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Facebook’s Diversity Dilemma: The Elephant in the Room

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Leadership & Transparency
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Last week, we discussed Facebook’s struggles with its brand reputation and its ongoing challenges on the diversity and inclusion front. Although the social media giant has made significant strides in recruiting women in recent years, the company’s frequent appearance in headlines for all the wrong reasons may make it harder to recruit up-and-coming talent, as is the case with the fossil fuels sector.

An ongoing shake-up within Facebook’s board

The exit of two Facebook board members, Reed Hastings and Erskine Bowles, may be the most significant news to surface in recent days. As indicated by media reports in Forbes and The Hill, both have had their fair share of clashes with other board members.

Specifically, Tal Axelrod of The Hill noted, citing a 2017 New York Times report: “Hastings told fellow board member Peter Thiel that he intended to dock his performance review over his endorsement of then-Republican presidential-nominee Donald Trump.

The Times further cited an email from Hastings to Thiel at length:

“I’m so mystified by your endorsement of Trump for our President, that for me it moves from ‘different judgment’ to ‘bad judgment,’” Hastings reportedly told Thiel in an email. “Some diversity in views is healthy, but catastrophically bad judgment (in my view) is not what anyone wants in a fellow board member.” 

If the name Peter Thiel doesn’t ring a bell, that’s the same Facebook board member who is known for extremist views on immigration.

As a Facebook board member, Thiel is also known for playing an instrumental role in the Trump campaign during the 2016 election. His activities included acting as a delegate for then-candidate Trump during primary season, nailing a coveted speaking position at the Republican Convention, publishing op-eds at key junctures, and providing financial support to the Trump campaign and Cambridge Analytica (the data company linked with Russia’s use of Facebook to spread propaganda during the 2016 election).

Thiel is also known for his relationship with white nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment, and he continues to surface as an advisor to the Trump administration. As for Thiel’s direct influence on policy at Facebook, he was reportedly involved in a 2016 meeting between Facebook board members and conservative pundits Glenn Beck and Tucker Carlson, which reportedly resulted in an algorithm change in the newsfeed, followed by a sharp increase in clicks on fake news.”

Diversity and a disaster for brand reputation

During the 2016 election, Facebook was widely criticized for enabling Thiel to remain on the board. Facebook CEO, chairman and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg pushed back in support of Thiel, based on the position that his presence on the board demonstrated respect for diversity of thought.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to separate Thiel’s thinking—especially on the topic of women’s rights—from the bottom-line impact of alienating the next generation of creators and innovators.

That’s something to keep in mind as activist shareholders push for an independent board chairman at Facebook. Trillium Asset Management, for example, lists how the social media giant has exposed itself to risk in recent years:

  • Russian meddling in U.S. elections
  • Sharing personal data of 87 million users with Cambridge Analytica
  • Data sharing with device manufacturers, including Huawei that is flagged by U.S. Intelligence as a national security threat
  • Proliferating fake news
  • Propagating violence in Myanmar, India, and South Sudan
  • Depression and other mental health issues, including stress and addiction
  • Allowing advertisers to exclude black, Hispanic, and other “ethnic affinities” from seeing ads.

That’s all over and above the risk of losing out in the race to attract top female talent.

Facebook faces a long road ahead as stakeholders grow suspicious about the companys dubious track record on user privacy, vetting reliable sources of news and its record on diversity. Until Facebook can correct these problems, it will still seem that the line between diversity and catastrophically bad judgement” is a rather thin one for the social network.

Image credit: Dan Taylor/Wiki Commons

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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