Zuckerberg, Trump and the protests: Facebook’s muddled makeover

Earlier this year, Mark Zuckerberg told Facebook investors in a rare personal revelation that he no longer cared about being liked.

Having seen his reputation take a battering in recent years, the boyish social media titan admitted that he now strived to be “understood” above all else. “In order to be trusted, people need to know what you stand for,” the Facebook boss said.

For a brief period after the outbreak of coronavirus, Mr Zuckerberg appeared to see a chance to be appreciated again. He embarked on a charm offensive, seizing on the pandemic as an opportunity to rehabilitate Facebook from the persistent criticism that the platform’s content is helping to poison political life.

On a personal level, Mr Zuckerberg has been the generous benefactor: livestreaming informative chats with experts and donating money and stockpiled masks to the relief efforts.

At the company’s recent virtual shareholder meeting, he elevated Facebook’s mission beyond merely “connecting people”; instead, it was aiding the “health response” with new data efforts and information sharing and boosting the “economic recovery for small businesses” by offering grants and handy online tools.

Donald Trump holds up The New York Post before signing an executive order that could target Facebook, Google and Twitter for the way they police content online Donald Trump holds up The New York Post before signing an executive order that could target Facebook, Google and Twitter for the way they police content online © Doug Mills/EPA

But after weeks of pandemic-related philanthropy and product announcements, the attempt at an image makeover has been shortlived.

Over the past fortnight, Mr Zuckerberg has faced one of his most defining tests yet; whether to follow the lead of smaller rival Twitter and censure — or censor — contentious content from the most powerful figure in the western world, President Donald Trump.

Mr Zuckerberg opted for inaction, citing a commitment to “freedom of expression”.

Like other social media companies, Facebook is wary of being drawn further into a political argument ahead of what is likely to be the most divisive presidential election in the US in recent times. Mr Zuckerberg has already opted for the platform to steer clear of fact-checking political advertisements.

The industry is also keen not to antagonise Mr Trump, who thrives on claiming that social media platforms are biased against Republicans and has ordered a review the 1996 law that gives them immunity from being sued over content that they publish. Indeed, Mr Zuckerberg’s decision not to follow Twitter’s lead on challenging the president’s postings was praised by some conservatives.

Roger McNamee, a former adviser to Mark Zuckerberg: ‘What Facebook is doing is purely a business decision’ Roger McNamee, a former adviser to Mark Zuckerberg: ‘What Facebook is doing is purely a business decision’ © Mike Blake/Reuters

But for the growing band of Facebook critics who argue that the company’s pursuit of profits over principles has been harmful to democracy, the move appeared to prove their worst fears were correct.

“What Facebook is doing is purely a business decision,” says Roger McNamee, a former adviser to Mr Zuckerberg who has since become a vocal critic of Silicon Valley.

“Facebook . . . is ubiquitous, and as a result it must always align with power to eliminate the political risk to business. That creates real issues because Facebook’s influence on our national conversation is so huge.”

Path to a ‘super app’

On paper, Facebook has had a bumper year. Although its shares did slump in March when the pandemic began to rattle markets, they have since rallied and reached all-time highs last month after the company announced a new ecommerce play, Facebook Shops, which Deutsche Bank analysts say could represent a $30bn a year revenue opportunity.

As the pace of growth in developed markets begins to stall, the company has been busy diversifying into potentially lucrative emerging markets, with significant new investments in India and Indonesia. While advertising revenues have been hit by the pandemic, user engagement has risen handsomely under lockdown.

Meanwhile, Mr Zuckerberg has consolidated power internally, replacing the founders of the company’s WhatsApp and Instagram platforms with trusted lieutenants.

He is now forging ahead with plans to merge his three apps into one interlinking system, with all messaging encrypted, and introduce payments tools. Cast as a “pivot to privacy”, it takes Facebook one step closer to some of the Asian so-called “super apps” such as WeChat — where users never have to leave the platform to send messages and money or shop, giving the company more lucrative data to feed into its targeted advertising model.

Mark Zuckerberg prepares to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in 2018 after the Cambridge Analytica leak Mark Zuckerberg prepares to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in 2018 after the Cambridge Analytica data leak © Chip Somodevilla/Getty

But its future success will rely, in part, on Mr Zuckerberg’s effort to bolster his public image — which began to take a hammering following revelations about Russian interference in the 2016 US elections on the platform and the Cambridge Analytica data leak.

