Mark Zuckerberg may have a mutiny on his hands this week as a significant number of Facebook employees are reportedly protesting the company's stance on President Trump and the inflammatory messages he has cross-posted on both Facebook and Twitter. While Twitter made an unprecedented move to apply its policies against certain kinds of content to Trump's tweets last week, Facebook held firm to Zuckerberg's conviction that the president's posts must not be fact-checked or censored in any way.
As the New York Times reports, Zuckerberg and top executives are getting pushback from "a number of clusters of employees" including a group that is staging a virtual walk-out today. Those employees have said in outgoing voicemail greetings and email auto-replies that they were not coming to work Monday in protest of Zuckerberg's stance, and to press the company to take a harder line against the president.
Twitter last week posted a fact-check link beside one of the president's tweets casting doubt on the integrity of mail-in voting, and subsequently hid one of the president's tweets about shooting looters behind a message stating that it violated a policy against content that glorifies violence. But Facebook refused to take action against identical messages that appeared on its platform, which garnered direct praise from Trump.
"The hateful rhetoric advocating violence against black demonstrators by the US President does not warrant defense under the guise of freedom of expression," wrote one Facebook employee on an internal message board, per the Times. "Along with Black employees in the company, and all persons with a moral conscience, I am calling for Mark to immediately take down the President’s post advocating violence, murder and imminent threat against Black people."
Zuckerberg posted on his own Facebook page Friday in defense of his stance, saying, "Personally, I have a visceral negative reaction to this kind of divisive and inflammatory rhetoric. But I’m responsible for reacting not just in my personal capacity but as the leader of an institution committed to free expression."
The problem is that Facebook, like Twitter, has policies banning certain kinds of content, and an entire infrastructure it's built over the last several years to combat misinformation of various kinds. But when it comes to elected leaders lying or inciting violence, Zuckerberg has held firm in the conviction that their content must remain unchecked and unchanged with few exceptions.
"What I believe is that in a democracy, it's really important that people can see for themselves what politicians are saying, so they can make their own judgments," Zuckerberg said in a December interview with Gayle King of CBS News. "And, you know, I don't think that a private company should be censoring politicians or news."
That interview came after several months in which Facebook was criticized on the campaign trail by Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and others for continuing to promote misinformation and lies from the president and his campaign — and after Zuckerberg was found to have had a semi-secret dinner at the White House with conservative billionaire Peter Thiel and the president.
Zuckerberg echoed that same thought in an interview last week on Fox News, saying, "I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online, and neither should other private companies."
Conservatives and far-right pundits have long complained that their right to free speech is infringed on social media platforms, particularly when it comes to definitions of hate speech. And while Twitter and Facebook have policies against various kinds of hate speech and racial animus that have been applied to these figures — some of whom have been de-platformed and subsequently moved on to more niche platforms like Parler and Gab — Trump has often toed the line of hate speech himself, and until last week neither platform had called him on any of his posts.
In light of the nationwide unrest the past several days, and the role that social media plays in fueling and amplifying outrage of all kinds, Zuckerberg is facing yet another moment in which his policies are making Facebook look like it's on the wrong side of history.
Two senior employees told the New York Times that they are threatening to resign in protest if Zuckerberg doesn't change his mind this time. Others have been calling for the resignation of Joel Kaplan, a lonely Republican among the company's upper ranks, who previously came under fire for his friendship with and support of accused sexual assaulter turned Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Another employee, engineer Lauren Tan, posted to Twitter on Friday, "Facebook’s inaction in taking down Trump’s post inciting violence makes me ashamed to work here. I absolutely disagree with it. I enjoy the technical parts of my job and working alongside smart/kind people, but this isn't right. Silence is complicity."
Liz Bourgeois, a Facebook spokesperson, had this to say in a rote statement Monday: "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."
But Zuckerberg is clearly concerned with self-preservation, as he has been in the past, and indeed Trump's retaliation against Twitter's actions last week likely leaves Facebook in more potential trouble than Twitter. When it comes to the government turning on social media and taking harder antitrust action, for instance, Facebook is the more obvious target. But for now Trump seems more interested in punishing both companies with some revision to a longstanding federal law that protects them from liability for their users' posted content.
By the way, if that law — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — didn't exist, and Trump's post actually did succeed in causing death or injury to someone, it would be Facebook that could get sued for not removing it.
Photo: Donald Trump/Facebook