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Facebook employees revolt over Zuckerberg’s stance on Trump

Mark Zuckerberg gives the keynote address at F8 in May 2018
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gives the keynote address at F8, Facebook’s developer conference in San Jose, in May 2018.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Mark Zuckerberg is facing a backlash from within Facebook, with several senior employees publicly criticizing the chief executive for refusing to take action over controversial posts by President Trump, and other staff members staging “virtual walkouts.”

As protests and rioting over the death in police custody of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, spread through several American cities this weekend, Zuckerberg was forced to defend Facebook’s position as — in his words — “an institution committed to free expression.”

On Friday, Trump posted on both Facebook and Twitter that he would respond to violent protests with military force, saying: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” But while Twitter slapped a warning on the post and hid it from view, Facebook left the message intact.

Over the weekend, Facebook employees contrasted their company’s stance unfavorably with Twitter’s, which last week also labeled two of Trump’s other tweets as potentially misleading.

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Ryan Freitas, who leads Facebook’s News Feed design team, said in a tweet: “Mark is wrong, and I will endeavor in the loudest possible way to change his mind.”

Jason Toff, who joined Facebook as a director of product management a year ago, pointed to a broader upsurge of employee activism inside the company. “I work at Facebook and I am not proud of how we’re showing up,” he posted on Twitter. “The majority of co-workers I’ve spoken to feel the same way. We are making our voice heard.”

Other staff said on Twitter that they would be partaking in “virtual walkouts” — in other words, not signing on to work — in protest of Zuckerberg’s approach. One Instagram product manager, Katie Zhu, said: “I’m deeply disappointed & ashamed in how the company is showing up the world . . . If u feel similarly, join me & let’s organise. put your ~$~zuck bucks~$ where ur tweets are.”

The backlash inside the world’s largest social media platform forced Zuckerberg to post two messages within three days — one to explain his decision and another that offered a $10-million donation to groups working on racial justice.

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Facebook said Monday that it would support employees taking part in the virtual walkouts and would not require them to use up paid time off to do so. The company has also moved its Thursday all-staff meeting — during which Zuckerberg typically takes questions from employees directly — to Tuesday.

“We encourage employees to speak openly when they disagree with leadership,” a Facebook spokesperson said. “As we face additional difficult decisions around content ahead, we’ll continue seeking their honest feedback.”

Tech staffers have proved a potent force for change in Silicon Valley in recent years, as companies including Google, Microsoft and Amazon have been targeted by their own employees over issues including workplace conditions, climate change and military contracts.

Executives and companies across the tech industry, including Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Netflix, as well as Salesforce, Slack, Uber and Twitter, expressed their support for anti-racism and criminal justice campaigns through messages to employees, on their homepages or through official social media accounts.

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“To be silent is to be complicit. Black lives matter,” said Netflix, while Amazon said: “The inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people in our country must stop.”

Facebook has faced protests in the past, most recently when Zuckerberg made the controversial decision last year not to fact check political advertising on the platform. While the chief executive has since doubled down on that particular policy, the company has moved ahead with plans to set up an independent content moderation committee, which could effectively outsource the most challenging decisions.

On Friday night, Zuckerberg wrote on his own Facebook profile that he had been “struggling with how to respond” to Trump’s posts.

“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,” he said. “I disagree strongly with how the President spoke about this, but I believe people should be able to see this for themselves, because ultimately accountability for those in positions of power can only happen when their speech is scrutinized out in the open.”

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However, after the Axios news website reported that Zuckerberg had had a “productive” phone call with Trump on Friday, several employees took to Twitter over the weekend in protest over their chief executive’s position.

Lauren Tan, who left Netflix to join Facebook as a software engineer earlier this year, said in a tweet: “Facebook’s inaction in taking down Trump’s post inciting violence makes me ashamed to work here.”

Andrew Crow, head of design for Facebook’s Portal videoconferencing device, posted on Twitter: “Censoring information that might help people see the complete picture is wrong. But giving a platform to incite violence and spread disinformation is unacceptable.”

Jason Stirman, who works on research and development at Facebook, said he “completely disagrees with Mark’s decision to do nothing about Trump’s recent posts,” adding: “I’m not alone inside of FB.”

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On Sunday night, following the barrage of criticism, Zuckerberg made another Facebook post.

“We stand with the Black community,” he wrote. “But it’s clear Facebook also has more work to do to keep people safe and ensure our systems don’t amplify bias.”

Facebook would donate $10 million to groups working to tackle racial injustice, he said, while also pointing to the tens of millions of dollars more that his personal philanthropic organization, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, invested in similar causes each year. “This week has made it clear how much more there is to do,” he said.

One of his critics, Crow, praised Facebook’s $10-million donation, calling it an “important effort.”

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