SAN FRANCISCO – When the Indian government asked Facebook and other tech companies to remove posts critical of its handling of the coronavirus pandemic in April, the social network complied.
But once it happened, its employees flocked to online chat rooms to ask why Facebook had helped Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India stave off dissent. In an internal post, reviewed by The New York Times, an employee with family in India accused Facebook of “fear” that Mr. Modi would ban the company from doing business in the country. “We cannot act or make decisions out of fear,” he wrote.
Weeks later, as conflict broke out in Israel between Israelis and Palestinians, Facebook deleted the posts of prominent Palestinian activists and briefly banned hashtags related to the violence. . Facebook employees again went to message boards to ask why their company is currently censoring pro-Palestinian content.
“Once again, it feels like we are siding with a populist government and making decisions by politics and not by policy,” one worker wrote in an internal message. reviewed by The Times.
According to interviews with more than half a dozen current and former employees, discontent at Facebook has grown over Facebook’s recent handling of international issues. For weeks, they said, employees had complained about the company’s response in India and Israel. The workers told top executives at meetings about the circumstances and, in one case, formed a group to internally report Palestinian content they believe Facebook mistakenly removed. . This week, more than 200 employees also signed an open letter calling on third parties to examine Facebook’s handling of posts by Arabs and Muslims, according to one person who viewed the letter.
The actions are another sign of internal unrest at Facebook as employee criticisms increasingly extend beyond domestic issues. Over the past few years, workers have largely challenged Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, over his handling of offensive posts from former President Donald J. Trump. But since Mr. Trump left office in January, attention has turned to Facebook’s global policies and what employees say is the company’s acceptance of governments so it can continue to profit. profits in those countries.
“There is a feeling among people at Facebook that this is a systematic approach, one that favors leaders,” said Ashraf Zeitoon, Facebook’s former head of policy for the Middle East and North Africa Strong government leadership in principle to do what is right and right. , who passed away in 2017.
Facebook is increasingly under fire. In India, Russia and elsewhere, governments are pressuring them to remove content as they try to bolster the platform’s power over online speech. But when Facebook complied with the takedown, it upset its own employees, who say the social network has helped authoritarian leaders and repressive regimes keep activists and silence marginalized communities.
The result has been a kind of internal cultural conflict, with a growing movement of hierarchical workers and a dissident profile with their global public policy group, which deals directly with people. with governments, current and former employees said. Many workers argued that policy group members were too willing to join governments, while policy group members said their colleagues did not appreciate the subtle jump in international relations. economic.
Dani Lever, a Facebook spokesman, denied that the company made the decisions to appease governments.
“Everyone at Facebook has a common goal, which is to give a voice to as many people in the world as possible, and we push back against over-processing of government requests wherever possible. ,” she said. She added that Facebook only removes content after it has been reviewed in accordance with company policy, local laws and international human rights standards.
Regarding employee dissatisfaction, Ms. Lever said, “Just as people outside the platform are debating important real-world issues, so are the people who work at Facebook.”
BuzzFeed News and the Financial Times previously reported on the dissatisfaction of some employees at Facebook with Israeli and Palestinian content.
The split between Facebook employees and the global policy team, which includes about 1,000 employees, has existed for years, current and former workers said. The policy team reports to Sheryl Sandberg, executive director.
Many employees subscribe to the idea that Facebook should fight what they see as authoritarian governments. But the policy team, which operates in dozens of countries, often has to weigh the possibility that the government will shut down the social media service if the company doesn’t cooperate with takedowns, they said. Sometimes allowing some speech is better than none, they said.
Facebook has faced many complicated international situations over the years, including in Russia, Vietnam and Myanmar, where it had to consider whether it would shut down if it didn’t work with governments. or not. That led to employee dissent, which began to spread to the general public.
That has become clear to India. In April, as Covid-19 cases spiked in the country, Modi’s government called for about 100 social media posts to be removed on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Many posts include criticism of the government from opposition politicians and call for Mr. Modi to step down.
Facebook complied with the order and quickly blocked a hashtag, #ResignModi. The company later said that hashtags had been banned by mistake and were not part of a government request.
But inside, the damage was done. In online chat rooms dedicated to global policy and human rights issues, employees described how disappointed they were with Facebook’s actions. Some stories shared by family members in India who worry that they are being censored.
Last month, when violence broke out between Israelis and Palestinians, reports suggested that Facebook had removed content by Palestinian activists. Facebook’s Instagram app also briefly banned the hashtag #AlAqsa, associated with the Al Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites. Facebook later explained that it had confused the hashtag #AlAqsa with a Palestinian militant group called Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade.
Staff scoffed. “Are we responding to people’s opposition to censorship with more censorship?” one person wrote in an internal message, which was reviewed by The Times.
Other employees wrote that Facebook’s Israel office is headed by Jordana Cutler, who previously worked for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Employees said Ms. Cutler, who did not respond to a request for comment, was promoting an agenda in favor of Mr. Netanyahu’s government by removing anti-Israel content from Facebook.
“The role of the public policy team for Israel, like it is for Jordan and Palestine, as well as others around the world, is to help ensure that local governments, regulators and our communities understand Facebook policies,” said Ms. Lever, a Facebook spokesperson. “While these teams have local knowledge and understanding, their sole responsibility is to represent Facebook.”
Mr. Zeitoon, a former Facebook executive, has created a broader network. “There’s a sense of a slant towards Facebook’s management, a systemic approach that doesn’t benefit Palestinians,” he said. “People are going crazy – they are challenging their boss. They see it as symbolic of a lot of problems at Facebook.”
The frustration was expressed on May 13 at a virtual staff meeting. At the session, a worker asked Nick Clegg, the community affairs leader, to explain the company’s role in removing content related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to attendees. The employee called the situation in Israel “difficult” and asked how Facebook would “do the right thing” with content moderation.
Clegg reviewed a list of rules and future policy plans, and assured employees that moderation would be treated fairly and responsibly, two people familiar with the meeting said. know. One person said the discussion was cordial and the chat box comments beside Mr Clegg’s response were largely positive.
But some employees were unhappy, residents said. As Mr. Clegg spoke, they broke up into private chats and workplace groups, called Tribes, to discuss what to do.
Later, two employees said, dozens of employees formed a group to flag Palestinian content that they believed had been suppressed to internal content moderation groups. They say the goal is for the posts to be reinstated online.
Members of Facebook’s policy team tried to defuse tensions. In an internal memo in mid-May, which was reviewed by The Times, two members of the policy team wrote to other employees that they hoped “Facebook’s internal community will not succumb to the divisive and wicked side of a party that is playing evil against itself. offline and online. “
They said one of them was a Muslim, and the other a Jew.
“We don’t always agree,” they wrote. “However, we do some of our best work when we have good intentions and realize that we are on the same side as trying to serve our community in the best way we can.”