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Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and the fight for social media's soul

President Trump's attacks on social media highlight the differences between the leaders of Facebook and Twitter.

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Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg have taken different approaches to President Trump's content on their platforms.

Composite by James Martin/CNET

To understand the difference between Mark Zuckerberg's and Jack Dorsey's management styles, let's start with a story about a goat.

About 10 years ago, Facebook's founder invited Twitter's chief to his Silicon Valley home for dinner and served a goat he'd just killed. Zuckerberg had hunted the animal as part of a famous New Year's challenge in which he vowed to only eat meat he'd personally slaughtered. When the goat came out, the meat was cold, Dorsey told Rolling Stone last year. "I just ate my salad," said Dorsey, a finicky eater who practices intermittent fasting.

The home-cooked meal wasn't just a bizarre interaction between two of Big Tech's most powerful moguls. It's an example, granted an extreme one, of a simple fact: Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg do things differently. Those differences, in turn, play out on their freewheeling social networks, which are now at the center of a growing political controversy over misinformation, free speech and content moderation in a world where most people get their news online first.

At the center of that controversy is President Donald Trump, an avid Twitter user who's griped about social media for years even as he's used the platforms to reach his base. His anger hit a new ceiling this week when he signed an executive order taking aim at Facebook and Twitter. The order sets the stage for discussion to come about whether social media platforms should keep their protected status as distributors of content -- rather than publishers of content -- under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

In the few days after Trump announced (via tweets, of course) his plan to challenge the social media giants, the responses from Dorsey and Zuckerberg couldn't be more different. Twitter has gone all-in, calling out Trump, flagging his tweets for misleading information about mail-in ballots and for "glorifying violence." Facebook, meanwhile, has left Trump's posts on the social network alone, and is seen as trying to mollify the president. 

Through it all, Zuckerberg and Dorsey have taken potshots at each other's companies, shattering a decorum normally practiced by Silicon Valley's elite. Last Wednesday, Zuckberberg went on Fox News -- familiar turf for Trump -- to proclaim that Facebook shouldn't be an "arbiter of truth," name-checking Twitter as he did. Without mentioning Facebook directly, Dorsey fired back hours later in a series of tweets. "We'll continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally," he wrote. "This does not make us an 'arbiter of truth.'"

"The companies are clearly taking two very different approaches," said Jen King, a director at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society. Dorsey may feel more comfortable pushing back because Twitter -- though it does attract attention -- hasn't been under the same intense microscope as Facebook and Zuckerberg, she said. "To the extent that these companies are reflections of their founders and leaders, Twitter just hasn't had the same questions around ethics that Facebook has."

A deep divide

For years the president has complained, without evidence, that Silicon Valley has it out for conservatives. Last week, Trump's rage toward Twitter, which he uses every day to reach his 80 million followers, boiled over as he signed an executive order that threatens to crack down on social media companies. 

"We're here today to defend free speech from one of the greatest dangers it has faced in American history," Trump said in the Oval Office when signing the order.

The catalyst came last Tuesday, when Twitter for the first time applied labels to two of Trump's tweets. The company flagged one post, which shared inaccurate details about mail-in ballots, for containing "potentially misleading information." 

Two days later Twitter flagged another tweet, in which the president, seeming to reference comments that helped spark Miami race riots in the 1960s, warned protesters in Minneapolis that looters would be shot. The unrest was in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man seen in a video restrained by a police officer with his knee pressed on the back of his neck. Twitter said the tweet violated its community standards against "glorifying violence." Dorsey, who is known for often delegating policy decisions, gave the OK after a late-night virtual conference, The New York Times reported

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President Trump signed the executive order on Thursday.

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Trump posted the same message, which suggested the military would take control of the situation, on Facebook. The post has been liked more than 240,000 times and shared 64,000 times. Facebook, which didn't remove the post, didn't respond to a request for comment.

But Zuckerberg explained the decision on Friday afternoon, reportedly after employees began questioning management's inaction on internal message boards. 

