Mark Zuckerberg defends hands-off Trump policy to employees after walkout

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg held an extended conference with employees today, addressing accusations that Facebook allowed election misinformation and veiled promotions of violence from President Donald Trump. While Zuckerberg said he should have offered more transparency to employees, he stood by what he called a “pretty thorough” evaluation of Trump’s posts, saying the choice to avoid labeling or removing them was difficult but correct.

According to a recording obtained by The Verge, Zuckerberg described being upset by Trump’s recent posts, one of which warned protesters that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” But “I knew that I needed to separate out my personal opinion … from what our policy is and the principles of the platform we’re running are — knowing that the decision that we made was going to lead to a lot of people being very upset inside the company and a lot of the media criticism we’re going to get,” said Zuckerberg. “Likely this decision has incurred a massive practical cost for the company to do what we think is the right step.”

Facebook has followed a different path from Twitter, which fact-checked two Trump tweets about voting and restricted the protest comments for “glorifying violence.” And Zuckerberg’s decision has proven controversial among employees, some of whom staged a virtual walkout on Monday in protest. Echoing comments made last week, Zuckerberg said the choice upheld Facebook’s dedication to free expression. “The presumption on our service is that you should be able to say what you want unless you’re causing a specific harm and we enumerate what the harms are and try to enforce them. And I do think that default is right,” he said.

Zuckerberg argued that the policies that allowed Trump’s post about shooting also protected content that was upsetting but valuable, like the earlier footage of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers. “I don’t know many people who think that just because that was a painful thing to see that that somehow wasn’t a good thing to allow on there,” he said. “It’s an aspect of giving people a voice that i’m quite proud of.”

Some employees on the call were more ambivalent. “Why are the smartest people in the world focused on contorting or twisting our policies to avoid antagonizing Trump instead of driving social issue progress?” asked one attendee. Another pointed out some confusion over whether Facebook’s head of integrity Guy Rosen was consulted. “I don’t think it’s probably great that we’re not super clear on whether the VP of integrity was included on an integrity decision involving civic matters of voter suppression and societal violence, right?” she asked.

Zuckerberg did call voter misinformation a key priority for Facebook in the coming months, saying that Facebook would launch a “voter hub” with authoritative information similar to Facebook’s COVID-19 one. He expressed particular concern that bad actors would target specific voters with frightening information about the coronavirus. “It’s something I’m fairly worried about — that we’re going to have a somewhat targeted effort by different folks in different areas to talk about hey, there’s a big health risk if you go vote here,” he said.

Zuckerberg also said that if the United States saw a “prolonged period of civil unrest,” the company might reexamine its policy on limiting or labeling messages that could promote violence. “We have some precedents for what that might look like,” he said, citing how Facebook handles countries with “ongoing violent conflict.”

And he criticized The Wall Street Journal for an article suggesting Facebook ignored research about harmful polarization on its platform. “That piece of journalism is one that I just strongly disagree with,” said Zuckerberg. “We care about this deeply, and we’ll continue studying it — that doesn’t mean if you’re an individual researcher or an individual engineer that every idea or every issue that you come up with or every mitigation you propose we’re going to conclude is the right one to do.”

Facebook is likely to face more internal questions about its fact-checking policies. Two employees have publicly resigned over the company’s handling of Trump. But Zuckerberg ended the call on an assurance that the company’s “net impact” on the world is positive. “I believe that we’ve given a lot of people a voice that they wouldn’t have otherwise,” he said. “I think defending the ability to do that is often controversial.”

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