Facebook employees publicly voiced their disagreement with their company by staging a virtual walkout on Monday, following CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s decision not to take action against incendiary comments made by President Donald Trump on the platform last week.
The rare coordinated, worker-led dissent at the social network follows a tense week of demonstrations across the nation. Last Thursday, in addressing protests in Minneapolis, Trump wrote on Twitter and Facebook that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a historically charged phrase that suggested that violent action would be taken against protesters.
While Twitter acted, placing a warning label on the same message from the president on its platform, Zuckerberg explained on Friday that Trump’s words would be allowed on Facebook, enraging some employees who believed the comments had gone too far and violated the company’s internal policies against inciting violence. Some openly disagreed with Zuckerberg on social media throughout the weekend, and dozens of them took Monday off in a virtual walkout, first reported by the New York Times, to call attention to their dismay.
“Facebook's inaction in taking down Trump's post inciting violence makes me ashamed to work here,” Lauren Tan, a software engineer at Facebook, said on Twitter. “I absolutely disagree with it.”
With the majority of Facebook employees working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic, workers have found virtual outlets to express their dissent. Debate has moved beyond the comment section of the company’s internal Workplace communication platform to public-facing websites, including Twitter.
Although Zuckerberg has not made a statement in reaction, a Facebook spokesperson sounded a conciliatory note.
"We recognize the pain many of our people are feeling right now, especially our Black community,” Liz Bourgeois, a Facebook spokesperson, said in a statement. “We encourage employees to speak openly when they disagree with leadership.”
Former employees who spoke with BuzzFeed News said the internal problems at Facebook, where Zuckerberg controls majority shareholder voting power and is the ultimate decision maker, have festered for years. For some, those problems came to a head following a decision earlier this year to continue allowing political ads on the platform even if the paid content contained lies or misinformation.
“Facebook's inaction in taking down Trump's post inciting violence makes me ashamed to work here.”
“The final straw for me was the paid civic misinformation issue, where Facebook declared that it would not fact-check political ads,” said one former engineer who left in February. “I could understand the argument for a ‘neutral’ News Feed, but when someone is paying us to show content to people, that’s not 'neutral.' I felt that it was a politically and financially convenient decision rather than something done on principle.”
Mark Luckie, a former Facebook employee who left the company after declaring that it had "a black people problem," called the public outcry from his old colleagues “unprecedented.” Those employees speaking out weren't just risking their jobs at Facebook, he noted, but also future employment by signaling that they’re willing to speak out against their employer.
“To see people say that they’re going to risk it all because it’s so dire, that’s new and different, and hopefully it has a positive effect,” Luckie said to BuzzFeed News.
The unrest at Facebook comes after Zuckerberg said the social network wouldn't take down a post by Trump on the Minneapolis protests, despite the CEO's feeling that it contained “divisive and inflammatory rhetoric.”
“I know many people are upset that we've left the President's posts up, 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 wrote on Friday.
That decision infuriated some employees, some of whom had previously raised concerns on the company’s internal forums that Facebook was already doing too much to appease conservatives. Following Twitter’s decision to take action against what it considered Trump’s misinformation on mail-in voting last week, the president signed an executive order last Thursday intended to undercut laws that gave social media companies legal indemnity for content hosted on their platforms.
But it was Trump’s suggestion of violence to deal with protests that pushed many Facebook workers over the edge. Over the weekend and into Monday, Facebook employees spoke out on Twitter, a competing social media service that most rank-and-file Facebook workers rarely use to talk about their employer.
“I don't know what to do, but I know doing nothing is not acceptable,” Jason Stirman, a design manager at Facebook, said. “I'm a FB employee that completely disagrees with Mark's decision to do nothing about Trump's recent posts, which clearly incite violence. I'm not alone inside of FB. There isn't a neutral position on racism.”
Another Facebook design employee, Ryan Freitas, suggested on Twitter that the company had more than two options when deciding to leave up or take down a post. There are dozens of actions, he wrote. "We know because we designed them."
“Censoring information that might help people see the complete picture *is* wrong. But giving a platform to incite violence and spread disinformation is unacceptable, regardless who you are or if it’s newsworthy,” said Andrew Crow, head of design on Facebook's Portal, a video-chatting device. “I disagree with Mark’s position and will work to make change happen.”
Seven members of Facebook’s React Core team, which maintains a web framework owned by the company, issued a joint statement in protest of the company’s actions. “We implore the Facebook leadership to #TakeAction,” they said.
On Sunday, Axios reported that Zuckerberg personally called the president on Friday following Trump’s post, a communication that wasn’t revealed to employees or the public when the Facebook CEO announced his decision to keep the post up on the platform.
Facebook declined to comment to BuzzFeed News on the call between Zuckerberg and the president.
For now, the company's management has gingerly approached its employees' dissent, with Zuckerberg announcing on Sunday night that Facebook, a company with a market capitalization of more than $660 billion, would donate $10 million to "groups working on racial justice." The company also said that employees involved in Monday’s virtual walkout would not have to use any paid time off.
But potential Facebook business partners have already taken notice of the internal dissent. On Monday, Talkspace, an online therapy company, said it would be ending conversations on a deal with Facebook to provide free therapy to the social network's users. That contract would have totaled in the six figures, according to Talkspace CEO Oren Frank.
"I hope more companies and individuals will join us, and it will send a strong message to Facebook about where we draw the line,” Frank said. “Facebook can make this change in a heartbeat, and therefore has the moral imperative to do so."