point isn’t to hold yourself to an impossible standard of perfection. It’s to improve, be transparent and keep building trust over time.

We are now holding ourselves to a new standard of how we enforce our policy. This will continue to be the biggest challenge we have now as a self-serve business. The fact remains we still don’t know everyone who is using our tool and script.

We’re going to try to improve the ways we enforce our policy, but for the time being, we’re going to rely on our community and team to flag things.

We plan to create more transparency for the community on what happens after you submit a violation report. Soon, we’re going to publish a page that explains what our internal processes are, how we investigate and who will be making these judgment calls.

Mohannad’s advice for tech executives

What advice does Mohannad have for a tech executive who might find themselves in the same position as him? He says:

  1. Take it seriously, take the time to respond. It’s a good thing when someone is holding you accountable. Embrace it rather than ignore it.
  2. Ignore the temptation to try to be objective. People think standing by the sideline is an objective standpoint, but being neutral is still a subjective opinion of how you’re dealing with a certain situation. So don’t be afraid to bring yourself into the conversation. This is where we got paralyzed in the beginning: “What’s the ‘right’ objective way to do this?”
  3. Everything is intersectional. At the end of the day, companies don’t exist in a vacuum. Companies are the people within the company. It’s impossible to ask people to disconnect who they are outside of work. Ultimately you’ll make a decision based on personal convictions and that’s not a bad thing.

That is definitely some hard-won advice. “We came THAT close to making the wrong decision,” says Mohannad. “Sometimes you need a slap on the face to remind you who you are.

Thanks for reading,

Nandini and Claire

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