SAN FRANCISCO – When the Indian government ordered Facebook and other tech companies to remove posts criticizing its handling of the coronavirus pandemic in April, the social network complied.
But once it did, its staff flocked to online chat rooms to ask why Facebook had helped Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi quell dissent. In an internal post verified by the New York Times, an employee with a family in India accused Facebook of “being afraid” that Mr. Modi would forbid the company from doing business in the country. “We cannot act or make decisions out of fear,” he wrote.
When clashes between Israelis and Palestinians broke out in Israel weeks later, Facebook removed posts by prominent Palestinian activists and briefly banned hashtags related to the violence. Facebook employees took to the message boards again to ask why their company is now apparently censoring pro-Palestinian content.
“It just feels like we’re wrong on the side of a populist government, making decisions based on politics, not politics,” one worker wrote in an internal message verified by the Times.
According to interviews with more than half a dozen current and former employees, Facebook dissatisfaction has increased with the recent handling of international affairs. For weeks, employees have been complaining about the company’s reactions in India and Israel. Workers grilled top managers about the situation at meetings and, in one case, formed a group to internally report Palestinian content that they believe Facebook has falsely removed. According to one person who saw the letter, more than 200 employees signed an open letter this week calling for an external review of Facebook’s treatment of Arab and Muslim posts.
The actions are another sign of internal unrest on Facebook, as the criticism from employees goes beyond national problems. In recent years, workers have largely challenged Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg for his handling of inflammatory posts from former President Donald J. Trump. But since Trump stepped down in January, attention has shifted to Facebook’s global guidelines and what employees said was the company’s approval of governments so that it can continue to benefit in those countries.
“The folks at Facebook feel that this is a systematic approach that prefers strong government leaders over the principles of doing what’s right and right,” said Ashraf Zeitoon, former head of Facebook’s Middle East and North Africa policy 2017 passed.
Facebook is increasingly trapped in a vice. In India, Russia and elsewhere, governments are pushing for content removal to limit the platform’s power over online language. But when Facebook complies with takedown orders, it has angered its own staff, who say the social network has helped authoritarian leaders and repressive regimes smash activists and silence marginalized communities.
The result was a kind of internal culture war, with a growing movement of dissenting grassroots workers against their global public policy team, which deals directly with governments, current and former employees said. Many workers argued that the policy team members were too willing to join governments, while the policy team members said their colleagues did not appreciate the delicate dance of international relations.
Dani Lever, a Facebook spokeswoman, denied the company made decisions to appease governments.
“Everyone on Facebook shares the same goal of giving a voice to as many people around the world as possible, and we’re pushing for exaggerated government requests wherever we can,” she said. She added that Facebook only removed content after it was reviewed according to the company’s policies, local laws and international human rights standards.
Regarding the dissatisfaction of the employees, Ms. Lever said: “Just as people outside of the platform discuss these important real-world problems, so are the people who work on Facebook.”
BuzzFeed News and the Financial Times previously reported employee dissatisfaction on Facebook with Israeli and Palestinian content.
A gap between Facebook employees and the global policy team, which consists of around 1,000 employees, has existed for years, current and former employees said. The policy team reports to Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer.
Many employees advocate the idea that Facebook should stand up to what they consider dictatorial governments. But policy teams, which operate in dozens of countries, often have to weigh the likelihood that a government will shut down the social networking service if the company doesn’t cooperate with takedown orders, they said. Sometimes it is better to allow a speech than none at all, they said.
Facebook has faced many difficult international situations over the years, including in Russia, Vietnam, and Myanmar, where it had to consider whether it would close if it didn’t work with governments. This has led to the workers’ disagreement that has become public.
That became clear with India. In April, as Covid-19 cases rose in the country, the government requested Mr Modi remove about 100 social media posts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Many of the contributions included criticism of the government from opposition politicians and calls for Mr. Modi to resign.
Facebook followed the instructions and temporarily blocked a hashtag, #ResignModi. The company later said the hashtag was accidentally banned and was not part of a government request.
But internally, the damage was done. In online chat rooms devoted to human rights issues and global guidelines, employees described how disappointed they were with Facebook’s actions. Some told stories of family members in India who feared being censored.
When violence broke out between Israelis and Palestinians last month, reports surfaced that Facebook had deleted content from Palestinian activists. Facebook’s Instagram app also temporarily banned the hashtag #AlAqsa, a reference to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites. Facebook later stated that it had mistaken the hashtag #AlAqsa for a Palestinian militant group called the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.
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Employees resisted. “We respond to people’s protests against censorship with more censorship?” one wrote in an internal message verified by The Times.
Other staff wrote that Facebook’s Israel office was headed by Jordana Cutler, who previously worked for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Staff said that Ms. Cutler, who did not respond to a request for comment, was promoting an agenda favorable to Mr. Netanyahu’s government by removing anti-Israel content from Facebook.
“The role of the public policy team for Israel, like that for Jordan and Palestine, as well as others around the world, is to ensure that local governments, regulators and our community understand Facebook’s guidelines,” Ms. Lever said. the Facebook spokeswoman. “Although these teams have local knowledge and understanding, their only job is to act as agents for Facebook.”
Mr. Zeitoon, the former Facebook manager, threw a larger net. “You feel like there’s a significant bias within Facebook management, a systemic approach that doesn’t benefit the Palestinians,” he said. “People are crazy – they challenge their bosses. You see this as a symbol of so many problems on Facebook. “
The frustration was expressed at a virtual staff meeting on May 13th. At the meeting, an official asked Nick Clegg, who is responsible for public affairs, to explain the company’s role in removing content related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, participants said. The employee called the situation in Israel “tense” and asked how Facebook would “get it right” with the moderation of content.
Mr. Clegg went through a list of guidelines and plans for the future and assured staff that moderation would be treated with fairness and responsibility, said two people familiar with the meeting. The discussion was warm, said one of the participants, and the comments in the chat box next to Mr. Clegg’s response were mostly positive.
But some employees are dissatisfied, it said. While Mr. Clegg was speaking, they broke off into private chats and workgroups known as tribes to discuss what to do.
Dozens of staff members later formed a group to report the Palestinian content they believed was suppressed to internal content moderation teams, two staff members said. The aim is to put the posts online again, it said.
Members of the Facebook policy team have tried to calm tensions. In an internal memo dated mid-May and reviewed by The Times, two members of the policy team wrote to other staff that they hoped “Facebook’s internal community will resist the division and demonization of the other side that is so brutal himself plays “. offline and online. “
One of them was a Muslim, the other a Jew, they said.
“We don’t always agree,” they wrote. “However, we do our best work when we assume good intentions and recognize that we are on the same page and try to serve our community in the best possible way.”