Protests against racial injustice continue to march through cities in America and abroad. Four police officers complicit in the death of George Floyd are appearing in court. Workers are erecting tall fences around the White House, as President Trump doubles down on his position to meet demonstrations with National Guard, and even military, force. A second wave of COVID-19 cases is expected.
These are abnormal times. Neither for Silicon Valley’s leaders, whose decisions amid the chaos have wildly differed. Snap’s Evan Spiegel has vowed not to promote Trump’s posts – a move the US leader has branded “radical”. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey defended a decision to fact-check Trump’s earlier claims of massive mail ballot fraud.
Twitter later hid Trump’s comment “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” (itself echoing the 1967 threat by a notoriously racist Miami police chief) behind a warning it glorified violence – a move to which Trump reacted by threatening to shut the social media giant down.
Facebook has taken a different path. CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently met with Trump—who recently teargassed Washinton, DC protestors for a photo opp—after which he refused to censor the “shooting” comment. Zuckerberg stressed that he did not want his company to become an “arbiter of truth.” Many Facebook employees walked out at the choice, which the company said would not be taken from paid leave.
On Tuesday morning, Zuckerberg led a video call with 25,000 staff, in which he attempted to lay out the process behind his moves regarding Trump. Having called for “unity and calmness” amid the protests, he argued, according to Recode:
“This isn’t like 100 percent clear-cut of a decision, even though I do think that the underlying principle of the platform and our policies and the evidence strongly weighed in one favor towards making the decision.”
Zuckerberg outlined three key pointers as to whether the post fell foul of Facebook’s security policies. Firstly, he deigned that the “when” in Trump’s comments meant that it wasn’t a prediction of violence. Second, on whether the comment incited violence:
“There have been examples of government officials around the world, we’ve taken them down. There was a legislator in Hong Kong who called for the police to come in and clear out and kill the protesters to restore order in society. You know, that was — that’s obviously inciting and calling for violence. We took that down. And there have been cases in India, for example, where someone said, “Hey, if the police don’t take care of this, our supporters will get in there and clear the streets.” That is kind of encouraging supporters to go do that in a more direct way, and we took that down. So we have a precedent for that.”
Referencing misleading Trump 2020 campaign adverts the site censored early this year, Zuckerberg added: “This isn’t a case where he’s allowed to say anything he wants or that we let government officials or policymakers say anything they want…(but) the basic interpretation was that this did not clearly fall into those rules.”
Thirdly, to the quote’s history – and whether, as Zuckerberg put it, “it’s inciting supporters to go to violence.” To this point, the 36-year-old admitted that, “basically, I couldn’t get there. I couldn’t get to that even with my personal feelings about the content and even knowing that a lot of employees would disagree with this.
“I think the principles that we have are and how we run the platform, the policies that we have in the evidence here, overall, on balance by quite a bit, would suggest that the right action for where we are right now is to leave this up,” he added.
Yesterday a group of 33 former Facebook employees published an open letter at the New York Times criticizing Zuckerberg’s actions. “The Facebook we joined designed products to empower people and policies to protect them,” the group wrote. “The goal was to allow as much expression as possible unless it would explicitly do harm. We disagreed often, but we all understood that keeping people safe was the right thing to do. Now, it seems, that commitment has changed.
“The company we joined valued giving individuals a voice as loud as their government’s — protecting the powerless rather than the powerful.
“Facebook now turns that goal on its head. It claims that providing warnings about a politician’s speech is inappropriate, but removing content from citizens is acceptable, even if both are saying the same thing. That is not a noble stand for freedom. It is incoherent, and worse, it is cowardly. Facebook should be holding politicians to a higher standard than their constituents.”
Facebook has donated $10 million to racial justice campaigns – around 0.014% of its 2019 revenue. Trump has since posted more inflammatory comments on social media, apparently aimed at coaxing state leaders into using military force to crush Black Lives Matter demos across the United States.
Zuckerberg appears to have staked out his position clearly. He will do nothing to prevent Trump from fanning the flames of racism and division in the US. AS Kara Swisher puts it in her latest Times column, “Mr. Zuckerberg has become—unwittingly or not—the digital equivalent of a supercharged enabler because of his enormous power over digital communications that affect billions of people.”