In May, my sources started sharing secret recordings of meetings inside Facebook. Weekly Q&As with Mark Zuckerberg; briefings about civil rights and antitrust; even Sheryl Sandberg’s annual Q&A with interns.
Today, I’m ready to tell you what I found.
“Mark in the Middle
,” a long feature I just published at The Verge
, explores life inside Facebook at a critical time. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and Facebook moved quickly to donate to small businesses and help researchers track the disease’s spread, executives were hopeful the company could turn the page on its public image.
Instead, the company took hit after hit. In this story, I tell the inside story of this summer. As controversies mount, the questions for Facebook executives mount up — both inside and outside the company. And as you read what it felt like inside, you’ll be able to hear audio clips from Zuckerberg and Sandberg as they try to calm a restive staff.
During an intensely polarized time in the United States, Facebook has committed itself to a principle of neutrality. But employees are increasingly asking whether that commitment has undermined some of the company’s stated goals — most notably, advancing racial progress.
Some of that confusion is captured in this scene, where executives give employees opposite answers on the same day. I write:
“What we do is really try to not take a point of view,” the company’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, told interns during a Q&A on July 7th. “I have a very strong point of view on this president. It’s a personal point of view. It’s one I hold deeply. It’s not one that should enter into my judgments when I’m doing policy changes. … We have to be a neutral platform, and make those decisions coming from a place of rules and principles.”
But that same day, during an all-hands meeting on the release of a multiyear civil rights audit of Facebook, the company’s director of public policy for trust and safety, Neil Potts, told employees just the opposite.
“I don’t think we’re necessarily neutral,” Potts told employees, in response to a question about whether Facebook’s posture of neutrality was “incompatible” with “racial progress.” It was the most upvoted question in an employee poll during the event. Potts responded that Facebook’s commitment to removing hate speech, incitements to violence, and other problematic posts showed that its policies are principled. He noted that the community standards were crafted in consultation with activists and civil society groups around the world.
“We want to produce a product that is good for our community, and I don’t think that is incompatible with civil rights,” he said.
It’s often written that Facebook bends over backwards to aid conservative users, pages, and causes. One of the things I wanted to do in this piece was explain how that came about. A key point: it’s a customer service issue. From the piece:
“One of the things that we talk about a little bit less inside the company is that … the community we serve tends to be, on average, ideologically a little bit more conservative than our employee base,” Zuckerberg said. “Maybe ‘a little’ is an understatement. … If we want to actually do a good job of serving people, [we have to take] into account that there are different views on different things, and that if someone disagrees with a view, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re hateful or have bad intent.”
For Zuckerberg, the conservatism of his American user base had become more than a source of friction with his employees — it had also become a customer service issue. The No. 1 complaint that Facebook receives from its users is that the company removes too many of their posts, he said, for reasons that they often interpret as being politically motivated.
“I want to make sure that people here recognize that the majority of the negative sentiment that we have faced, measured by write-ins from our community, is actually generally coming from more conservative-leaning folks who are concerned about censorship,” Zuckerberg would tell employees later in the summer.
I left these recordings with a new understanding of Facebook. It’s a place where employees want Zuckerberg to take a more progressive stance on policy development and enforcement, and where his US user base largely wants him to do the opposite.
It’s an open question how long that tension can go unresolved. But this story attempts to document the cost of that centrism, both inside the company and out.
I hope you’ll give it a read
, and let me know what you think. A regular edition of The Interface
will follow on Thursday — when, incidentally, we’ll be talking about a new social network that has a very different view on all of this.