Why Facebook won’t block Donald Trump’s posts

Though Mark Zuckerberg faces an unprecedented employee revolt, he fears retaliation by the president. 

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Facebook likes to talk up its culture of transparency. The company hosts weekly Q&A sessions with its chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and teams are encouraged to share their work with employees in other divisions. But the company’s commitment to internal transparency does not typically extend to the outside world.

In 2018, as the social media giant endured criticism over its handling of Russian influence operations, Zuckerberg took the opportunity to warn employees that if they spoke to reporters, they would be swiftly fired. The Facebook founder has also boasted in the past about catching leakers. 

But in recent days, as employees have staged walkouts over the company's decision not to block incendiary posts by Donald Trump on protests against police violence, Facebook has shifted its tone. The company said in a statement yesterday: “We encourage employees to speak openly when they disagree with leadership.” 

Facebook’s newfound enthusiasm for its employees’ right to free speech comes as Zuckerberg champions the freedom of expression of his platform's users. He has refused to follow in the direction of Twitter, which last week added a warning to posts by the US president that allegedly glorified violence against those protesting the death of George Floyd, who died last week after a police officer knelt on his neck. In one post, Trump called for military intervention to quell the protests, warning that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. 

Defending the decision not to moderate Trump's posts, Zuckerberg, who some believe is facing the greatest challenge of his career, said: “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.

"We looked very closely at the post that discussed the protests in Minnesota to evaluate whether it violated our policies. Although the post had a troubling historical reference, we decided to leave it up because the National Guard references meant we read it as a warning about state action, and we think people need to know if the government is planning to deploy force.”

There are a number of reasons Zuckerberg may be unwilling to block the president’s posts, but perhaps the greatest is the threat of retaliation. After Twitter fact-checked a tweet by Trump on voter fraud, he threatened to change the legislation that means social media companies, unlike news publishers, are not legally responsible for the content of the posts published via their platforms. Zuckerberg has said that a “government choosing to censor a platform because they’re worried about censorship doesn’t exactly strike me as the right reflex there”.

Zuckerberg has also criticised Twitter's decision to place a warning in front of Trump's tweet about looting, and has made it clear that Facebook would not do the same. “Unlike Twitter, we do not have a policy of putting a warning in front of posts that may incite violence because we believe that if a post incites violence, it should be removed regardless of whether it is newsworthy, even if it comes from a politician,” Zuckerberg wrote in his post.

But there's another reason that Zuckerberg might feel unable to take such a hard line against the president’s tweets. In advance of this year’s US presidential election, Facebook is facing a degree of political scrutiny over the size of its business, and potential antitrust concerns, that Twitter is not. There is support on both sides of the political divide for the company to be broken up, and it is desperate to deflect any further attention from lawmakers. 

Nevertheless, there are legitimate concerns about Facebook becoming, as Zuckerberg has put it, “an arbiter of truth”. With more than 2.6 billion users globally, the platform already wields extraordinary influence. Many would be concerned should it start moderating the messages of democratically elected leaders, no matter how unsavoury their messages may be.

Ultimately, while Facebook’s employees may be speaking more prominently and in greater numbers than they have before, Zuckberberg still retains a uniquely tight grip on his company, as its chief executive, chairman and largest shareholder. Until that changes, his employees’ demands for reform are unlikely to be heeded.

Oscar Williams is the editor of the New Statesman's technology site, NS Tech.

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