Mark Zuckerberg is under fire from his own employees over Facebook’s stance on content moderation.
By Scott Nover with Marcus Honesta
Employees tweeted their discontent and staged virtual walkout.
Tensions are escalating inside Facebook over the social platform’s laissez-faire approach to the president’s posts.
It would appear that these people want to believe in the First Amendment of the American Constitution provides them — but only when they agree with their views and opinions. The First Amendment states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
These powers are reinforced in the Fourteen Amendment.
Additionally these freedoms are enshrined in the American Bill of Rights:
The Bill of Rights is the first 10 Amendments to the Constitution. It spells out Americans’ rights in relation to their government. It guarantees civil rights and liberties to the individual—like freedom of speech, press, and religion. It sets rules for due process of law and reserves all powers not delegated to the Federal Government to the people or the States. And it specifies that “the enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
While Twitter took an active advice to Donald Trump’s account last week—including flagging a tweet that encouraged shooting unarmed protesters—Facebook chose to interpret differently and has not modified the same post.
Some Facebook employees are upset over the policy—and tweeted about it.
“I work at Facebook and I am not proud of how we’re showing up,” Jason Toff, director of product management, tweeted early Monday morning. “The majority of co-workers I’ve spoken to feel the same way. We are making our voice heard.”
Design manager Jason Stirman tweeted that he “completely disagrees” with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to “do nothing about Trump’s recent posts, which clearly incite violence.”
“I’m not alone inside of FB,” he added. “There isn’t a neutral position on racism.”
The New York Times reported today that dozens of Facebook employees are also staging a virtual walkout to call out the social network’s inaction over Trump’s post encouraging violence against protesters.
“We recognize the pain many of our people are feeling right now, especially our Black community,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a press release. “We encourage employees to speak openly when they disagree with leadership. As we face additional difficult decisions around content ahead, we’ll continue seeking their honest feedback.”
Zuckerberg authored a lengthy Face book post Friday, saying he had a “visceral negative reaction to this kind of divisive and inflammatory rhetoric,” but said he is responsible for reacting “as the leader of an institution committed to free expression.” The full post said:
“This has been an incredibly tough week after a string of tough weeks. The killing of George Floyd showed yet again that for Black people in America, just existing means risking your life. This comes weeks after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and in the midst of Covid-19 having a disproportionate impact on the Black community in the US. It continues a long and devastating history of human loss going back centuries. I know the conversations happening amongst our Black friends, colleagues and neighbours are incredibly painful. As Americans, this affects all of us and we all have an obligation to help address the inequality in how justice is served. This is something I care deeply about.
I’ve been struggling with how to respond to the President’s tweets and posts all day. Personally, I have a visceral negative reaction to this kind of divisive and inflammatory rhetoric. This moment calls for unity and calmness, and we need empathy for the people and communities who are hurting. We need to come together as a country to pursue justice and break this cycle.
But I’m responsible for reacting not just in my personal capacity but as the leader of an institution committed to free expression. 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. 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. Our policy around incitement of violence allows discussion around state use of force, although I think today’s situation raises important questions about what potential limits of that discussion should be. The President later posted again, saying that the original post was warning about the possibility that looting could lead to violence. We decided that this post, which explicitly discouraged violence, also does not violate our policies and is important for people to see. Unlike Twitter, we do not have a policy of putting a warning in front of posts that may incite violence because we believe that if a post incites violence, it should be removed regardless of whether it is newsworthy, even if it comes from a politician. We have been in touch with the White House today to explain these policies as well.
There are heated debates about how we apply our policies during moments like this. I know people are frustrated when we take a long time to make these decisions. These are difficult decisions and, just like today, the content we leave up I often find deeply offensive. We try to think through all the consequences, and we keep our policies under constant review because the context is always evolving. People can agree or disagree on where we should draw the line, but I hope they understand our overall philosophy is that it is better to have this discussion out in the open, especially when the stakes are so high. I disagree strongly with how the President spoke about this, but I believe people should be able to see this for themselves, because ultimately accountability for those in positions of power can only happen when their speech is scrutinized out in the open”.
Last Tuesday, after years of pressure, Twitter took unprecedented action against Trump’s account, placing a fact-check label on two of his tweets about mail-in ballots. Trump responded by lashing out, accusing Twitter of interfering with the election and promising retribution.
He (Trump) took it a step further Thursday when he signed an “Executive Order on Online Censorship”. The executive order is designed to strip back the legal protections currently enjoyed by social media companies. This immunity is given by section 230 of the Communications Decency Act 1996 which has been described as the bedrock of the internet.
Section 230 gives broad immunity to Google, Facebook, Twitter and other internet intermediaries, for the content shown via their platforms. This gives digital platforms a ‘safe harbour’, for example, if something defamatory is shared by a user on Twitter, Twitter will be shielded from liability for defamation. Trump’s new executive order provides that if an online provider does not act in good faith and stifles a viewpoint different to their own, that they should lose the shield and be liable as a traditional publisher or editor. The order also asks the FCC to review this safe harbour provision and calls for the creation of new regulations.
“Section 230 was not intended to allow a handful of companies to grow into titans controlling vital avenues for our national discourse under the guise of promoting open forums for debate, and then to provide those behemoths blanket immunity when they use their power to censor content and silence viewpoints that they dislike,” the executive order states.
By the end of the week, Trump had not cooled his rhetoric and Twitter didn’t back down. With protests raging in Minneapolis and elsewhere in the country over the police killing of George Floyd early Friday morning, Trump sent a tweet with the quote “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Twitter promptly blurred out the tweet with a “public interest notice,” defending the move by claiming it breaks site rules by “glorying violence.” Still, the platform did not remove the tweet, and users can click to see it—because, it claimed, Trump’s tweets are newsworthy as president.
Meanwhile, Facebook allowed the same post to stand unaltered on its site.
On Friday, The Verge’s Casey Newton reported on internal posts on Workplace, Facebook’s collaboration tool for workers, critical of the Zuckerberg’s policy and response. Kate Klonick, a St. John’s University law professor who researches online speech, tweeted, “Sources tell me that Facebook employees are changing their internal employee-Facebook profile images to the Twitter logo in protest.”
But it wasn’t long before the internal pressure moved to Twitter—and employees took the rare step of tweeting about their frustrations with Facebook.
“Censoring information that might help people see the complete picture *is* wrong,” Andrew Crow, head of design for Facebook’s Portal, tweeted today. “But giving a platform to incite violence and spread disinformation is unacceptable, regardless who you are or if it’s newsworthy.”
“Mark is wrong, and I will endeavour in the loudest possible way to change his mind,” tweeted Ryan Freitas, head of product design for Facebook’s news feed.
For Monday’s walkout, employees took a day off and left automated messages saying they were off in protest. A company spokesperson did not have any additional comment on the walkout and referred Adweek to its original statement.
“More than a dozen current and former employees” took part in the protest, according to The New York Times, describing it as “the most serious challenge to Mr. Zuckerberg’s leadership since the company was founded 15 years ago.”