In a rare display of public dissent, Facebook employees are criticizing CEO Mark Zuckerberg. They disagree with his decision to do nothing about President Donald Trump’s inflammatory posts about people protesting the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
After Trump posted on Friday on both Facebook and Twitter that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” in response to protests in Minneapolis, civil rights leaders from groups such as Color of Change — as well some of Facebook’s own employees — called for the social media companies to take the posts down or otherwise flag them for violent rhetoric.
Twitter left up the controversial post but put a warning label on it, building on a decision it made earlier in the week when it fact-checked the president’s tweets that shared misleading information about voting by mail. But Zuckerberg decided to leave all of the posts up as-is, arguing that while he strongly disagreed with the president’s comments about protesters, the post didn’t violate company policies about inciting violence. He had appeared on Fox News earlier in the week as well, where he criticized Twitter for fact-checking Trump’s posts on mail-in ballots. He said he didn’t want his company to be an “arbiter of truth” on political issues.
Now, Zuckerberg is facing an unprecedented public backlash from Facebook employees. On Twitter, several senior-level employees have criticized Zuckerberg’s decision to leave Trump’s comments up. Dozens of employees are participating in a “virtual walkout” protest by taking Monday off and changing their internal avatars to an icon of a raised fist, as the New York Times first reported.
Recode has learned that employees are continuing to openly challenge company leadership on internal forums and in a regularly scheduled virtual Q&A meeting with Facebook Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer on Monday. For Facebook, a company with a famously unified culture, which at times some former employees have described as sycophantic, this represents a significant internal shift at the company. It reflects both the urgency of current events as well as the frustration of employees who have been quietly agitating in private for Facebook to take action on Trump’s posts but feel the company ignored their voices.
As tensions peaked on Sunday evening, Zuckerberg announced the company will donate $10 million toward groups working on racial justice. But that seemed to incense some employees even more.
“Instead of throwing money at this, can we take a real stand and change our policies and products to get at the root of the problem?” one employee wrote, according to internal comments on Zuckerberg’s post announcing the donation on Facebook’s internal Workplace platform for employee communication, which Recode viewed. “Why are we standing by and letting our platform be used to threaten and incite violence?”
This isn’t the first time Facebook has been accused of inaction when it comes to enforcing its moderation rules on posts from Trump or other high-profile politicians. But now employees are voicing concerns, arguing that Facebook has an important role to play in setting the standards of acceptability for a world leader’s discourse.
“We recognize the pain many of our people are feeling right now, especially our Black community. We encourage employees to speak openly when they disagree with leadership. As we face additional difficult decisions around content ahead, we’ll continue seeking their honest feedback,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement to Recode, adding that Facebook will support employees who participate in the virtual walkout Monday by not requiring them to use their own paid time off.
“How do you expect us to work at a company that supports a man who is constantly inciting violence and bigotry in this country?” another employee wrote on Zuckerberg’s internal company post announcing the $10 million donation. The post had more than 200 employee comments as of Monday morning, most of them critical, according to a source who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Some employees, however, seem to line up behind Zuckerberg, with one commenter saying that “probably the silent majority” of Facebook employees support the CEO. Another employee proposed running a company-wide survey to gauge whether or not that’s true. In a National Research Group poll reported by Axios, a narrow majority of Americans are in favor of moderating Trump’s speech online, with 54 percent of respondents saying they support Trump being fact-checked on social media.
In addition to voicing their anger, many Facebook employees proposed solutions to Facebook’s issues around moderating Trump, such as reworking its hate speech rules or applying its policies around violent speech and misleading information to politicians as stringently as it does to regular people.
“I think the most important thing is that we use the exact same standard to treat Trump’s post as we treat all the other potential violence incitement posts on our platform,” wrote another Facebook employee in response to Zuckerberg’s Sunday internal post. “Even though he is a ‘celebrity,’ given the sensitivity of the topic and his influence, we don’t want to shield him from any protection.”
Another asked when Facebook will actually kick off its planned independent oversight board, which is supposed to make decisions on contentious posts.
But the oversight board is reportedly going to take months, at the earliest, to become operational. And even then, it likely wouldn’t address the kinds of incendiary statements Trump posts because it will start by reviewing content that may have been unfairly taken down — and Trump’s comments about protesters have been allowed to stay up.
In the meantime, Facebook will continue to face employee pushback, which shows no signs of abating. Amid intense employee pressure, Zuckerberg is shifting the company’s end-of-week all-hands to Tuesday, when he is expected to address concerns about recent decisions in an internal Q&A.