Mark Zuckerberg Faces Revolt Among Facebook Employees

Jun 10, 2020
Originally published on June 10, 2020 5:25 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a lot riding on 2020. There is the election and the scrutiny his company is under to show it has learned from the mistakes of 2016. At the same time, user demands because of the coronavirus pandemic are putting the company under more pressure to stop the spread of health-related hoaxes. And now the biggest challenge is happening inside Facebook's own walls, a revolt from employees. NPR's Shannon Bond has the story. And we should note that Facebook is an NPR sponsor.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Facebook prizes loyalty. It discourages leaking. So when staff are unhappy, that usually stays inside Facebook. But after President Trump posted on Facebook about protests over police brutality and racism, things changed.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: Zuckerberg has been feeling the heat from critics and facing backlash from employees.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: A number of senior Facebook executives publicly sharing their outrage...

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: Hundreds of employees simply walked off the job yesterday.

BOND: Trump wrote, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. When he tweeted the exact same thing, Twitter took a stand. For the first time, it hid the president's tweet behind a warning label, saying it broke its rules against glorifying violence. But Mark Zuckerberg saw it differently. He said the post did not break Facebook's own rules against inciting violence. For some employees, that was the last straw.

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TIM AVENI: I've seen a couple times now that Mark doesn't uphold his principles.

BOND: Software engineer Tim Aveni was so disgusted, he quit his job at Facebook last week. A dozen other employees tweeted against the decision. It was the most dramatic public rebuke of the CEO, the biggest pushback inside the company that employees can remember. Aveni told CNN he thinks Zuckerberg is not sticking to his promise to enforce the rules for everyone.

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AVENI: And if Mark keeps moving that goalpost, moving his threshold for when someone has crossed the line, especially as powerful as the president of the United States, we're in danger.

BOND: A lot of people are furious at Facebook right now - current and former staff, civil rights groups, even scientists who've gotten funding from Zuckerberg's charity. It's a pileup of frustrations new and old. One of them is the lack of diversity, a widespread problem in tech. Less than 4% of Facebook's U.S. employees are black. Mark Luckie was one of them. He left Facebook after just a year, and he understands the outrage.

MARK LUCKIE: There's a snowball. More people are encouraged to be vocal because now a lot of employers are seeing that, hey, Facebook isn't really doing anything, and it is putting us deeper and deeper into trouble.

BOND: Luckie was hired to build relationships with influencers from underrepresented communities, but he says he encountered exclusion and discrimination at Facebook.

LUCKIE: When I saw that I was going up against the company to do what they hired me to do, I was like, well, I shouldn't be here.

BOND: That criticism is also a big part of the current backlash. Many employees were particularly disturbed that only one black person was involved in the decision to leave up Trump's post. Zuckerberg says he wants to make sure the right groups and voices are at the table. Facebook told NPR it's giving serious attention to what employees are saying. But so far, Zuckerberg has stuck to his position. Here's how he explained his hands-off approach in a CNBC interview before the controversy over Trump's post.

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MARK ZUCKERBERG: And I think political speech is one of the most sensitive parts in a democracy, and people should be able to see what politicians say. And there's a ton of scrutiny already. Political speech is the most scrutinized speech already by a lot of the media.

BOND: As the backlash has built up internally, Zuckerberg has acknowledged just how upset his employees are. In a staff memo last week, he says he understands his decision left many people, quote, "angry, disappointed and hurt." In a small concession, he says Facebook will review some of its policies and consider taking Twitter's approach of labeling posts that break the rules. Dipayan Ghosh used to work on policy issues at Facebook. He's now at the Harvard Kennedy School. And he says the thing that could force real change is financial pressure.

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DIPAYAN GHOSH: Let's be honest. Facebook is all about the brand. Because at the end of the day, it's just a website.

BOND: He says, if Facebook lost users or some of the advertisers who spend $70 billion a year on the platform, that would get Zuckerberg's attention. For now, the CEO has made his stance clear. Back in January, he said he would worry less about whether his policies are popular and spend more time explaining his decisions.

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ZUCKERBERG: My goal for the next decade isn't to be liked but to be understood.

BOND: Shannon Bond, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.