As protest action following the death of George Floyd continues in various cities across the US, Facebook employees are reportedly staging stop work action to underline their anger at the company's decision not to take a harder line against inflammatory remarks about the protests posted to the platform by US President Donald Trump.
This comes after Twitter last week began adding fact-check and content warnings on Trump's tweets, first regarding mail-in voting, and then on a tweet which referred to 'shooting' beginning in response to looters amid subsequent riots.
As reported by The New York Times:
"The movement - a virtual “walkout” of sorts since most Facebook employees are working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic - comes as staff members have circulated petitions and threatened to resign. More than a dozen current and former employees have described the unrest as the most serious challenge to Mr. Zuckerberg’s leadership since the company was founded 15 years ago."
Inspired by Twitter taking more decisive action, it's this comment from Trump, specifically, that appears to have pushed the Facebook employees over the edge.
Trump also posted the exact same commentary to Twitter, and Twitter determined that the last line, in particular, was in violation of its rules around the glorification of violence.
This Tweet violates our policies regarding the glorification of violence based on the historical context of the last line, its connection to violence, and the risk it could inspire similar actions today. https://t.co/4efPqNLBCX— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) May 29, 2020
The historical context here is that the last line echoes the exact phrasing that a former Miami police chief used when discussing efforts to suppress civil unrest in black neighborhoods in 1967.
Twitter therefore added a warning label to the tweet, the second time within days that Twitter had taken action on Trump's comments, which prompted Trump to double-down on his calls for a review into how social platforms operate, and their legal right to add such labels to his comments.
Facebook, however, left the comments up, despite the broader community outrage over the death of George Floyd, and the potential for such remarks to spur further division and fear.
In defending the company's position, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that while Trump's comment included a “troubling historical reference", it did not violate the platform's rules.
“We looked very closely at the post that discussed the protests in Minnesota to evaluate whether it violated our policies. Although the post had a troubling historical reference, we decided to leave it up because the National Guard references meant we read it as a warning about state action, and we think people need to know if the government is planning to deploy force."
Zuckerberg also noted that Trump sought to clarify the intention behind his remarks in this subsequent post:
Looting leads to shooting, and that’s why a man was shot and killed in Minneapolis on Wednesday night - or look at what just happened in Louisville with 7 people shot. I don’t want this to happen, and that’s what the expression put out last night means....— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 29, 2020
That, theoretically, adds further context - but still, not everyone who read Trump's first post would have also seen the second, so Zuckerberg's explanation seems like a bit of a stretch.
It was later reported by Axios that Trump and Zuckerberg had discussed the matter in a phone call on Friday night, before Zuckerberg posted his explanation justifying the decision to leave Trump's comments up. Facebook employees were reportedly unaware that Zuckerberg had discussed the situation with Trump, which has added more to their rising angst about the company's stance.
On Sunday evening, following Zuckerberg's latest post addressing the protest action specifically, some Facebook employees took to Twitter to share their anger at the inaction.
I work at Facebook and I am not proud of how we’re showing up. The majority of coworkers I’ve spoken to feel the same way. We are making our voice heard.— Jason Toff (@jasontoff) June 1, 2020
Some Facebook executives have since shared their support for those employees coming forward, while Zuckerberg has reportedly moved his regular meeting with employees to Tuesday this week, instead of its usual Thursday time slot.
People are hurting right now, especially our black community. Central to our company is the value we place on open dialogue. Now and always, we encourage employees to speak openly when they disagree with leadership. We don’t just want their honesty; we need it.— Adam Mosseri ???? (@mosseri) June 1, 2020
The fact that employees are threatening to quit is significant, and may actually force Facebook to change direction, which could see it look to implement fact-check and/or warning labels on tweets from political leaders, including President Trump.
As per our recent report on Facebook's 'hands-off' approach to comments from political leaders, part of Facebook's problem in this respect seems to relate to the company's 'glass half full' perspective on how its platform can and will be used, which, at times, has seen it overlook the potential negatives that can result due to such policies.
For example, Facebook didn't foresee its data tools being misused, which lead to the Cambridge Analytica situation, it didn't see its ad targeting options being used for discriminatory purpose, which lead to racial profiling by companies. In various, significant, examples, Facebook has repeatedly failed to consider the potential negative impacts of its policy stances, only to then be forced to re-assess them in retrospect, after the damage has been done.
Given the internal and external backlash in this instance, this may, again, be one of those incidences - and if past history is anything to go by, Facebook may well be forced to reconsider, which could lead to a significant battle going forward.
As noted, President Trump has already called for a review of the laws which protect social platforms from liability over what users post, and any change would impact both Twitter and Facebook, as well as any other social app. That, in itself, could end up becoming a major inflection point - and if Facebook decides that it too will join Twitter in taking a more defined stance against comments made by political leaders, you can bet that this will also further inflame the argument.
But will it lead to a better outcome for society? That's what Zuckerberg and Co. now need to assess, and with their own employees calling for action, we're likely to, at the least, get more clarity from Facebook as to how it justifies its position.
This could become a major point of contention heading into the 2020 Election in the US. Any change made by Facebook will be significant - especially when you consider that the Trump campaign spent almost $20 million on Facebook ads in 2019.
This is a major element in the broader call for public action. We'll keep you updated on any progress.