Frustrated Facebook employees slammed CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday during a companywide meeting, questioning his leadership and decision-making, following a week in which the platform promoted violent conspiracy theories and gave safe harbor to militia groups. The billionaire chief executive was speaking via webcast at the company’s weekly all-hands meeting, attempting to address questions about violence in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the QAnon conspiracy that has proliferated across Facebook.
The meeting came one day after the Verge reported that a self-proclaimed militia group calling itself “Kenosha Guard” had used its Facebook page to issue a “call to arms” — violating Facebook's own policies — and remained online even though at least two people reported it before the shooting. It also followed weeks of employee unrest, in which the company’s rank and file have urged the CEO to combat the spread of QAnon-related content on its platform.
All of Facebook’s more than 50,000 employees can watch and comment on the stream during the meeting, or view a recording after its conclusion — and as Zuckerberg spoke, angry comments poured in.
“At what point do we take responsibility for enabling hate filled bile to spread across our services?” wrote one employee. “[A]nti semitism, conspiracy, and white supremacy reeks across our services.”
After this story was published, Facebook made video of the meeting public.
“At what point do we take responsibility for enabling hate filled bile to spread across our services?”
There has been increasing internal strife at the social network that came to a head when the company failed to take action on a May post from President Donald Trump that suggested state violence would be used against people protesting the police killing of George Floyd. As internal morale has plummeted, some employees have openly challenged Zuckerberg, who maintains majority shareholder voting control and complete decision-making power at Facebook. The level of employee pushback, which included a virtual walkout in June, is unprecedented in the company’s 16-year history.
Zuckerberg opened his Thursday address by discussing the police shooting of Jacob Blake and subsequent violence in Kenosha. When he said images from Wisconsin were “painful and really discouraging,” employees jumped in the comments section to ask why Facebook had been slow to react, particularly after at least one Kenosha militia page had remained on the platform after a 17-year-old shot and killed two protesters on Tuesday night.
While Zuckerberg said the shooter’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, which showed no clear connection to the Kenosha Guard page, were taken down, he admitted Facebook had made “an operational mistake.” The page had violated Facebook’s new rules introduced last week that labeled militia and QAnon conspiracy theory groups as “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations” for their celebrations of violence.
The company did not catch the page despite user reports, Zuckerberg said, because the complaints had been sent to content moderation contractors who were not versed in “how certain militias” operate. “On second review, doing it more sensitively, the team that was responsible for dangerous organizations recognized that this violated the policies and we took it down.”
That answer didn’t satisfy some employees.
“We need to get better at avoiding mistakes and being more proactive,” one wrote. ”Feels like we’re caught in a cycle of responding to damage after it’s already been done rather than constructing mechanisms to nip these issues before they result in real harm.”
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Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois called the shooting in Kenosha “painful for everyone, especially our Black community.”
“We have not found evidence on Facebook suggesting the shooter followed the Kenosha Guard Page or that he was invited on the Event Page they organized,” she said in a statement. “However, the Kenosha Guard Event and Page violated our new policy on militia organizations and have been removed on that basis. We launched this policy last week and we’re still scaling up our enforcement of it by a team of specialists on our Dangerous Organizations team.”
In discussion groups on Workplace, Facebook’s employee discussion board, workers had expressed their frustration prior to the all-hands meeting. “Feeling especially sad to be a FB employee today,” one person wrote on a post featuring the Verge article in an internal group for community standards feedback. “When will we finally start to take hate on our platform seriously?”
“When will we finally start to take hate on our platform seriously?”
Not all employees took issue with the police shooting of Blake and subsequent militia violence. Some expressed sympathy for the police or posted slogans meant to denigrate Black Lives Matter, illustrating the culture war playing out within the social network’s ranks.
“What are your thoughts about our employees posting all lives matter or blues lives matter after shooting to [sic] Jacob Blake?” asked one employee during the all-hands. Zuckerberg did not respond to the question.
In a Workplace post that was seen by thousands on Wednesday — hours after two people were killed in Kenosha during protests against police violence — one employee asked his colleagues to show their “Support for Law Enforcement.” The employee, who posted the pro-police image of the American flag with a thin blue line, wrote “mourning the death of those who serve our communities does not mean supporting injustice by anyone in society.”
Some responses argued that the post was “deliberate trolling” and a “symbol of racial injustice.”
“I’m extremely appalled of the use of our internal tools to spread such a divisive message that lacks any ounce of unity,” one person wrote in the comments of the post, which was eventually removed.
Ifeoma Ozoma, a former associate manager on Facebook’s global policy team, told BuzzFeed News that Facebook’s inability to stop the perpetuation of hate on its site was evidence of “the values of those in leadership.”
“Violent white supremacists thrive on the platforms run by people who are bought into the perpetuation of a system of white supremacy, or at a minimum, refuse to reckon with it,” she said.
At Thursday’s meeting, Zuckerberg said the company was “proactively” searching for and removing content that praised the Kenosha shooting, though the Guardian showed that fundraisers for and memes of the shooter continued to proliferate on Facebook.
Facebook’s inability to enforce its own policies also came into sharp focus as its CEO discussed its changed approach and crackdown on QAnon, a pro-Trump conspiracy theory that holds that a secret cabal of pedophiles and cannibals control the government and other aspects of society. Zuckerberg pointed to an enforcement action taken last week in which the company removed over 790 groups, 100 pages, and 1,500 ads tied to QAnon, noting that the reason why the company was acting now was because “we’re seeing QAnon evolve” from misinformation to the promotion of violence.
“As people start discussing violence or something that has the potential to lead to violence, especially as we enter a very fraught and charged period and the likelihood of potential civil unrest leading up to the election and after, I think that that warrants having a somewhat different balance of free expression and safety,” he said. (There have been multiple incidents of QAnon followers inciting violence over the last year, and the FBI labeled it a domestic terrorism threat in May 2019.)
Still, some employees wondered why it had taken the company so long to act.
“Our fact-checking and takedowns have only ramped up in the past few months, but QAnon has festered for 3 years,” one person wrote. “I think the critique is our reactive vs. proactive approach.”
Other workers reported they still saw dozens of active QAnon groups, with one noting that they had reported a related page but were told it did not go against Facebook’s community standards. “Our enforcement makes no sense,” they said.
A BuzzFeed News search using Facebook-owned tool CrowdTangle on Thursday showed dozens of new posts associated with popular QAnon hashtags and slogans, while one reporter’s Facebook account received a notification for a new photo that had been added to a group called “QAnon Movement.”
As Zuckerberg spoke on Thursday, he did little to assuage the flood of complaints that streamed in over the live feed. He called the company’s approach to tackling QAnon “a more sophisticated program on this than any other company.”
One employee who spoke with BuzzFeed News after the event was not comforted by their CEO’s words.
“He seems truly incapable of taking personal responsibility for decisions and actions at Facebook,” they said.
With reporting from Jane Lytvynenko and Pranav Dixit.
After this story was published, Facebook made video of part of the employee meeting public.