Despite rising calls for Facebook to re-examine its stance on inflammatory comments posted by US President Donald Trump, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has stood by the company's position, re-iterating his belief that it was doing the right thing in an all-staff meeting on Tuesday.
As reported by The New York Times, Zuckerberg told staff via video conference that while it was a tough decision to make, Facebook's process in determining what action to take, or not, had been "pretty thorough”, and he saw no reason to revise such, despite rising angst - both internally and externally - and the ongoing protest action across the US.
Calls for Facebook to re-think its approach have been rising after Twitter opted to add fact-check and content warning labels to some of Trump's tweets. Trump has also posted the same updates to his Facebook Page, and it's this post, in particular, which many feel has crossed the line, and should force Facebook to take a stand.
Twitter took action on this post, with the final comment, in particular, prompting response.
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 Twitter refers to is that the last line replicates the exact phrasing that a racist former Miami police chief used when discussing efforts to suppress civil unrest in black neighborhoods in 1967.
Twitter decision to act has also prompted more Facebook staff to voice their concerns about the company's approach, with some now even opting to quit the company in opposition to its stance.
As noted by Facebook engineer Timothy Aveni, who announced that he would be leaving his position with the company:
"Mark always told us that he would draw the line at speech that calls for violence. He showed us on Friday that this was a lie. Facebook will keep moving the goalposts every time Trump escalates, finding excuse after excuse not to act on increasingly dangerous rhetoric. Since Friday, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand and process the decision not to remove the racist, violent post Trump made Thursday night, but Facebook, complicit in the propagation of weaponized hatred, is on the wrong side of history."
After many Facebook staff staged a virtual walk-out on Monday, Zuckerberg scheduled his Tuesday meeting to address the matter, in which, as noted, he has refused to change its approach.
As per NYT:
"[Zuckerberg] added that though he knew many people would be upset with the company, a review of its policies backed up his decision. “I knew that I would have to separate out my personal opinion,” he said. “Knowing that when we made this decision we made, it was going to lead to a lot of people upset inside the company, and the media criticism we were going to get.”
Facebook's stance on political content, and comments from Trump in particular, has been under fire since October, when the platform announced that it would not fact check political ads. Many have since tried to highlight the flaws in this approach, but Zuck and Co. have stood by their decision, claiming that it's in the public interest for users to see what elected officials have to say, and that Facebook should not be the 'arbiter of truth' on such.
Comments around untested cures and conflicting advice regarding COVID-19 have further complicated the debate, but still, Facebook has maintained its position. And now, in the face of yet another situation where amplifying such speech could lead to societal harm, Zuckerberg has once again reiterated the company line.
In some respects, Facebook is looking to alleviate the pressure on such decisions by implementing an independent Content Oversight Board to review its stances, but even then, the Oversight Board has no definitive power, and Facebook can still overrule its decisions, when it finally is in operation.
That means that the buck will still stop at Facebook's exec team, which, ultimately, means Mark Zuckerberg, and right now, all signs suggest that he is not going to shift, and that he has made a final decision on where he stands in regards to political speech.
But Facebook has been wrong before. Many times.
As we noted recently, Facebook has a track record of failing to see the potential harms caused by its policy decisions (or lack of them), and in many cases, it's only changed its approach in retrospect, once the damage has been done.
Will that be the case again here? Only time will tell - but the backlash against Facebook - and Zuckerberg in particular - is likely to leave a lot more damage in its wake yet.