I. The CEO
On Friday afternoon, Facebook made one of its most controversial content moderation decisions in company history. After President Trump posted to Facebook some tweets that Twitter had placed behind a warning for “glorifying violence,” Mark Zuckerberg said that the company would allow them to stand
“I know many people are upset that we’ve left the President’s posts up,” Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post
, “but our position is that we should enable as much expression as possible unless it will cause imminent risk of specific harms or dangers spelled out in clear policies.”
Zuckerberg said that Facebook left the post up for two reasons: one, that “people need to know if the government is planning to deploy force.” And two, that Trump had sort of (maybe?) walked back his original post in a later one, “saying that the original post was warning about the possibility that looting could lead to violence.” So whether or not Trump meant to incite violence with his words, Zuckerberg argued, Facebook had good reason to let the post stand.
Shortly after sharing the post with the world, Zuckerberg held a meeting with employees to elaborate on his point of view. In audio of the meeting that I obtained, Zuckerberg said that he had agonized over the decision. “How to handle this post from the president has been very tough,” said Zuckerberg, who was joined in the discussion by his head of policy management, Monika Bickert. “It’s been something that I’ve been struggling with basically all day, ever since I woke up. … This has been personally pretty wrenching for me.”
Zuckerberg reiterated his unhappiness with Trump’s remarks. “My first reaction … was just disgust,” he said. “This is not how I think we want our leaders to show up during this time. This is a moment that calls for unity and calmness and empathy for people who are struggling.”
Ultimately, he and Bickert said, executives concluded that Trump’s remarks didn’t violate their existing policies. But he said they would re-examine their policies around politicians discussing the use of state force on Facebook, a process he said would likely take several weeks.
“There is a real question coming out of this, which is whether we want to evolve our policy around the discussion of state use of force,” he told employees Friday. “Over the coming days, as the National Guard is now deployed, probably the largest one that I would worry about would be excessive use of police or military force. I think there’s a good argument that there should be more bounds around the discussion around that.” Zuckerberg did not elaborate on what more “bounds” would mean in this case, or whether he thought the policy should change to disallow posts like Trump’s.
In response to an employee question, Zuckerberg also said he disagreed with Twitter’s approach of placing violating tweets behind a warning. “If you really believe that a post is going to cause people to go to go do real-world violence, then that’s not the type of thing that I think we should have up even behind a warning,” he said. “Some people might be comforted that Twitter took a step, even if it didn’t go all the way. But I don’t personally agree with that step.”
Zuckerberg’s message to employees Friday was that even if Facebook hadn’t removed this
Trump post, it was prepared to do so in the future if the president violated a company policy. That satisfied some employees, but to others it smacked of appeasement. On Thursday, their anger bubbled up in a series of internal threads, as I reported at The Verge
And then, over the weekend, the long-standing norm that Facebook employees never criticize their employer in public seemed to shatter, tweet by tweet.
On Monday, they mounted the most significant collective worker action in the company’s 15-year history. While it’s difficult to measure the number of people who participated in a virtual walkout, an internal group devoted to the effort had about 400 people, sources said.
II. The walkout
“I’m a FB employee that completely disagrees with Mark’s decision to do nothing about Trump’s recent posts, which clearly incite violence,” tweeted Jason Stirman
, who works on research and development, on Saturday. “I’m not alone inside of FB. There isn’t a neutral position on racism.”
Jason Toff, a former employee of Twitter and Google who now works on experimental apps at Facebook, echoed those sentiments on Sunday. “I work at Facebook and I am not proud of how we’re showing up,” Toff tweeted
. “The majority of coworkers I’ve spoken to feel the same way. We are making our voice heard.”
Within hours, there were more than a dozen such tweets from employees working across the company, all expressing disappointment with their employer’s decision. And on Monday, dozens of employees staged a virtual walkout, making themselves unavailable for the day
and joining in protests. The New York Times
reported that employees are working on a list of demands
, and that some senior employees have threatened to resign if Zuckerberg doesn’t reverse his decision.
“As allies we must stand in the way of danger, not behind,” tweeted Sara Zhang
, a product designer at Facebook. “I will be participating in today’s virtual walkout in solidarity with the black community inside and outside FB. #BlackLivesMatter”
But notable as that letter was, it still adopted the form that dissent has almost always taken at Facebook: vigorous internal debate. (One source told me the internal furor over Joel Kaplan’s public support of controversial Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh
during his nomination hearings had been markedly more intense.) What’s different about Monday’s walkout is that the protests were public first — and posted about on a rival social network, to boot. For Facebook workers, the choice to discuss their concerns on Twitter was remarkably effective, for two reasons. One, Twitter is where journalists live, and so the posts were guaranteed to generate coverage. Two, sentiment about Facebook on Twitter is generally hostile, so current employees’ criticisms of the company got massive distribution through retweets.
The workers’ comments were less sweeping in their criticism than some former employees
, and top executives of Facebook have been over the years
. None of these employees has yet quit, nor have they suggested, as WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton once did, that people “delete Facebook.” But what they shared was a sense of shame in their employer that remains extraordinary among tech workers, even at a time when worker actions are becoming more common.
“Facebook’s inaction in taking down Trump’s post inciting violence makes me ashamed to work here,” tweeted Lauren Tan
, an engineer. “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.”
Another inspired aspect of the workers’ protest was that executives had to sit back and accept it, at least in their public statements. You can’t bend over backwards to allow the president’s posts about shooting up crowds and then tell employees they can’t discuss their feelings about it. And so the official word from Facebook on all the controversy was that they should go for it. “We recognize the pain many of our people are feeling right now, especially our Black community,” the company told Bloomberg
. “We encourage employees to speak openly when they disagree with leadership.”
Much of employees’ frustration appears to be rooted in the fear that there is no line Trump could cross that would lead Facebook to enforce its policies. Zuckerberg and Bickert spent much of the all-hands meeting on Friday pushing back on that idea — fairly, I think. It was barely two months ago that the company removed a post
by the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, for promoting a phony coronavirus cure. You can argue that the company is more sensitive to pressure from conservatives in the United States, and a lot of good reporting has borne that out in the past few years. But the idea that there’s no line Trump can’t cross on Facebook doesn’t strike me as plausible.
Of course, we won’t know for sure until Facebook actually does take action against Trump. And in the meantime, a large number of employees have signaled that for them, that red line has already been crossed. For Zuckerberg and his policy team, Trump is a legalistic problem — a question of how certain words and phrases do or do not comport with the standards they have written. But for the workers speaking out, Trump is a moral problem — a danger to their friends, their families, their communities, and themselves.
Facebook’s scale depends on courting Republicans and Democrats equally — making regular concessions to both to ensure that the platform is as large as it can be. Zuckerberg has sought to draw a distinction between his role as CEO and his own feelings — arguing for Trump’s right to free expression at work while donating $10 million to groups working on racial justice
in his personal time.
But since its founding, Facebook has been dedicated to the idea that in this life, you only get to have one real identity
. When employees logged off Monday, the company began to see the limits of having it both ways.