Leaked transcripts of Mark Zuckerberg's remarks hint at unrest inside Facebook

Employees appear to question whether the social network is achieving its goal of bringing "the world closer together."

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CEO Mark Zuckerberg's comments during two internal employee town halls were leaked to the press. 

James Martin/CNET

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has a record of making candid remarks that not only land him in hot water but raise questions about how well he leads the world's largest social network. After the 2016 US presidential election, he called reports that fake news on Facebook had influenced the results "a pretty crazy idea." He's even had to clarify his stance on the Holocaust after telling a tech journalist that he doesn't think Holocaust deniers are "intentionally getting it wrong."

Turns out, Zuckerberg offers similarly candid observations to his roughly 40,000 workers. 

On Tuesday, The Verge published transcripts and audio clips of Zuckerberg speaking to employees at two town hall meetings in July. His comments covered everything from Facebook's competition to its social responsibility to mounting pressure from politicians looking to limit the company's enormous power. In particular, Zuckerberg name-checked Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic presidential contender who's called for the breakup of Facebook and other tech giants.

Zuckerberg indicated that if Warren became president, the company would pull out all the stops to keep itself whole. "At the end of the day, if someone's going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight," the transcript reads.

The remarks themselves aren't terribly revealing. Zuckerberg repeated positions he's long held, though he expressed them with unusual candor. The fact that the comments leaked, though, is the latest evidence that Facebook's workers are now worried about what their company is doing and how it's perceived outside its Menlo Park, California, headquarters.

"It does tell us that the people inside Facebook feel under siege and uncomfortable about the world around them,"said David Yoffie, an international business administration professor at Harvard Business School. 

Facebook's mission is "to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together." But the company has also been abused to spread hate speech and misinformation during elections, raising concerns about whether the social network is breaking communities apart. 

"It probably says that people who work at Facebook, if we can assume it's an employee, are probably not all unified in their thinking about the direction of the company as Facebook would like to believe," said Mike Horning, an assistant professor of communication at Virginia Tech who studies social media. "There's clearly an attempt to get everyone in line and have the same talking points." 

Dribs and drabs of internal information have leaked out of Facebook for years, though rarely as completely as Tuesday's transcript. News outlets have published internal documents about content moderation, an internal post from Zuckerberg scolding employees for crossing out the phrase "Black Lives Matter" on the walls of its headquarters and remarks from executives at employee town halls

Facebook's rivals also haven't been immune to leaks. Last year, video footage from one of Google's all-hands meetings was published by the conservative website Breitbart. In the meeting, which took place days after President Donald Trump's election, senior executives lamented the result. Google co-founder Sergey Brin called Trump's victory "deeply offensive." At Twitter, pictures of a frat-themed office party leaked in 2015, while the company was embroiled in a gender discrimination lawsuit by a former employee.

But Facebook employees, like workers at many tech companies, have been wary of leaking information, because it could get them fired. In the wake of a New York Times investigation about how Facebook executives reacted to crisis, including a Russian influence operation, Zuckerberg reportedly told employees during a town hall that the company wouldn't hesitate to fire employees who spoke to the media. Leaks, he told employees, are usually caused by "issues with morale."

In a public post, Zuckerberg stood by his remarks and linked to a full transcript. He called it "an unfiltered version" of what he's thinking and telling employees. 

"Even though it was meant to be internal rather than public, now that it's out there, you can check it out," he said in the post. 

Warren, the presidential hopeful, also had a response for Zuckerberg.

"Let's talk a bit about my plan to #BreakUpBigTech and why it's got Mark Zuckerberg so worked up," she tweeted

Originally published Oct. 1, 12:56 p.m. PT.
Updates, 1:23 p.m. PT: Adds background on leaks at other tech giants. 2:06 p.m. PT: Adds quote from Virginia Tech professor.