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Facebook employees go public with disagreement over Zuckerberg's handling of Trump

"I work at Facebook and I am not proud of how we’re showing up. The majority of co-workers I’ve spoken to feel the same way," tweeted one Facebook employee.
Image: Mark Zuckerberg testifies during a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Facebook's plans for a cryptocurrency in Washington on Oct. 23, 2019.
Mark Zuckerberg testifies during a House hearing on Facebook's plans for a cryptocurrency on Oct. 23, 2019.Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Facebook employees are speaking out on social media in opposing the company's decision not to take down posts from President Donald Trump that have been widely condemned as attempts to incite violence.

Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg have been at the center of a heated debate over how technology companies should handle some of the president's recent statements about protesters and rioting, including "when the looting starts, the shooting starts." Those comments came in response to protests over the death of George Floyd, with video of a police officer kneeling on Floyd having initially gained some traction via Facebook.

Twitter put a warning on a tweet from the president with that language, but Facebook did not take action. Zuckerberg has repeatedly defended the company's policy of taking a hands-off approach with statements from politicians.

That has led to widespread criticism from outside the company, and reports of growing unrest inside the company.

In the past three days, many employees have gone public with their disagreement.

"I work at Facebook and I am not proud of how we’re showing up," tweeted Jason Toff, who lists his role on LinkedIn as director of product management. "The majority of co-workers I’ve spoken to feel the same way. We are making our voice heard."

Jason Stirman, a design manager at Facebook, tweeted similar sentiments.

"I don't know what to do, but I know doing nothing is not acceptable," Stirman wrote. "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."

Some Facebook employees also said publicly that they would be participating in a virtual walkout on Monday over the company's decisions.

Facebook employees participating in the walkout are leaving out-of-office messages pointing to the decisions around Trump's content and encouraging coworkers to ask how to participate, according to internal Facebook materials viewed by NBC News.

"This Monday 6/1 I am participating in a virtual walkout over Facebook's recent decisions not to moderate posts that we believe violate our platform standards. Please reach out to find out how to participate."

A Facebook spokesperson said in an email that the company condones employees speaking out.

"We recognize the pain many of our people are feeling right now, especially our Black community," the spokesperson said. "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."

While Facebook has taken steps in recent years to do more to moderate its platform, including cracking down on hate speech and misinformation, Zuckerberg has in the past year taken a hard line on issues of speech from politicians.

Two people at Facebook familiar with Zuckerberg's thinking who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly said he is motivated by practical and philosophical goals. On the practical side, he does not want to get mired in a political war with the president or with conservatives, especially as regulation looms in Washington.

On the philosophical side, he firmly believes Facebook should be as open a platform as possible and not make judgments about political speech.

Over the weekend, Zuckerberg sought to bring attention to efforts by Facebook and his personal advocacy organization, the Chan Zuckerberg initiative, directed at racial justice.

On Friday, Zuckerberg told Trump by phone that he disagreed with his rhetoric about the protesters and that it was putting Facebook in a difficult position, according to three people familiar with the conversation who requested anonymity to discuss the private call. Details of the discussion were first reported by Axios.

The same day, Zuckerberg published a Facebook post saying that while he had "a visceral negative reaction" to the president's "divisive and inflammatory rhetoric," Facebook "should enable as much expression as possible unless it will cause imminent risk of specific harms or dangers spelled out in clear policies."

Late Sunday night, Zuckerberg wrote another post in which he said Facebook would donate $10 million to groups working on racial justice and disclosed that he and his wife's philanthropic initiative had been investing $40 million a year in such efforts.

Those efforts, however, have largely been overshadowed by the growing backlash that Facebook faces.

"Censoring information that might help people see the complete picture *is* wrong," Andrew Crow, head of design for Facebook's Portal video device, tweeted. "But giving a platform to incite violence and spread disinformation is unacceptable, regardless who you are or if it’s newsworthy. I disagree with Mark’s position and will work to make change happen."

Pressure is also mounting on Facebook from outside the company, including from at least one other tech company. Oren Frank, CEO of therapy app Talkspace, tweeted Monday that his company had broken off partnership talks with Facebook.

"We at @Talkspace discontinued our partnership discussions with @Facebook today," Frank wrote. "We will not support a platform that incites violence, racism, and lies."

Investors were not spooked by the criticism. Facebook's share price rose a little more than 2 percent by early Monday afternoon.