Jun 2, 2020 - Technology

Facebook's first major public worker walkout

Illustration of the facebook like icon holding a protest sign

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Disgruntled Facebook employees, upset for days over the company's decision not to take down what they saw as calls for violence from President Trump, made their grievances public on Monday, with reportedly hundreds of workers staging a virtual walkout.

Why it matters: Facebook staffers have pushed back against controversial management choices in the past, but they've never before made public their dissent en masse. The protest suggests that the company — already battered by privacy scandals and political tensions — could be beginning to lose at least some of its workforce's trust.

Driving the news: Already upset with the company's decision not to act against a Trump post that declared, "When the looting starts, the shooting starts," workers were further agitated on Sunday, as Axios reported that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had spoken by phone with President Trump on Friday.

  • Many also didn't take well to Zuckerberg's late Sunday post in which he said the company would donate $10 million to unspecified racial justice organizations, but failed to take any new action with regards to speech on the platform.
  • Zuckerberg had told employees Friday that the company is now reviewing its policy that lets politicians on Facebook call for state force but didn't commit to any firm action, according to leaked audio The Verge reported on Monday night.

By Monday, Facebook dissenters planned their protest — though a virtual walkout had to suffice, since nearly all employees are working remotely due to the pandemic.

  • Some had taken to Twitter over the weekend to express their disagreement; others posted internally first, then went public Monday.
  • "Facebook's decision to not act on posts that incite violence against black people fails to keep our community safe," Facebook Messenger product designer Trevor Phillippi said in a tweet. "I'm asking that we revisit this decision and provide more transparency into the process, inclusive of black leadership."

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg met Monday evening with civil rights leaders, who left the meeting heaping fresh criticism on Facebook.

  • Three of them issued a joint statement saying they were "disappointed and stunned by Mark's incomprehensible explanations for allowing the Trump posts to remain up."
  • "He did not demonstrate understanding of historic or modern-day voter suppression and he refuses to acknowledge how Facebook is facilitating Trump's call for violence against protesters," said Vanita Gupta, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change. "Mark is setting a very dangerous precedent for other voices who would say similar harmful things on Facebook.”
  • Facebook put a positive spin on the meeting. "We're grateful that leaders in the civil rights community took the time to share candid, honest feedback with Mark and Sheryl," the company told Axios. "It is an important moment to listen, and we look forward to continuing these conversations."

The big picture: There was business fallout as well.

  • Talkspace CEO Oren Frank publicly announced the online therapy company was ending a planned partnership with Facebook that would have generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for the firm.
  • "We will not support a platform that incites violence, racism, and lies," Frank said in a tweet.

Frank told Axios that the partnership, which was in the late stages of negotiation, would have involved Talkspace creating content for Facebook as well as Facebook paying for therapy for a portion of its users, beginning with college students.

  • Frank said he hoped others would put pressure on Facebook. "I deeply hope other companies will follow our lead and the Facebook employees' lead."

Separately, the independent oversight board Facebook created to handle its biggest speech disputes is enmeshed in its own fresh controversy over co-chair Michael McConnell recently reading his Stanford Law students a quote that included the n-word.

  • Both Stanford and the oversight board stood by McConnell. A board spokesperson told Axios the members "appreciate Michael's explanation of his pedagogic purpose, as well as his commitment not to use the word again."
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