Less than 24 hours before a historic US presidential election day, Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications and the former United Kingdom deputy prime minister, tried to rally employees at the embattled social networking corporation.
Noting that the world would be watching the results, Clegg published a post on an internal message board about the work Facebook employees had done to prepare for the vote. Many things had changed since 2016, he said, alluding to an election in which Russian state actors used Facebook to sow discord, while the company and CEO Mark Zuckerberg stood by oblivious
“We have transformed the way we approach elections since the U.S. presidential election four years ago,” Clegg wrote in the note titled “READY FOR ELECTION DAY.” “Thanks to the efforts of far, far too many of you to mention by name, Facebook is a very different company today.”
It is indeed. Roiled by months of internal scandals and high-profile failures, the social network giant heads into Election Day with employee morale cratering and internal political discussion muzzled on internal message boards.
While Clegg took an optimistic tone in his post, Facebook released results of an internal survey on Monday that revealed a stark decline in employee confidence over the past six months. Its semi-annual “Pulse Survey,” taken by more than 49,000 employees over two weeks in October, showed workers felt strained by office shutdowns and were continuing to lose faith that the company was improving the world.
Only 51% of respondents said they believed that Facebook was having a positive impact on the world, down 23 percentage points from the company's last survey in May and down 5.5 percentage points from the same period last year. In response to a question about the company’s leadership, only 56% of employees had a favorable response, compared to 76% in May and more than 60% last year. (A Facebook employee acknowledged in the announcement that the uptick in May’s Pulse results were “likely driven by our response to COVID-19,” which was widely praised.)
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The external criticism leveled against Facebook for failing to completely stem hate and misleading information is weighing on employees.
“Top constructive themes from comments mention decision-making related to hate speech and misinformation on our platforms, and concerns that leadership is focusing on the wrong metrics,” wrote a human resources leader in explaining the results. Employee performance at Facebook is often evaluated based on audience growth metrics, such as increasing the use of a new feature.
While some employees have departed or been fired for disagreeing with the direction of the company, the growing negative sentiment doesn’t appear to have weighed on respondents’ plans to stay at Facebook. A majority, 69%, said the company was a favorable place to work — down only half a percentage point from the year before. The average employee surveyed intended to stay at the company for 4.3 years, up about half a year from the average response last year.
Meanwhile, on Workplace, Facebook’s internal message board and the host of contentious discussions over the summer, things have settled down. Current workers, who spoke to BuzzFeed News anonymously because they feared reprisal, said the company’s crackdown on political speech earlier this year has silenced discussion of the US election in open groups.
Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois declined to comment.
In September, following months of internal debate over the state of politics and race relations in the US, Facebook implemented rules that prevented employees from discussing social issues unless they did so within designated groups. Internal critics claim the new rules are an attempt to prevent criticism of the company, which has the ability to affect society’s political sentiments like few others.
"The public rationale was that employees were uncomfortable not being able to log on and 'just do their job,'” one current Facebook worker told BuzzFeed News. “It’s now very easy to log in and do your job without seeing anything vaguely political beyond corporate announcements, so they succeeded."
Others noted that it was ironic that a company that often touts itself as a defender of “free expression” prevented political discussion and disagreement from permeating its ranks. The new restrictions were reinforced on Thursday, when Facebook’s Vice President of People Lori Goler reminded employees of what was appropriate to post about the election and what wasn’t.
Facebook employees are allowed to “share disappointment or celebration following election results, as long as the post focuses on your personal thoughts and feelings without attacking communities or political groups that you do not belong to,” she wrote. “As always, you can share your thoughts on your personal social media networks — we do ask that you’re mindful of your role as a Facebook employee.”
While Facebook has attempted to police itself during this election — announcing temporary restrictions on political ads, helping to register an estimated 4.4 million potential voters, and putting forth policies to restrict election result misinformation — some employees say the company hasn’t done enough. Workplace groups dedicated to reporting issues on the company’s products include posts about the failures of Facebook’s Ad library, one of the main ways of tracking political ads on the platform; a Washington Post story about preferential treatment of influential right-wing pages and figures; and the company’s failure to enforce its temporary political ad ban.
In the run-up to the 2020 vote, Facebook said it wouldn’t accept new political ads the week before Election Day and promised to stop running political ads for an undefined period of time after Nov. 3. The measures were meant to reduce the likelihood that ads could be used to stoke fear, incite violence, or spread misinformation before and after Election Day.
But days before the vote, Facebook’s ad system was marred by widespread issues that prevented the Biden campaign and other political advertisers from getting their ads approved, while the Trump campaign and other groups were able to place ads that violated the company's policies. Facebook said on Oct. 29 it had “identified a number of unanticipated issues affecting campaigns of both political parties.”
“It is currently unclear to us whether or not Facebook is giving Donald Trump an unfair electoral advantage in this particular instance, but it is abundantly clear that Facebook was wholly unprepared to handle this election despite having four years to prepare,” the Biden campaign told reporters in a statement.
Facebook's problems persisted into Monday night. As President Trump took the stage at a campaign rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, one Facebook employee asked in an internal group for elections integrity why the social platform was featuring a live stream of the event from RT, a Russian state-controlled and funded broadcaster. Employees also flagged posts calling for election violence or coups.
Clegg’s note on made no mention of any issues and instead focused on talking points about the takedown of 6.5 billion fake accounts in the last year and the removal of 135,000 pieces of content from Facebook and Instagram for the violation of voter interference rules. He called it a “hugely impressive record,” an effort matched by “the hours of diplomacy, stakeholder engagement and jousting with the press to tell our story and defend our record.”
Four years ago, that record included Zuckerberg calling the notion that fake news on Facebook influenced the election “a pretty crazy idea.”
“I think Zuckerberg was genuine when he said he didn't believe fake news played a role in the elections,” one former Facebook employee told BuzzFeed News. “But it's probably because he just didn't bother thinking about how FB could be abused.”
There will be no reservations this time around. Clegg called the company’s work to combat misinformation and prevent voter suppression “serious, detailed, and often groundbreaking work.”
Now, like most everyone, Facebook’s executives and employees await the results.
“See you on the other side,” he wrote.