Over the past week, at least two Facebook engineers have publicly quit their high-paying jobs, and hundreds of other Facebook employees have staged a virtual walkout, to protest CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s controversial decision last week to allow two of President Donald Trump’s inflammatory posts urging violence against protestors to stay on the social networking site.
“I cannot keep excusing Facebook’s behavior. Facebook is providing a platform that enables politicians to radicalize individuals and glorify violence,” wrote Timothy Aveni, a Facebook software engineer since June 2019, in a post on Monday announcing his resignation.
“I’m proud to announce that as of the end of today, I am no longer a Facebook employee,” wrote another Facebook engineer, Owen Anderson, who had been with the company for two years, in a tweet on Monday. “To be clear, this was in the works for a while. But after last week, I am happy to no [longer] support policies and values I vehemently disagree with,” he added.
These clashes all started with an interview Zuckerberg gave on Fox News last Wednesday, in which he defended his decision not to remove a controversial Trump post about mail-in voting. Two days later, on Friday, the President wrote another controversial post on Facebook, this time in reaction the rapidly spreading protests over the Minneapolis murder of George Floyd, in which he called violent demonstrators “thugs” and threatened that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Despite the instant public outcry that the post ignited, Zuckerberg refused to remove it, again, a move that was compounded by blowback against Facebook’s statement about Floyd’s death and systemic racism at large. Facebook’s decision was especially notable in that it conflicted with Twitter’s move to attach a warning to Trump’s tweet, which drew the president’s ire.
“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,” he explained in a lengthy statement on Friday. Zuckerberg added that, although the post contained troubling historical reference (“when the looting starts, the shooting starts”), in itself it was “a warning about state action, and we think people need to know if the government is planning to deploy force.”
But not all Facebook employees would identify with Zuckerberg as “we,” apparently.
“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,” Aveni wrote in his resignation announcement. “Facebook will keep moving the goalposts every time Trump escalates, finding excuse after excuse not to act on increasingly dangerous rhetoric.”
Even among those who are still with Facebook, many have criticized their CEO’s lack of action on Trump posts. “I’m a Facebook employee [who] completely disagrees with Mark’s decision to do nothing about Trump’s recent posts, which clearly incite violence,” tweeted Jason Stirman, a design manager at Facebook, on Saturday.
“Mark is wrong, and I will endeavor in the loudest possible way to change his mind,” tweeted Ryan Freitas, who directs product design for Facebook’s News Feed product, on Sunday.
On Wednesday, more than 30 early Facebook employees, including the company’s first communication chief, engineers and designers, wrote an open letter to Zuckerberg, The New York Times first reported, urging him to reconsider his decision.
“The Facebook we joined designed products to empower people and policies to protect them. Now, it seems, that commitment has changed,” they wrote. “Facebook’s leadership must reconsider their policies regarding political speech, beginning by fact-checking politicians and explicitly labeling harmful posts.”
According to poll of Facebook employees by Team Blind, a social networking site for tech workers, this week, 35 percent of Facebook professionals disagree with the company’s stance on the #BlackLivesMatter movement inspired by George Floyd, including actions over the President’s posts.
Nevertheless, Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to be perturbed by the growing backlash from his own staff just yet. At an internal Q&A with 25,000 Facebook employees on Tuesday, the billionaire entrepreneur doubled down on his controversial decision, arguing that his executive team had come to the conclusion that the “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” reference in the President’s posts “has no history of being read as a dog whistle for vigilante supporters to take justice into their own hands.”
“I knew that the stakes were very high on this, and knew a lot of people would be upset if we made the decision to leave it up…The right action for where we are right now is to leave this up,” Zuckerberg told his staff, according to a recording obtained by Recode.
He went on to clarify that “this isn’t a case where [Trump] is allowed to say anything he wants, or that we let government officials or policymakers say anything they want,” adding that, instead of outright censorship, Facebook is considering adding labels to future posts by politicians that might incite violence.
Zuckerberg hasn’t just upset his own employees. Prominent civil rights activists who spoke with Zuckerberg and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg on a call Monday night said they were dismayed by what they heard. Rashad Robinson of Color of Change, Vanita Gupta of the Leadership Conference and Sherrilyn Ifill of LDF minced no words in their statement.
“We are disappointed and stunned by Mark’s incomprehensible explanations for allowing the Trump posts to remain up,” they said. “He did not demonstrate understanding of historic or modern-day voter suppression and he refuses to acknowledge how Facebook is facilitating Trump’s call for violence against protesters. Mark is setting a very dangerous precedent for other voices who would say similar harmful things on Facebook.”