Facebook Employees Revolt Over Zuckerberg's Hands-Off Approach To Trump

Jun 1, 2020
Originally published on June 4, 2020 11:32 pm

Updated at 10:52 p.m. ET

Facebook is facing an unusually public backlash from its employees over the company's handling of President Trump's inflammatory posts about protests in the police killing of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis.

At least a dozen employees, some in senior positions, have openly condemned Facebook's lack of action on the president's posts and CEO Mark Zuckerberg's defense of that decision. Some employees staged a virtual walkout Monday.

"Mark is wrong, and I will endeavor in the loudest possible way to change his mind," tweeted Ryan Freitas, director of product design for Facebook's news feed.

"I work at Facebook and I am not proud of how we're showing up," tweeted Jason Toff, director of product management. "The majority of coworkers I've spoken to feel the same way. We are making our voice heard."

The social network also is under intense pressure from civil rights groups, Democrats and the public over its decision to leave up posts from the president that critics say violate Facebook's rules against inciting violence. These included a post last week about the protests in which the president said, "when the looting starts, the shooting starts."

Twitter, in contrast, put a warning label on a tweet in which the president said the same thing, saying it violated rules against glorifying violence.

The move escalated a feud with the president that started when the company put fact-checking labels on two of his tweets earlier in the week. Trump retaliated by signing an executive order that attempts to strip online platforms of long-held legal protections.

Zuckerberg has long said he believes the company should not police what politicians say on its platform, arguing that political speech is already highly scrutinized. In a post Friday, the Facebook CEO said he had "been struggling with how to respond" to Trump's posts.

"Personally, I have a visceral negative reaction to this kind of divisive and inflammatory rhetoric," he wrote. "I know many people are upset that we've left the President's posts up, but our position is that we should enable as much expression as possible unless it will cause imminent risk of specific harms or dangers spelled out in clear policies."

Zuckerberg said Facebook had examined the post and decided to leave it up because "we think people need to know if the government is planning to deploy force." He added that the company had been in touch with the White House to explain its policies. Zuckerberg spoke with Trump by phone Friday, according to a report published by Axios.

On Monday evening, Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, held a Zoom video call with leaders of three civil rights groups that have criticized the company's response to Trump's posts.

Vanita Gupta of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Rashad Robinson of Color of Change said in a joint statement they were "disappointed" by Zuckerberg's "incomprehensible explanations" for allowing Trump's post about the protests as well as earlier false claims about mail-in ballots.

"He did not demonstrate understanding of historic or modern-day voter suppression and he refuses to acknowledge how Facebook is facilitating Trump's call for violence against protesters," they said. "Mark is setting a very dangerous precedent for other voices who would say similar harmful things on Facebook."

Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman, said: "We're grateful that leaders in the civil rights community took the time to share candid, honest feedback with Mark and Sheryl. It is an important moment to listen, and we look forward to continuing these conversations."

While Facebook's 48,000 employees often debate policies and actions within the company, it is unusual for staff to take that criticism public. But the decision not to remove Trump's posts has caused significant distress within the company, which is spilling over into public view.

"Censoring information that might help people see the complete picture *is* wrong. But giving a platform to incite violence and spread disinformation is unacceptable, regardless who you are or if it's newsworthy," tweeted Andrew Crow, head of design for the company's Portal devices. "I disagree with Mark's position and will work to make change happen."

Several employees said on Twitter they were joining Monday's walkout.

"Facebook's recent decision to not act on posts that incite violence ignores other options to keep our community safe," tweeted Sara Zhang, a product designer.

In a statement, Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne said: "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."

Less than 4% of Facebook's U.S.-based staff are black, according to the company's most recent diversity report.

Facebook will not make employees participating in the walkout use paid time off, and it will not discipline those who participate.

On Sunday, Zuckerberg said the company would commit $10 million to groups working on racial justice. "I know Facebook needs to do more to support equality and safety for the Black community through our platforms," he wrote.

Editor's note: Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


Facebook employees are rebelling against the company's CEO. They are upset that Mark Zuckerberg has not done more about President Trump's most inflammatory posts about the protests over the death of George Floyd. It's a different choice than is being made by Twitter. Twitter has put warning labels with links to more information when the president has made the very same false or incendiary claims that he's made on Facebook. NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond joins us. And we should note, by the way, that Facebook is an NPR sponsor. Good morning, Shannon.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What exactly does Facebook do when the president puts the same message on Twitter as on Facebook?

BOND: Well, nothing. Facebook has these same rules that Twitter does that say you can't use the platform to incite violence or spread false information about things like voting. And as you said, Trump has done both over the past week. For example, in his tweet about the protests and in his posts on Facebook, he wrote, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. But Facebook took no action on these posts. And that's because Mark Zuckerberg says he doesn't believe a private company like his should restrict what a political leader says, although we should say Facebook has pulled down a false message from the president of Brazil. And Zuckerberg himself said in a public Facebook post that he had a visceral negative reaction to Trump's posts.

INSKEEP: So what kind of reaction has Zuckerberg's lack of action prompted, if I'm saying that all correctly?

BOND: Well, he is getting a lot of pushback from civil rights groups, Democratic politicians and his own employees. They say, you know, Facebook has these rules, but when it comes to enforcing them, it's moving the line, they say, to accommodate the president. On Monday, Zuckerberg and his second in command, Sheryl Sandberg, had a Zoom call with three prominent civil rights groups that are pushing for him to change the decision. I spoke with the president of one of those groups, Color of Change. His name is Rashad Robinson. And he says he was deeply disappointed by the conversation. He thinks Zuckerberg just doesn't understand the sensitive issues this decision brings up. Here's what he said.

RASHAD ROBINSON: Right now, we have a private citizen controlling one of the largest, most powerful public squares. And the idea that someone that controls public square doesn't understand civil rights is actually a problem, given the history of this country.

BOND: After the meeting, Facebook put out this statement. It was kind of vague. It said they appreciated the feedback, but they didn't promise any action. And so some employees are also pretty upset about this.

INSKEEP: OK. How are they expressing that discomfort?

BOND: Well, they're going public with their disagreement, which is really notable because it's pretty rare for them to do that. And to be clear, Facebook says it encourages employees to speak openly when they disagree with leadership. There's often debate within the company over these policies. But generally, employees tell me that the company discourages them from speaking out. But you have these employees posting on Twitter under their real names. They say they think Zuckerberg is wrong. One software engineer even publicly resigned. He wrote a public post about quitting. And he says Facebook's on the wrong side of history.

INSKEEP: Is Zuckerberg listening?

BOND: Well, he did move up the company's weekly all-hands meeting. It's usually on Thursday. They held it yesterday to address this growing backlash. But when he had the call, he doubled down. He defended his decision. And one employee who's been very vocal about disagreeing with Facebook tweeted during the meeting - it's crystal clear today that leadership refuses to stand with us.

Look. Zuckerberg is the CEO of this company. He controls most of the voting shares at Facebook. This is his decision. This is his company. And it's not a democracy. What he decides goes.

INSKEEP: Shannon, thanks.

BOND: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.