Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive, testifies before a House committee in Washington on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019. Zuckerberg, on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, stood firmly behind his decision to not do anything about President Donald Trump’s inflammatory posts on the social network, saying that he had made a “tough decision” but that it “was pretty thorough.”
Image: Pete Marovich/The New York Times
SAN FRANCISCO — Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, on Tuesday stood firmly behind his decision not to do anything about President Donald Trump’s inflammatory posts on the social network, saying that he had made a “tough decision” but that it “was pretty thorough.”
In a question-and-answer session with employees conducted over video chat software, Zuckerberg sought to justify his position, which has led to fierce internal dissent. The meeting, which had been scheduled for Thursday, was moved up to Tuesday after hundreds of employees protested the inaction by staging a virtual “walkout” Monday.
Facebook’s principles and policies supporting free speech “show that the right action where we are right now is to leave this up,” Zuckerberg said on the call, referring to Trump’s posts. The audio of the employee call was heard by The New York Times.
Zuckerberg said that although he knew many people would be upset with Facebook, a policy review backed up his decision. He added that after he made his determination, he received a phone call from Trump on Friday.
“I used that opportunity to make him know I felt this post was inflammatory and harmful, and let him know where we stood on it,” Zuckerberg told Facebook employees. But though he voiced displeasure to the president, he reiterated that Trump’s message did not break the social network’s guidelines.
The Facebook chief held firm even as the pressure on him to rein in Trump’s messages intensified. Civil rights groups said late Monday after meeting with Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, that it was “totally confounding” that the company was not taking a tougher stand on Trump’s posts, which are often aggressive and have heightened tensions over protests on police violence in recent days.
Several Facebook employees have resigned over the lack of action, with one publicly saying the company would end up “on the wrong side of history.” And protesters showed up late Monday to Zuckerberg’s residential neighborhood in Palo Alto, California, and also headed toward the social network’s headquarters in nearby Menlo Park.
The internal dissent began brewing last week after Facebook’s rival, Twitter, added labels to Trump’s tweets that indicated the president was glorifying violence and making inaccurate statements. The same messages that Trump posted to Twitter also appeared on Facebook. But unlike Twitter, Facebook did not touch the president’s posts, including one in which Trump said of the protests in Minneapolis: “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
That decision led to internal criticism, with Facebook employees arguing it was untenable to leave up Trump’s messages that incited violence. They said Zuckerberg was kowtowing to Republicans out of fear of Facebook being regulated or broken up.
Zuckerberg and Sandberg have spent the past few days meeting with employees, civil rights leaders and other angry parties to explain the company’s stance. Zuckerberg has said Facebook does not want to be an “arbiter of truth.” He has also said that he stands for free speech and that what world leaders post online is in the public interest and newsworthy.
But in trying to placate everyone, Zuckerberg has failed to appease almost anyone. Facebook employees have continued criticizing their employer on Twitter, LinkedIn and on their personal Facebook pages. Some circulated petitions calling for change. On Monday, hundreds of workers participated in the virtual “walkout” by refusing to work and setting their automated messages to one of protest.
Timothy Aveni, a Facebook software engineer who resigned after Zuckerberg’s decision to leave up Trump’s posts, said on his Facebook page on Monday that the company wasn’t enforcing its own rules to ban speech that promotes violence.
“Facebook will keep moving the goalposts every time Trump escalates, finding excuse after excuse not to act on increasingly dangerous rhetoric,” Aveni said.
Politicians and civil rights organizations have also taken issue with Zuckerberg’s position.
On Monday evening, Vanita Gupta, who heads the National Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, took part in a one-hour phone call with Zuckerberg, Sandberg and other Facebook officials. Afterward, she said Zuckerberg “betrayed a lack of understanding” and compared Facebook’s inaction on Trump’s posts to its inaction in Myanmar and the Philippines, where military and government leaders have used Facebook to spread disinformation and provoke violence.
Later that evening, Sandberg posted on Facebook’s internal message board and described the conversation with civil rights leaders as a “hard but meaningful” one, according to a copy of the message viewed by The Times.
On Tuesday in the virtual meeting with employees, Zuckerberg spent 30 minutes laying out what had happened with Trump’s posts. He said the president’s looting-and-shooting message, which went up on Friday, was immediately spotted by Facebook’s policy team. Zuckerberg woke up at 7:30 a.m. in Palo Alto that day to an email about the post. The policy team called the White House, he said, telling officials there that Trump’s message was inflammatory.
Zuckerberg spent the rest of last Friday morning talking to policy officials and other experts at Facebook. He ultimately decided Trump’s post had not broken Facebook’s policies.
Zuckerberg said Trump’s post relied on a call for “state use of force,” which Facebook allows under its guidelines. He said that in the future, the social network might reassess that policy, given the photos and videos of excessive use of force by police that have spread across social media in recent days.
After explaining his thought process, Zuckerberg took questions from employees in the virtual meeting on Tuesday, according to a copy of the call. One Facebook employee in New York expressed support for Zuckerberg’s position. But the vast majority of questions were pointed and the call became increasingly contentious.
Zuckerberg was asked whether any black Facebook employees were consulted in the decision-making process. He named one. A Facebook employee in Austin, Texas, then said that he felt the company’s political speech policy wasn’t working and needed to be changed.
One persistent feeling shared among Facebook’s rank-and-file came out in a direct moment between Zuckerberg and another employee during the call.
“Why are the smartest people in the world focused on contorting and twisting our policies to avoid antagonizing Trump?” the employee asked.
In a statement, a Facebook spokeswoman said that “open and honest discussion has always been a part of Facebook’s culture,” and that Zuckerberg was “grateful” for employees’ feedback.
The call did little to soothe the feelings of employees. More than a dozen current and former Facebook employees said the call only deepened the frictions inside the company; some said that trying to persuade Zuckerberg to change his mind was futile.
“It’s crystal clear today that leadership refuses to stand with us,” Brandon Dail, a Facebook engineer, tweeted about the call.
©2019 New York Times News Service