Facebook employees are increasingly speaking out against the company’s inaction over US president Donald Trump’s incendiary posts. The views of Facebook’s employees through the ranks reflect a stance closer to what has been adopted by rival social media platform Twitter, which in recent times put a fact-check label on one of Trump’s tweets, and a ‘promoting violence’ label on another. In contrast, the same messages that were cross-posted by Trump on Facebook as well, remained as is.
Freedom of speech vs Accountability
The issue at hand seems to be a long-rooted viewpoint of Mark Zuckerberg, who has, in the past, tried to steer his company away from political debates as far as possible. However, while that may have mostly served Facebook so far, its employees are taking note of the fact that Facebook as an entity is extremely powerful in today’s world, and its silence on the matter can be taken as being complicit.
Some of their protests against Facebook’s official stance have been fairly direct. For instance, Ryan Freitas, director of product design for Facebook News Feed, wrote on Twitter earlier today: “Mark is wrong, and I will endeavour in the loudest possible way to change his mind. I focused on organising 50+ like-minded folks into something that looks like internal change.”
However, the decisions being made inside Facebook’s hierarchy do not appear to have reflected what its employees feel. On the contrary, Facebook has a completely different logic altogether – if President Trump is making proclamations of violence, then the common people need to know, and Facebook as an intermediary should not exert its judgement on whether it is right or wrong. In other words, Facebook is refusing to take a stance on whether one of the world’s most powerful politicians right now is right or wrong – it wants its billions of users to make that call.
In an internal post on Facebook’s employee-only social medium, Workplace, the company’s global policy management VP, Monika Bickert, opined on Thursday, May 28:
We reviewed the claim and determined that it doesn’t break our rules against voter interference because it doesn’t mislead people about how they can register to vote or the different ways they can vote. If it had, we should have removed the post from our platform altogether because our voter interference policy applies to everyone, including politicians. That said, we do not believe that a private technology company like Facebook should be in the business of vetting what politicians say in the context of a political debate. As is the case with the President’s tweets, speech from candidates and elected officials is highly scrutinised and debated. We think people should be allowed to hear what politicians say, make up their own minds and hold politicians to account.
Bickert’s post was about the mail-in ballots post made by Trump, which was the first to be called out by Twitter. In the following days, a report by The Verge states that many employees started posting on Workplace, demanding an answer from Facebook’s policy heads about how Trump’s “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” post did not violate the platform’s standards on anti-violence. According to sources that The Verge spoke with, the post was deemed to not be a violation of Facebook’s community standards, but that message was not even clearly communicated to employees who were clearly concerned with what was going on.
Voices of internal dissent
Over the past few days, Twitter has been rife with posts from employees, both present and ex, expressing dissent over Facebook’s stance. Andrew Crow, head of design for Facebook Portal, wrote earlier today, “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. I disagree with Mark’s position and will work to make change happen.”
Jason Toff, director of Facebook’s product management, also said, “I work at Facebook and I am not proud of how we’re showing up. The majority of coworkers I’ve spoken to feel the same way. We are making our voice heard.” Even ex-employees are chipping in to this. Chris Masterson, who previously worked with Facebook and Instagram, wrote on Twitter, “Honestly embarrassed to say I ever worked at Facebook. Learned a lot from some great people, but wow, f*ck that company.”
I don't know what to do, but I know doing nothing is not acceptable. I'm a FB employee that completely disagrees with Mark's decision to do nothing about Trump's recent posts, which clearly incite violence. I'm not alone inside of FB. There isn't a neutral position on racism.— Stirman (@stirman) May 30, 2020
With the extent of dissent rising steadily, the long-debated topic of accountability for social media intermediaries have risen again. While the more recent debates have been around how platforms such as Facebook and Twitter could prevent misrepresentation and propaganda in light of elections, the discourse has now shifted to holding figures of power accountable for what they say. While freedom of speech is a critical aspect, certain messages transcend boundaries, especially at times when riots engulf American communities over George Floyd’s killing by ex-cop, David Chauvin.
How Zuckerberg’s stance differs
Earlier today, Zuckerberg posted on his page that he will commit $10 million to those who are working on racial justice. He wrote, “We're working with our civil rights advisors and our employees to identify organisations locally and nationally that could most effectively use this right now.” He further added, “The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has been one of the largest funders, investing ~$40 million annually for several years in organisations working to overcome racial injustice.”This, however, does not directly address the concerns that Facebook’s employees have raised about the company as a platform. Alphabet’s chief, Sundar Pichai, stated earlier today that via Google and YouTube, it will be raising support for the black community, and contribute towards efforts of racial justice. Streaming giant Netflix, as well as internet mogul Amazon, also joined in their support for the community. However, what differentiated each of them is how their support was expressed – as a platform, Facebook has still chosen to remain apolitical in times of serious dissent.