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Mary Mazzoni headshot

Facebook Employees Walk Off the Job in Support of Black Lives Matter Protesters

By Mary Mazzoni
Facebook employees walk out

Even as most of the country shelters in their homes amid coronavirus lockdowns, the senseless violence against black Americans has continued.

In February, 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was chased down and shot to death by two white men while out for a jog in South Georgia. A month later, police stormed into 26-year-old Breonna Taylor's home in Louisville, Kentucky, as she slept, fatally shooting her eight times in what her family referred to as a botched drug raid. No drugs were found. Last week, 46-year-old George Floyd died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for over eight minutes while he repeatedly said, "I can't breathe." 

As protests spread from Minneapolis to major cities across the country following Floyd's death, U.S. President Donald Trump sent a tweet at almost 1 a.m. on Friday, calling the demonstrators "THUGS" and seeming to suggest that law enforcement use deadly force against them. "When the looting starts, the shooting starts," Trump wrote. 

In an unprecedented move, Twitter hid the tweet behind a notice that it had "violated" the platform's rules about "glorifying violence." It also prevented users from liking the tweet or sharing it without comment, and it did the same after the message was reposted on the White House Twitter account. 

Twitter hides Trump's tweet but Facebook leaves it alone

But when Trump shared the same post on Facebook, the company opted to leave it alone.  "I know many people are upset that we've left the President's posts up," founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook page on Saturday, "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."

In another message, Zuckerberg pledged $10 million to "groups working on racial justice." But it did little to encourage disgruntled employees, a group of whom refused to work on Monday in protest of Zuckerberg's decision and in support of demonstrators across the country. The protest group labeled their move a "virtual walkout," as most Facebook employees are already working from home due to the coronavirus.

Facebook employees speak up, walk out   

Over the weekend, Facebook employees circulated petitions and discussed their grievances in group chats, staff intranets and message boards. “The hateful rhetoric advocating violence against black demonstrators by the U.S. President does not warrant defense under the guise of freedom of expression,” one Facebook employee wrote in an internal message board, which was viewed by the New York Times.

Other senior staffers took to social media to express their concerns. "Censoring information that might help people see the complete picture *is* wrong. But giving a platform to incite violence and spread disinformation is unacceptable, regardless who you are or if it’s newsworthy," Andrew Crow, head of design for Facebook’s portal product, tweeted on Sunday. "I disagree with Mark’s position and will work to make change happen."

 "I am not proud of how we’re showing up," added Jason Toff, Facebook director of product management. "The majority of coworkers I’ve spoken to feel the same way. We are making our voice heard."

Is change coming to Facebook's senior ranks?  

Along with removing — or adding a warning to — Trump's posts, Facebook staffers are calling for increased diversity in leadership. Like many tech companies, most Facebook employees are white, particularly at the very top.

Facebook talks a big game in its latest diversity report: "Over the last six years, we have worked hard to make our commitment to diversity and inclusion more than just sound bites. Our company has grown a lot. So has our approach." But the numbers fail to back these statements up. As of last year, 3.8 percent of Facebook employees were black, compared to 2 percent in 2014. 

"Although incremental changes are being made, the fact remains that the population of Facebook employees doesn’t reflect its most engaged user base," former Facebook employee Mark Luckie wrote in an online memo after quitting the company in 2018. "There is often more diversity in keynote presentations than the teams who present them. In some buildings, there are more 'Black Lives Matter' posters than there are actual black people."

And while Trump regularly accuses social media companies of censoring conservative voices, policymaking at Facebook is largely dominated by conservatives, particularly the three leaders of the company's powerful Washington, D.C. office, Joel Kaplan, Katie Harbath and Kevin Martin.

In private online chats, employees called for Kaplan, a former deputy chief of staff in the George W. Bush administration, to resign. His official position is vice president of global policy, but a former Facebook employee told journalist Judd Legum that, in reality, Kaplan "serves as an advocate for right-wing sites on Facebook."

"Any time there was an issue with Breitbart or Daily Caller, Joel made the decision, and he always acted to protect them," the employee said. Kaplan angered many employees by sitting in the front row during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a close friend. 

A way forward, but is it the right one? 

A Facebook spokesperson told Rolling Stone that the company is open to feedback from critics, including those within its own ranks. “We recognize the pain many of our people are feeling right now, especially our Black community. We encourage employees to speak openly when they disagree with leadership.”

Additionally, Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, planned to host a call on Monday night with civil rights leaders who have publicly criticized the company's move to protect Trump's posts, the New York Times reported

While some may consider it encouraging to see the company engage its critics directly, the two executives may be in for a rude awakening. In interviews with the Times, Rashad Robinson of Color of Change called Zuckerberg's $10 million donation “one of the most insulting things I’ve ever seen,” while Vanita Gupta of the National Leadership Conference said he is "prioritizing free expression while our democracy is literally burning."

If employee feedback thus far is any indication, it will take more than donations and conference calls to change minds at Facebook. Employees are looking for a firm policy regarding speech on the platform — and executives with the guts to enforce it. Per the Times report, several have already threatened to leave their jobs permanently if Zuckerberg does not reverse his decision on Trump's tweets. 

“Mark is wrong, and I will endeavour in the loudest possible way to change his mind,” Ryan Freitas, the director of product design for Facebook’s News Feed, wrote on Twitter. He isn't the only one: On Monday, online therapy platform Talkspace dissolved a six-figure partnership with Facebook, with CEO Oren Frank saying, “We will not support a platform that incites violence, racism and lies."

Image credit: Shop Catalog via Flickr

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni