Free Speech Champion Mark Zuckerberg Announces Plan to Censor His Employees

Free Speech Champion Mark Zuckerberg Announces Plan to Censor His Employees
Photo: Graeme Jennings/Pool, Getty Images

Facebook employees have recently been wondering if perhaps Facebook — which lets politicians lie in ads, festers with extremist movements like QAnon, and by design amplifies authoritarian propaganda, misinformation, and hate speech — is actually the bad guy.

Hey, pal, why don’t you shut the fuck up, CEO Mark Zuckerberg responds.

According to reports in CNBC and the Wall Street Journal, Zuckerberg told employees on Thursday that the company plans to crack down on discussion of polarising political and social issues on internal message boards. The Journal wrote that Zuckerberg said staff shouldn’t have to discuss social issues at work and outlined potential steps like establishing rules on where these discussions can pop up on the company’s messenger, making sure those conversations are monitored and moderated:

The steps will include delineating which parts of the company’s internal messaging platform are acceptable for such discussions, and careful moderation of the discussions when they occur, Mr. Zuckerberg told employees at a company meeting, according to a spokesman. Employees shouldn’t have to confront social issues in their day-to-day work unless they want to, the CEO said.

Specific details of the new policy are still being decided, with more information to come next week, but Mr. Zuckerberg said Facebook plans to “explore ways to preserve our culture of openness and debate around” its work, according to a spokesman.

The apparent inability of Facebook to handle criticism from its staff on social and political issues is, to put it lightly, not a good omen of its ability to handle its role as a mass conduit for discussion of social and political issues in the U.S. and around the world.

It’s probably no coincidence that Zuckerberg’s policy announcement follows a virtual staff walkout in June and increasing pressure from employees, anti-hate groups, civil rights attorneys, and a months-long boycott campaign, to push Facebook to stop enabling the growth of hate, militia, and conspiracy movements.

Numerous reports have documented widespread employee backlash to Facebook’s willingness to look the other way on misinformation and threats of violence, even when they come from powerful politicians like the president of the United States — and that its management deliberately ignored reports warning of issues like automated racial bias by its moderation systems and that its algorithms actively promote paranoia and far-right groups. Last month, large swathes of the staff were reportedly in an uproar after company moderators failed to act on numerous user reports of a self-described militia mobilizing to confront protesters with firearms in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after which a 17-year-old militia member shot two people to death and injured another.

“Longtime current and former employees” recently told Bloomberg of their suspicion that Zuckerberg is deliberately manoeuvring the company’s policies to avoid angering the Trump administration. It’s actually the opposite of ironic that Zuckerberg has previously cast himself a free speech hero who “stands for voice and free expression,” because hypocritical posturing is exactly what you expect from him at this point.

The Workplace software that Facebook employees use to discuss these issues have often been the source of leaks. On Monday, BuzzFeed published details of an internal whistleblower memo written by a former data scientist alleging Facebook ignored organised campaigns to manipulate elections outside the U.S. and Europe when they weren’t the subject of press attention; that memo was posted to Workplace. Other previous reports detailing internal strife at Facebook have been sourced to those message boards.

Zuckerberg reportedly told employees that the intent of the new rules is avoiding a hostile environment for employees who are Black or members of other underrepresented groups, rather than telling them to can it and get back to work. Google, facing its own internal strife over drone work for the Pentagon, reports it was developing a censored search engine for China, and handling of sexual assault reports, implemented similar policies telling staff to shut the fuck up about politics last year. Google later fired four employees for allegedly leaking damaging info to the media.

“We deeply value expression and open discussion,” Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne told the Journal. “What we’ve heard from our employees is that they want the option to join debates on social and political issues, rather than see them unexpectedly in their work feed.”

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