Zuckerberg defends Facebook's hands-off response to Trump's controversial post, report says

Unlike Twitter, Facebook didn't take any action against a post that employees say could incite violence.

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Queenie Wong
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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's approach to political speech is drawing criticism from his own employees. 

James Martin/CNET

Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg is reportedly standing by the company's decision to not take action against a post by President Donald Trump that employees say could incite violence.

The New York Times, which listened to audio of an internal meeting, reported Tuesday that Zuckerberg told employees he had made a "tough decision" but that it "was pretty thorough." His remarks came a day after hundreds of Facebook employees staged a virtual walkout to protest the company's decision, which contrasted with how Twitter handled the same content.

In social media posts shared on both Twitter and Facebook, Trump said "when the looting starts, the shooting starts." The president made the remarks in response to news about protests that erupted following the death of George Floyd, a black man in Minnesota who died after a white police officer pinned him down by placing a knee on Floyd's neck. The incident was captured in a video that shows Floyd repeatedly saying he can't breathe. 

Twitter screened out the president's tweet with a notice that says the post violates its rules against glorifying violence. But because the president's words are of public interest, Twitter said, users can click a View button in the notice to read the tweet. Facebook left up Trump's post untouched after the company determined the president's remarks didn't violate its rules against creating "imminent risk of specific harms or dangers." Facebook allows for discussion around state use of force, and Zuckerberg said the company left up Trump's post because it referenced the National Guard, so the social network "read it as a warning about state action." He also noted that Trump later clarified that his post was a warning about how looting could lead to violence.

In his video call with employees, Zuckerberg said that the company determined after some research and talking to "different folks" that Trump's reference to looting and shooting "is clearly to aggressive policing — maybe excessive policing — but it has no history of being read as a dog whistle for vigilante supporters to take justice into their own hands," Recode reported, citing audio of the meeting.

A Facebook spokesman said that "open and honest discussion has always been a part of Facebook's culture." "Mark had an open discussion with employees today, as he has regularly over the years. He's grateful for their feedback," he added.

Watch this: Tech giants pledge funds to fight racial injustice, Facebook employees stage protest

Conservatives have accused Facebook and other sites of censoring their speech, but the companies have repeatedly denied these allegations. Trump signed an executive order Thursday in an attempt to curtail federal legal protections that social networks get in regard to posts created by their users. The order is already facing legal challenges. On Tuesday, the Center for Democracy and Technology filed a lawsuit against Trump's executive order, alleging that it violates the First Amendment and is retaliatory against Twitter.  

Facebook employees are reportedly divided over whether the company did the right thing with Trump's posts. The social network typically has a hands-off approach to posts and ads posted by politicians but draws a line when the content could cause "imminent risk of specific harms or dangers." The company sets a higher bar for removing political speech, arguing that people should be able to see what politicians say and that their speech is already heavily scrutinized by the public and media. 

One Facebook employee, who wasn't named, told Business Insider that he thought the company technically applied its policies correctly but questioned whether the rules were "ultimately sustainable."

Others expressed their disappointment with the meeting publicly on Twitter. Facebook engineer Brandon Dail said in a tweet that "It's crystal clear today that leadership refuses to stand with us."

Some Facebook employees have threatened to resign, and a number have followed through with the decision. On Tuesday, Facebook software engineer Timothy Aveni said in a post on the social network and on LinkedIn that he's leaving his job on June 12.

"Mark always told us that he would draw the line at speech that calls for violence. He showed us on Friday that this was a lie. Facebook will keep moving the goalposts every time Trump escalates, finding excuse after excuse not to act on increasingly dangerous rhetoric," Aveni said in a Facebook post.

I'm resigning from my job at Facebook. For years, President Trump has enjoyed an exception to Facebook’s Community...

Posted by Timothy J. Aveni on Monday, June 1, 2020

It's unclear how many Facebook employees have resigned in protest. The company has more than 48,200 workers worldwide. Facebook didn't respond to questions about how many people are leaving the company.