As chairman, chief executive and controlling shareholder his position heading up Facebook is guaranteed. But Mr Zuckerberg’s latest decision not to fact-check or remove controversial posts by Mr Trump has spurred anger from a new, more challenging genre of critic: his own staff.

Twitter lead

As protests escalated in the US over the death of George Floyd, Mr Trump took to Twitter with a warning that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. The phrase was originally coined by a Miami police chief in the 1960s who promoted police brutality against the black community.

Shortly after, Twitter — which had already decided to fact check two of Mr Trump’s recent posts — decided to add a warning label in front of the president’s tweet for “glorifying violence”.

When the same phrase from Mr Trump was posted on Facebook, Mr Zuckerberg refused to take any action, arguing that private companies should not be “the arbiter of truth”. In a testy company-wide virtual meeting, he told staff that he believed the phrase had “no history of being read as a dog whistle” for violence by vigilantes and therefore did not breach its rules.

His stance garnered support on the right. According to Jesse Blumenthal, vice-president of tech and innovation policy for Stand Together, a conservative political group affiliated with billionaire Charles Koch, fact-checking political speech is logistically challenging and not scalable.

“[Facebook users] are looking for someone to deputise . . . to hold politicians accountable,” says Mr Blumental. “[But] it’s a fool’s errand. You can’t just wish that tech can push a button and solve political problems. At the end of the day politicians, including the president, are responsible for their actions, not the tools they use.”

But the backlash internally was swift and unforgiving. Dozens of the nearly 50,000-strong staff — some in senior positions — took the unprecedented move of protesting publicly on Twitter, castigating their employer for giving the president a platform “to incite violence” and for being tone deaf.

Demonstrators in Manhattan protest against the death of George Floyd in police custody Demonstrators in Manhattan protest against the death of George Floyd in police custody © Eduardo /Reuters

“Honestly, why is this guy in charge? Tech CEOs should not be making one-off content policy decisions, least of all for those who might regulate them,” one Facebook employee, Nick Inzucchi, wrote on Twitter. “Mark is just not doing a very good job. He needs to sit down, be humble, and empower someone who gets it.”

Some staff staged “virtual walkouts”, others threatened to resign; a handful did so. A group of former staff published a furious open letter. The mood inside the company was “riotous”, says one Facebook employee.

“I’ve seen a couple of times now that Mark doesn’t uphold his principles. Zuck has told us over and over that calls to violence would not be tolerated on the platform, even if they were by the president of the US,” Timothy Aveni, a Facebook software engineer who quit over Mr Zuckerberg’s inaction, told CNN. 

Mr Zuckerberg capped the week of employee unrest by publishing a post he hoped would draw a line under the matter; pledging to review its content policies relating to threats of state use of force, review its decision-making process and explore options such as adding warning labels to posts. But it lacked specifics, adding the caveat that the company “may not come up with changes” off the back of the reviews. 

Paul Barrett, deputy director at NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, says the unrest stems from the fact the company is caught in a bind. Like the staff of other tech companies, its employees have a strong desire not to come out on the wrong side of history in the fight against racial injustice. But the company also faces “the hydraulic pressure of the Trump administration” which has made increasingly questionable claims related to the coronavirus pandemic.

While not fatal to Mr Zuckerberg, this conflict threatens to drive away some of the 2.6bn monthly active users of its apps in the longer term, including younger users who are turning to more light-hearted platforms such as TikTok.

“The main and initial risk is disillusioning a high portion of your employee pool,” he says. “In the long run, more important is the regard with which your users hold you. The Facebook of today could seem like a relic of sorts if it’s not in step with user sentiment.”

Siva Vaidhyanathan, media studies professor at the University of Virginia, says: “Mark Zuckerberg has been unwilling to stand up for the interests of Facebook users over the interests of Donald Trump.”

Many point to fear of antitrust, content and privacy regulation around the world as the motive for the decision. But Mr Vaidhyanathan argues that Facebook faces an even “blunter threat” from strongman leaders such as Mr Trump, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

“What Facebook fears in most of the world is that it could be blocked by governments. He’s choosing to collaborate with extremists rather than be shunned by them.”

Content conflict

The episode, coming at a time of deep division in America, highlights the tricky, perhaps impossible, diplomatic line Mr Zuckerberg has to tread: appeasing both sides of the polarised political spectrum.

