Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

At a contentious online meeting with Facebook staff Tuesday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended his decision not to act against controversial messages posted by President Trump.

Why it matters: Facebook had gotten a brief reprieve from intense criticism over speech issues as the world grappled with the coronavirus and the platform served as a communications lifeline for many. That reprieve appears to be over — and the divisions of this moment are spreading inside the company now as well.

Driving the news: For a half hour, Zuckerberg explained, again, why Facebook, unlike Twitter, let Trump's post ("When the looting begins, the shooting begins") stand — a choice that led to the "virtual walkout" of reportedly hundreds of employees Monday.

What he said: According to an account in The Verge, Zuckerberg told his staff, “I knew that I needed to separate out my personal opinion ... from what our policy is and the principles of the platform we’re running are — knowing that the decision that we made was going to lead to a lot of people being very upset inside the company and a lot of the media criticism we’re going to get...Likely this decision has incurred a massive practical cost for the company to do what we think is the right step.”

  • Per The Verge, one Facebook employee asked Zuckerberg, “Why are the smartest people in the world focused on contorting or twisting our policies to avoid antagonizing Trump instead of driving social issue progress?”

Between the lines: Zuckerberg noted that the dissatisfaction among workers marked a change from just a short time ago.

  • "It felt to me that over the last couple of months there was this brief moment of unity with our response on COVID, where it felt like we were all in this together,” he said on the call, per the New York Times' Mike Isaac.

The bigger picture: Scrutiny of Facebook is not, in fact, going away. Even amid the pandemic, the site was under pressure to act more effectively against misinformation and false health information, including information shared by Trump and other world leaders, such as Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro.

What's next: That pressure can only grow ahead of the November U.S. presidential election. And now Zuckerberg appears to be fighting critics inside the company as well as those outside.

Meanwhile, as Axios reported yesterday, there is a new ad campaign by an activist group using Zuckerberg's own words to encourage Facebook employees to push the company toward keeping harmful content off its platforms.

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