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Mark Zuckerberg stands by decision on Trump posts amid mounting employee frustration

In a staffwide call that Facebook employees described as both tense and awkward, Zuckerberg sought to explain his reasoning to frustrated employees.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg & Key Speakers At The Silicon Slopes Summit
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in Salt Lake City on Jan. 31, 2020.George Frey / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told employees Tuesday that he was sticking with his decision not to take down incendiary posts in which President Donald Trump appeared to call for violence against protesters.

In a staffwide call that Facebook employees described as both tense and awkward, Zuckerberg sought to explain to frustrated employees why the company was standing by its decision and why he did not think the president's posts ran afoul of the social media giant's policies.

While Facebook has had to deal with a variety of issues in recent years, from misinformation to privacy concerns, few topics have ignited as much public furor as Zuckerberg's decision not to take action on some of the president's recent posts. That has also sparked rare public pushback from Facebook employees, who have begun to organize within the company, with some having staged a virtual walkout on Monday.

This was "a tough decision," Zuckerberg said, according to three employees on the call who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly. But it was in line with Facebook's policies, he said, and "the right action ... is to leave this up."

Zuckerberg also took care to stress that Facebook was largely responsible for driving so much attention to the video of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody last week.

While many Facebook employees quietly support Zuckerberg's decision, an increasingly large number do not. Hundreds have protested it internally, and many have taken to other social media platforms to denounce it publicly. At least a few have resigned in protest.

"Sentiment among my peers is that he is wildly out of touch and ruining the perception of Facebook," an employee said in a private message. "This is more anger and frustration than I've seen before."

A Facebook spokesperson said Zuckerberg values discussions with his employees.

"Open and honest discussion has always been a part of Facebook's culture," the spokesperson said. "Mark had an open discussion with employees today, as he has regularly over the years. He's grateful for their feedback."

Facebook decided last week that it would not take action on a post in which Trump wrote of the protests over Floyd's death: "when the looting starts, the shooting starts." The statement, which has racist origins, appeared to be a threat of violence against the protesters. Trump later said it was "spoken as a fact, not a statement."

Facebook has a policy against posts that incite violence, but Zuckerberg and other executives believe that Trump's tweet did not pose an imminent threat of violence and that, as a warning of possible military action by a U.S. president, it should not be censored.

"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," Zuckerberg wrote last week.

That explanation has done little to appease restive employees who believe Zuckerberg is stretching Facebook's policies to avoid a confrontation with Trump.

"Why are the smartest people in the world focused on contorting and twisting our policies to avoid antagonizing Trump?" an employee asked in a question that was submitted to Zuckerberg ahead of the call.

Facebook's refusal to take action has become particularly controversial in light of Twitter's decision to place warning labels on tweets in which Trump used the "looting" and "shooting" language. That prompted Trump to sign an executive order last week asking federal regulators to revisit a 1996 law that protects websites from liability for what their users post.

Facebook's policy does not allow for a scenario in which a post promoting violence would be placed behind a warning label, Facebook employees familiar with the policy and its application said. If a post promotes violence, it should be taken down entirely. In the case of Trump's tweet, Zuckerberg and his fellow executives do not believe the president crossed that line.

Full coverage of George Floyd's death and protests around the country

On Tuesday, some employees wondered why Facebook took a binary approach to the issue and did not allow for warning labels.

For many, however, the semantics of Facebook's policy are beside the point when the president is threatening to deploy the U.S. military to quell American protesters and the nation is gripped by a more pressing debate about racism, police brutality and the limits of state power.

The employees' frustrations also go beyond Trump's tweets last week, touching on larger issues like the company's unwillingness to fact-check some political speech.

More than 95 questions were submitted before the call, Facebook employees said. The top question as voted by employees was: "Can we please change our policies around political speech? Fact checking and removal of hate speech shouldn't be exempt for politicians."