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Facebook employees stage virtual walkout to protest Trump posts

  • NEW YORK TIMES / DECEMBER 5, 2019
                                The entrance to the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, Calif.

    NEW YORK TIMES / DECEMBER 5, 2019

    The entrance to the Facebook campus in Menlo Park, Calif.

OAKLAND, Calif. >> Dozens of Facebook employees, in rare public criticism today of their own company, protested executives’ decision not to do anything about inflammatory posts that President Donald Trump had placed on the giant social media platform over the past week.

The employees, who said they refused to work in order to show their support for demonstrators across the country, added an automated message to their digital profiles and email responses saying that they were out of the office in a show of protest.

The protest group — conducting a virtual “walkout” of sorts because most Facebook employees are working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic — was one of a number of clusters of employees pressing Facebook executives to take a tougher stand on Trump’s posts.

Inside the company, staff members have circulated petitions and threatened to resign, and a number of employees wrote publicly about their unhappiness on Twitter and elsewhere. More than a dozen current and former employees have described the unrest as the most serious challenge to the leadership of Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive, since the company was founded 15 years ago.

“The hateful rhetoric advocating violence against black demonstrators by the US President does not warrant defense under the guise of freedom of expression,” one Facebook employee wrote in an internal message board, according to a copy of the text viewed by The New York Times.

The employee added: “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 has argued on a number of occasions that Facebook should take a hands-off approach to what people post, including lies from elected officials and others in power. He has repeatedly said the public should be allowed to decide what to believe.

That stand was tested last week when Twitter added fact-check and warning labels to two tweets from the president that broke Twitter’s rules around voter suppression and glorification of violence. But as Twitter acted on Trump’s tweets, Facebook left them alone. Zuckerberg said Trump’s posts did not violate the social network’s rules.

“Personally, I have a visceral negative reaction to this kind of divisive and inflammatory rhetoric,” Zuckerberg said in a post to his Facebook page Friday. “But I’m responsible for reacting not just in my personal capacity but as the leader of an institution committed to free expression.”

In response to the walkout, Zuckerberg has moved his weekly meeting with employees to Tuesday, rather than Thursday. The meeting will be a chance for employees to question Zuckerberg directly on his decision.

A Facebook spokeswoman said this morning that executives welcomed feedback from employees.

“We recognize the pain many of our people are feeling right now, especially our black community,” said Liz Bourgeois, the spokeswoman. “We encourage employees to speak openly when they disagree with leadership.”

Zuckerberg’s post last week explaining his decision on Trump’s tweets frustrated many inside the company. More than a dozen Facebook employees tweeted that they disagreed with Zuckerberg’s decision, including the head of design of Facebook’s portal product, Andrew Crow.

An engineer for the platform, Lauren Tan, posted about the situation Friday. “Facebook’s inaction in taking down Trump’s post inciting violence makes me ashamed to work here,” Tan wrote in a tweet. “Silence is complicity.”

Two senior Facebook employees told The New York Times that they had informed their managers that they would resign if Zuckerberg did not reverse his decision. Another person, who was supposed to start work at the company next month, told Facebook they were no longer willing to accept a position at the company because of Zuckerberg’s decision.

Over the weekend, several petitions circulated among Facebook employees calling for the company to make personnel changes and for more diversity of voices among Zuckerberg’s top lieutenants.

In private online chats, employees have called for the resignation of Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global policy. Kaplan is seen as being a strong conservative voice within the company. In 2018, he upset some employees when he sat in the front row of the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was a close friend.

Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist who was an early investor in Facebook but in recent years has turned into an aggressive critic of the company, said Facebook’s decision to leave Trump’s posts alone was typical of a longtime pattern of behavior among big social media companies.

“Internet platforms that are pervasive — as Facebook and Google are globally — must always align with power, including authoritarians. It is a matter of self-preservation,” McNamee said. “Facebook has been a key tool for authoritarians in Brazil, the Philippines, Cambodia and Myanmar. In the U.S., Facebook has consistently ignored or altered its terms of service to the benefit of Trump. Until last week, Twitter did the same thing.”

Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, planned to host a call Monday evening with civil rights leaders who have lashed out publicly against Facebook’s protection of Trump’s posts. The call was expected to include Vanita Gupta of the National Leadership Conference, Rashad Robinson of Color of Change and Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The civil rights leaders said they would push back on Zuckerberg’s position on Trump’s posts, which they see as violations of Facebook’s community standards that do not permit voter suppression or the incitement of violence, even by political figures.

“It’s really important for Mark Zuckerberg to contend with the fact that he is prioritizing free expression while our democracy is literally burning,” said Gupta, who organized the call with the executives.

On Sunday, Zuckerberg wrote that he would be donating $10 million to groups working on racial justice. The move, coupled with his earlier post expressing solidarity with the demonstrators, did little to quell the internal protest.

Robinson, the civil rights group leader, said Facebook’s financial pledge was “one of the most insulting things I’ve ever seen.” The donation of money, he said, doesn’t change Facebook’s policy of protecting Trump’s comments that contain falsehoods and appear to violate the company’s policies against hate speech and inciting violence.

Facebook executives have long acknowledged that the company has failed to attract a diverse workforce.

“There’s a long history of Facebook, as a company, not seeing or being responsive to black employees,” said Mark Luckie, who quit the company in 2018 and published a memo titled “Facebook is failing its black employees and its black users.”

Like many Silicon Valley companies, Facebook had a severe lack of diversity, especially among executives, Luckie said in an interview. “When you don’t have a diverse group of people at the top of the company you don’t understand the issues involved or why your employees are upset.”

In 2014, 2% of Facebook’s employees were black. In 2019, that number had increased to 3.8%, according to the company’s diversity report.

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