Facebook employees were appalled by President Donald Trump’s encouragement of his supporters as they stormed the US Capitol building on Wednesday to prevent the ratification of a free and fair election.
The employees were scared and frustrated, and some came to the realization that the platform they had helped build and operate had contributed to the wave of fear, disinformation, and chaos that flooded Congress. So they spoke out on an internal message board, and some called for Trump’s removal from the platform.
In less than an hour, Facebook moved to silence them. Without any apparent explanation, administrators froze comments on at least three threads in which employees had discussed removing Trump from the site.
“Donald Trump has directly incited a terror attack on Capitol Hill,” one Facebook employee wrote on a post where comments were later halted. “We need to take down his account right now. This is not a moment for half measures.”
“Our employees are actively discussing today’s horrible events internally,” Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. She did not answer questions about why the company had temporarily paused discussion on some threads.
Alex Stamos, a Stanford professor and Facebook’s former chief security officer, said there was no other recourse than to ban Trump’s account.
“You don’t want incredibly powerful private actors choosing which democratic actors get speech, and the basis of that concern is the protection of that democracy,” he told BuzzFeed News. “But the votes are counted, the president lost, and he’s now rejecting the democratic will. There are no legitimate arguments for keeping him up.”
While companies can take action against individual posts or tweets, Stamos argued that “one piece of content” being removed means little to any of these political actors. Suspension is the only way they can discourage this behavior, he said.
“It is a decision to be made by Mark alone.”
“It is a decision to be made by Mark alone,” Stamos added, referring to CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Within Silicon Valley, Facebook is known for allowing generally open discussions and debates among its more than 50,000 workers on Workplace, an internal social network. There are thousands of groups where individuals post and comment every day about current events, the company, and what they can do to make the platform better.
Recently, Facebook’s leadership has clamped down on some of that free expression. After employees objected to a post on the platform in which the president suggested violence would be used against those protesting the police who killed George Floyd, Facebook moved to limit political discussion on Workplace. Late last year, Facebook also directed workers not to discuss any matters involving antitrust, as the company had come under investigation for anticompetitive practices.
Even by those standards, the move on Wednesday was unusual. After Trump posted a video on Facebook in which he attempted to delegitimize the election by calling it “stolen,” one employee pointed out that Twitter had moved within four minutes to prevent it from being reshared or engaged with on its platform.
“I’m sure we’ve done something to demote it, but this is a pretty dangerous territory we’re in,” they wrote. “I’m hoping we can go further.”
The responses from their colleagues were swift.
“Can we get some courage and actual action from leadership in response to this behavior? Your silence is disappointing at the least and criminal at worst,” wrote one.
“We should be better,” wrote another.
“This is incredibly disheartening. As great as it is to work here, the fact that we move slow and allow the spread of disinformation is a failure not only for us as a company but for us as employees to allow the company to be so slow to do anything,” one employee added to the thread.
As the comments rolled in, Facebook management seemed incapable of providing answers. One person said that the sales team had been given a company comment to share with advertisers, in which Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone called the violent protests “a disgrace.” More than an hour after the internal post went up, one manager said that “dealing with the ongoing situation” was the priority, and as such they were “going to turn off comments on this thread for now.”
The company would do that for at least two more threads discussing the day’s events.
Facebook later took down Trump’s video, and Twitter did the same. More than four hours after rioters stormed the Capitol building and months since Trump first used Facebook to delegitimize the election, Zuckerberg sent out a note to employees, calling the day’s events “a dark moment in our nation’s history.”
“I’m personally saddened by this mob violence — which is exactly what it is,” Zuckerberg wrote. “The peaceful transition of power is critical to our democracy, and we need our political leaders to lead by example and put the nation first.”
Employees wasted no time in questioning their CEO, whose note came out at the same time Twitter announced it was suspending the president for at least 12 hours.
“Will we suspend Trump’s account like Twitter is doing?” one employee commented. “He is inciting violence and insurrection, and further appeasement seems completely untenable.”
“Ban his account,” wrote another person, racking up 50 likes and engagements.
“What excuse did we use not to ban him this time?” asked another.
Comments continued for more than an hour before the company bowed to internal and external pressure. Trump will be suspended from the platform, as well as from Instagram, which Facebook owns.
“We’ve assessed two policy violations against President Trump’s Page which will result in a 24-hour feature block, meaning he will lose the ability to post on the platform during that time,” Bourgeois said in a statement.