"I've been struggling with how to respond to the President's tweets and posts all day," Zuckerberg wrote, explaining his decision. He said Facebook interpreted Trump's reference to the National Guard "as a warning about state action," and decided the post should stay up. 

"Personally, I have a visceral negative reaction to this kind of divisive and inflammatory rhetoric," Zuckerberg added. "But I'm responsible for reacting not just in my personal capacity but as the leader of an institution committed to free expression. I know many people are upset that we've left the President's posts up, 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 the aftermath, some of Facebook's normally staid workers have reportedly revolted. Dozens of employees, most of which are working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic, staged a virtual "walkout" on Monday by logging out of the company's internal systems, according to The New York Times. The employees wrote automated out-of-office messages indicating they were not working in a show of protest. 

Trump's executive order asks for government agencies including the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission to reinterpret the CDA law that shields tech platforms from liability for content posted by users. Many lawyers, activists and academics say Trump's order isn't workable, with some calling it political theater and note it will likely face legal challenges. Both the FTC and the FCC are independent agencies, so it'll be up to them whether to take action.

But that doesn't make it meaningless. Trump's active promotion of the order may drive Dorsey, Zuckerberg and other social media executives to dig their heels in on their already diverging approaches to moderating content. 

Twitter and Facebook have differed sharply in policy decisions in the past. Last year, Dorsey said Twitter would ban political ads, with a handful of exceptions. Twitter, for example, allows ads with messages about issues pertaining to the environment or economy, but they can't push specific legislation or political solutions. 

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Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey

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Facebook is more open to political marketing. The social network doesn't send ads from politicians to fact-checkers but includes them in a public database. It also limits the amount of political ads people see on the social network. Amid criticism, Zuckerberg defended the decision last year during a speech at Georgetown University, saying the company stands for "voice and free expression."

As Twitter and Facebook again deviate in their approaches to speech on their platforms, civil rights groups are applauding Twitter. But they say Dorsey could go even further.

"Now that Twitter is emboldened, sees the public is behind them, and has committed to doing its part to flag disinformation and threats of violence from the president, it must also take a stand against other hateful activity on its platform," said Henry Fernandez, co-founder of Change the Terms, a coalition of advocacy groups focused on "reducing hate online."

'The whole world was watching'

Zuckerberg, 36, and Dorsey, 43, are alike in many ways. Both dropped out of prestigious colleges to move to Silicon Valley. The two are making more media appearances as their companies come under fire, but neither is particularly comfortable in the glare of a television studio. They've both pledged to give away big chunks of their multibillion-dollar fortunes. 

But as Silicon Valley founders go, they're polar opposites. 

Zuckerberg has often cited Bill Gates as a major influence. Both are Harvard University dropouts. Both are cerebral, Zuckerberg so much so he's been derided as robotic. Like Gates, Zuckerberg is becoming well-known for his philanthropy. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, an organization he and wife Priscilla Chan founded in 2015, focuses on education and medicine, the same playbook used by the 20-year-old Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

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By contrast, Dorsey's story more closely resembles that of Gates' tech nemesis: Steve Jobs. Apple's cofounder was famously ousted from the company he started, only to return in 1996 to save it from the brink of collapse. Dorsey, too, was forced out of Twitter for years before reclaiming the top job in 2015

Like Jobs, who was often seen as a new age hippie, Dorsey is known for his quirks. The New York Times once called him "Gwyneth Paltrow for Silicon Valley," citing his role as a wellness guru for the tech world, his penchant for meditation retreats, ice baths and intermittent fasting. Similar to Jobs, who had roles at Pixar and Disney while he ran Apple, Dorsey is also CEO of Square, the mobile payments company he founded.

Dorsey also has a history with activism. In 2014, he participated in the Ferguson, Missouri, protests after the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man shot dead by a white police officer. Dorsey, who grew up in nearby St. Louis, said at the time it was "stunning" to see people using the service to organize and protest. 

"That was so important to people on the ground," Dorsey said. "It felt like the whole world was watching." 

Turns out, it is.