On the one hand, any effort to defend Facebook’s image means responding to human rights activists, who believe the company does not do nearly enough to police controversial content and protect citizens.

As part of this, Facebook has battled to dispel the growing claims that it actually encourages polarising content, because it is essential to user engagement and, in turn, its advertising-driven business model.

In a speech at Georgetown University last year in defence of his decision not to fact check political advertising, Mr Zuckerberg said he had read evidence that “suggests the internet could actually decrease aspects of polarisation”, adding that Facebook designed its systems to “not encourage polarising content”. 

But the company’s efforts to defend itself against this charge have been greeted with scepticism, even among Silicon Valley veterans. “These platforms want more conflict . . . It gets the users there to view ads. It jacks up the prices of ads,” says one former senior executive at Twitter. “The platforms make tens of millions a minute typically, but it flies up to hundreds of millions a minute at these spiky turbulent times.”

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported the company had commissioned research in 2017 and 2018 into how its “algorithms exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness”. But solutions to address this would have hit conservative users disproportionately due to the nature of their posting, Facebook’s research found. Any attempts to make changes were quashed by Mr Zuckerberg, according to the Journal.

Mark Zuckerberg’s decision not to follow Twitter’s lead on fact-checking the president’s postings was praised by some conservatives Mark Zuckerberg’s decision not to follow Twitter’s lead on fact-checking the president’s postings was praised by some conservatives © Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Facebook says it has taken a number of steps to fight polarisation, such as curbing the recommendations of pages and groups that regularly violate its rules. 

On the other hand, Facebook is attempting to keep peace with Mr Trump, whose re-election campaign claims that social media groups have a predominantly liberal staff and are biased against the right.

There is evidence that this has been a preoccupation for Mr Zuckerberg in recent years. In his book Facebook: The Inside Story, journalist and author Steven Levy writes that in the wake of the 2016 election, Facebook initially sat on evidence of Russian meddling in the campaign so as to not irk the recently elected president.

More recently, Mr Zuckerberg has shared phone calls and dinners with the president, sometimes alongside common ally Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist and Facebook board member known for his large donations to the Trump campaign.

Jason Kint, chief executive officer of Digital Content Next, a US trade association for online publishers, says that when Twitter decided to place a warning on Mr Trump’s tweet, it “walled off decision-making to not include the PR, and comms and policy team”. Instead, the designated trust and safety team — whose sole focus is to protect users online — was responsible for the choice.

This contrasted with the process at Facebook, where the decision was ultimately signed off by Mr Zuckerberg but prepared by a group including Monika Bickert, who leads the team that draws up Facebook’s content moderation policies, and Joel Kaplan, its Washington DC public policy head charged with lobbying US politicians — and the most prominent Republican in the company.

“A core problem at Facebook is that one policy [group] is responsible for both the rules of the platform and keeping governments happy,” said Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief information security officer and a professor at Stanford University, on Twitter.

Decision makers

Some of those who defend Mr Zuckerberg’s decision argue that if social media groups are not free to self-regulate, then governments — some of which may be authoritarian and tend towards censorship — could step in and impose their own rules. 

“Facebook doesn’t want to be the person to make these decisions, [asking] what is the definition of free speech in a modern society,” says one former Facebook manager. “[But] if you don’t want Mark — would you want the US government to make the decision on what Trump says? [And] if you don’t want a democratically elected body, then who do you want?”

Facebook has said it would explore other options for moderating content beyond merely leaving it up or taking it down, such as adding labels to content. But Mr Zuckerberg cautioned that such an approach “has a risk of leading us to editorialise on content we don’t like even if it doesn’t violate our policies”.

The company is setting up an independent content moderation committee, which could effectively outsource the most hotly debated decisions.

But even before its launch, the board has already been mired in controversy, after one of the co-chairs, Stanford law professor Michael McConnell, reportedly read out a racial slur to students. He later sent an apology to the law school community, according to the Washington Post, saying the comment was made “in good will”, adding that he would not use the slur again. 

Facebook has also said the board will initially only hear cases on content that has been removed from the platform — rather than challenges to existing content. 

This means there is no formal mechanism for requesting that posts and advertising from politicians be reviewed or taken down: Mr Zuckerberg’s decision is final.

“[Mark’s] goal is not to be liked, it’s to be understood,” says Mr Blumenthal. “This is what [that] looks like.”