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Facebook employees blast Zuckerberg’s hands-off response to Trump posts as protests grip nation

Zuckerberg announced an additional $10 million to racial justice organizations

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg walks at the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

As protests swept the nation over the weekend, several Facebook employees and executives took the unusual step of chastising chief executive Mark Zuckerberg for his hands-off approach to President Trump’s post about the demonstrators — and did so on rival site Twitter.

Twitter made the unprecedented decision last week to flag the president’s tweet as inflammatory. That triggered a major internal debate on Facebook’s group messaging boards, as many called on Zuckerberg to follow in Twitter’s footsteps.

Trump wrote, “when the looting starts, shooting starts” after protests erupted last week in Minneapolis after George Floyd, a black man, died in police custody. Massive and often violent demonstrations have followed, spreading to cities across the country. On Friday, Zuckerberg defended the decision to take no action against the post, writing that “people need to know if the government is planning to deploy force.”

But many of the social network’s 45,000-employees are left-leaning and have criticized senior executives for cozying up to conservatives in the past. Staff members were particularly upset by news reports that Zuckerberg spoke with the president and told him that the wording of the post put Facebook in a difficult position. Trump toned down his language in a subsequent tweet that was reposted on Facebook. The platform then cited the change as a reason not to remove the post.

That sparked intense debate on the company’s chat system, known as Workplace.

“People have been murdered this weekend at the protests and we’ve hosted content encouraging it,” an employee wrote in a companywide chat this weekend. The person suggested, along with others, that Trump’s post “violated the spirit” of the company’s policies. Others argued that Facebook was making concessions to Trump instead of addressing the pain of black Americans, and that the company should hold him to a higher standard because of his position.

Amid the blowback, Zuckerberg announced late Sunday that Facebook would donate $10 million to racial justice organizations. He did not reference Trump’s posts or the administration’s long-standing ire with social media platforms. On Thursday, Trump signed an executive order that could allow the U.S. government to take oversight of political speech online.

Facebook needs to “ensure our systems don’t amplify bias,” Zuckerberg wrote.

“I know that $10 million can’t fix this. It needs sustained, long term effort,” he added. “This week has made it clear how much more there is to do.”

On Monday evening Twitter labeled a tweet by Florida GOP Congressman Matt Gaetz, saying that the tweet broke the company’s policies on glorifying violence. The tweet referred to a leftist group that President Trump labeled as a terrorist organization this weekend after claiming, without evidence, that its members’ were causing violence at various protests. It said, “Now that we clearly see Antifa as terrorists, can we hunt them down like we do those in the Middle East?”

Protests raged in Washington, New York, Los Angeles and other U.S. cities over the weekend, leaving behind smashed windows, looted stores and torched police cars, a new crisis for a nation already gripped by a pandemic and recession. Peaceful gatherings that began in dozens of cities ended with more than 4,000 arrests, millions of people under curfew and over half the nation’s governors calling in the National Guard.

Facebook’s response to the president stands in stark contrast to Twitter, which for the first time limited the public’s ability to view or share a Trump tweet because it “violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence.”

Twitter employees cheered CEO Jack Dorsey’s decision, and even more so as the company went further, promoting the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag from the company’s main Twitter account, according to four people who work at the company.

Facebook and other tech companies have long struggled with how to manage Trump’s account. Twitter’s decision to label Trump’s tweet was two years in the making, part of the long-standing policy of allowing “newsworthy” tweets to stay up — even when they broke the site’s rules.

Though Facebook is more aggressive overall about policing harmful speech — unlike Twitter, the company has a robust two-year-old fact-checking program and employs more than 15,000 content moderators — Zuckerberg has made the decision time and again not to touch Trump’s account. Facebook has several high-ranking conservative executives who often have warned against censoring right-leaning accounts even as those accounts have spread misinformation.

The Finance 202: Nationwide protests highlight minority frustration with economic disparities

Several Facebook employees took part in a virtual walkout in protest Monday, the New York Times first reported, and many expressed anger during a company town hall, according to a person who attended.

Several years ago, some Facebook employees staged a walkout over the decision by a conservative executive, Joel Kaplan, to support the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. Kaplan attended Senate confirmation hearings, where he sat in a prominent spot near the jurist’s family, at a time when Kavanaugh was defending himself against sexual assault allegations by professor Christine Blasey Ford.

Silicon Valley workers tend to be vocal, with thousands of Google employees staging a walkout last year amid the #MeToo movement. But the extent to which Facebook employees have taken an internal debate to a public forum is rare, particularly for a company that discourages such behavior.

“I don’t know what to do, but I know doing nothing is not acceptable,” said design manager Jason Stirman. “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."

“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,” wrote Andrew Crow of Facebook’s Portal product line.

Retailers and restaurants across the U.S. close their doors amid protests

Other tech giants weighed in on the crisis. In a memo to Apple employees Sunday, CEO Tim Cook wrote about America’s long history of racism and the deeply rooted discrimination evident in the U.S. criminal justice system, health disparities within communities of color and inequalities in neighborhood services and education.

Cook said that Apple was donating to the Equal Justice Initiative, along with other groups, and that for the month of June, the tech giant would match two-for-one all employee donations. Apple closed some of its U.S. stores in the wake of the protests, even as the company tries to reopen its storefronts shuttered by the pandemic and economic downturn.

Intel CEO Bob Swan said the company pledged $1 million to address social injustice and anti-racism through nonprofit groups and community organizations. Swan also encouraged employees to donate to groups focused on equity and social justice, including those eligible for Intel’s donation matching program, like the Black Lives Matter Foundation, Center for Policing Equity and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.