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Critics Slam Facebook But Zuckerberg Resists Blocking Trump's Posts

CEO Mark Zuckerberg's hands-off approach to President Trump has set off a public revolt among Facebook employees that is the company's biggest challenge this year.
George Frey
Bloomberg via Getty Images
CEO Mark Zuckerberg's hands-off approach to President Trump has set off a public revolt among Facebook employees that is the company's biggest challenge this year.

Congressional Democrats and two influential Washington think tanks this week joined the mounting criticism of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for doing nothing about President Trump's most inflammatory post on the recent protests over police brutality and racism.

Facebook's detractors — which also include civil rights groups, scientists who have received funding from Zuckerberg's charity, and the social network's own employees — are outraged at the company's response to a post in which the president wrote, "when the looting starts, the shooting starts."

When Trump tweeted an identical message, Twitter took the novel step of hiding the tweet behind a warning label, saying it broke its rules against glorifying violence.

Zuckerberg saw it differently. Even though he was personally disgusted by the president's inflammatory rhetoric, he said, the post did not break Facebook's rules against inciting violence.

On Monday, Democrats on the House Committee on Homeland Security sent a letter demanding the CEO explain Facebook's lack of action on Trump's "violent, harassing, and dangerous rhetoric."

"There is a difference between being a platform that facilitates public discourse and one that peddles incendiary, race-baiting innuendo guised as political speech for profit," they wrote. "Last week, your employees walked out to stand up against racism and in support of truth. You should decide which side you are on."

Also this week, the Open Technology Institute and Public Knowledge, two left-leaning advocacy groups, said they would no longer accept funding from Facebook.

Employee backlash overshadows other big challenges in 2020

The external outcry follows an unprecedented public revolt among Facebook employees that has become a major challenge for a company that prizes loyalty and discourages leaking.

Zuckerberg has a lot riding on 2020. With the presidential election approaching, he is under pressure to show that Facebook has learned from the mistakes of 2016, when Russian trollsused the platform to spread divisive conspiracy theories and disinformation aimed at American voters. Zuckerberg is also grappling with the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. As a record number of people have logged onto Facebook, there is new urgency for the company to stop the spread of health-related hoaxes.

And now, dissent that usually remains inside Facebook has spilled into public view. A dozen employees — using their real names — have tweeted against Zuckerberg's decision. Perhaps the most dramatic statement came from software engineer Tim Aveni, who announced on social media that he was quitting his job at Facebook in protest.

"I've seen a couple times now that Mark doesn't uphold his principles," Aveni told CNN.

"Zuck has told us over and over that calls to violence would not be tolerated on the platform, even if they were by the president of the United States," he said. "If Mark keeps moving that goal post, moving his threshold for when someone has crossed the line, especially someone as powerful as the president of the United States, we're in danger."

Controversy shines light on Facebook's lack of diversity

The criticism reflects a pileup of new and old frustrations. Like most big Silicon Valley tech companies, Facebook has few employees of color, especially in leadership and technical roles. Less than 4 percent of its U.S. employees are black, according to its latest diversity report.

"More people are encouraged to be vocal because now, a lot of employees are seeing that Facebook isn't really doing anything and is putting us deeper and deeper into trouble," said Mark Luckie. He left Facebook in 2018, after just a year with the company.

Luckie, who is black, was hired to build relationships with influencers from underrepresented communities. But he says he encountered exclusion and discrimination at Facebook.

"When I saw that I was going up against this company to do what they hired me to do, I was like, well, I shouldn't be here," he said. He wrote a scathing memo accusing the company of "failing its black employees and its black users."

The criticism Luckie voiced almost two years ago is also a big part of the current backlash. Many employees were particularly disturbed that only one black person — Maxine Williams, the chief diversity officer — was involved in the decision to leave up Trump's post.

Zuckerberg told employees he wants to "make sure the right groups and voices are at the table."

Facebook told NPR in a statement: "We have teams from around the company giving serious attention to the ideas we're hearing, especially those from our Black community. This is a time not just to listen but to act."

Zuckerberg: "People should be able to see what politicians say"

But so far, the CEO has stuck to his position on Trump and, more broadly, his hands-off approach to what political leaders say on his social network.

"I think political speech is one the most sensitive parts in a democracy and people should be able to see what politicians say," he told CNBC in an interview before Trump posted his message about the protests. "Political speech is the most scrutinized speech already by a lot of the media."

As the backlash has built up, Zuckerberg has acknowledged just how upset his employees are. In a staff memo last week, he said he wanted "to acknowledge that the decision I made last week has left many of you angry, disappointed and hurt."

In a small concession, he said Facebook will review its policies on allowing "discussion and threats of state use of force" and on voter suppression, the subject of another controversy about a Trump post.

He also said he would consider taking Twitter's approach of labeling posts that break the rules. That would be a departure from Facebook's current policy, which states that posts should either be removed entirely or left untouched.

Financial pressure: "Facebook is all about the brand"

Some Facebook critics say the biggest pressure point to force real change at the social network is money. The company's business depends on $70 billion in annual advertising revenue, which in turn depends on keeping billions of users tuned in to the platform.

"Let's be honest, Facebook is all about the brand, because at the end of the day, it's just a website," said Dipayan Ghosh, who used to work on policy issues at Facebook and is now co-director of the Digital Platforms and Democracy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Losing some of those users or advertisers would get Zuckerberg's attention, Ghosh said.

But for now, the CEO has made his stance clear. In January, he told investors that Facebook would start explaining its policies better, and worry less about whether those policies are popular.

"My goal for this next decade isn't to be liked," he said, "but to be understood."

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

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Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.