Sep 4, 2020

Turns out, the people who work at Facebook are fighting just as much as the rest of us

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The company has an internal communications platform called Workplace, and it's full of debate.

Facebook is feeling the pressure to deal with election disinformation.

This week, the FBI uncovered a new Russian propaganda campaign targeting the 2020 election. Facebook announced it would block new political ads for a week before the election. On Thursday, it said it would take down videos in which the president urged people in North Carolina to vote twice, which is illegal. And activists asked Facebook to ban event listings like the one that encouraged people to arm themselves and go to Kenosha, Wisconsin, to confront protesters. Two people were shot and killed in Kenosha.

So, how does it feel to work at Facebook right now? Ryan Mac is a senior tech reporter at BuzzFeed. He says the company has an internal communications platform called Workplace, and it’s full of debate. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Buzzfeed reporter Ryan Mac
BuzzFeed reporter Ryan Mac (Photo courtesy of Mac)

Ryan Mac: Imagine what’s going on on your Facebook feed right now. That’s happening exactly in the same way internally at Facebook, where there’s more than 50,000 employees that have access to this thing. People are mad. There are people on the other side as well, in some cases, defending the gunman and playing devil’s advocate. So this has kind of devolved into this back-and-forth where Zuckerberg actually stepped in earlier this week and said, “Look, we need to have more civil discussions. We’re going to move these into certain groups, but you’re not going to be able to post openly argumentative things on our platform.” And the funny thing about Workplace is that things also trend on Workplace, you can see when things trend. And so these things that get a lot of engagement because of the arguments often trend at the top.

Molly Wood: So you’re saying that Facebook has an internal Facebook that Mark Zuckerberg has stepped in to police. The irony is hurting me in the head right now.

Mac: [Laughs] He’s announced kind of these new ways of looking at content. It remains to be seen what they actually do. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of groups on Workplace. And so imagine that you’re at home all day, you’re cooped up, you want to talk to your colleagues. You want to be in the mix. Workplace is where you’re hanging out.

Wood: For people who haven’t been to Facebook, it’s like entering a dreamy bubble. It’s a city. Every wall is covered with art, all the conference rooms have cute names, there’s, like, a redwood growing in the middle of their outdoor park, there’s the roof garden….

Mac: You have a barber, you have a barbecue shop, you have a bikes-repair shop.  

Wood: And there are balloons all over that are, like, it’s your Facebook-aversary! It is a lovely place to be. And I wonder, now that you have people at home, [have they] sort of like snapped out of it a little bit? If you were watching Mark Zuckerberg on a screen instead of in a room with all of your friends and fellow believers, would it change your perspective a little bit?

Mac: Yeah, I think that does eliminate some of the experience of working at Facebook. Before the all-hands meetings, Facebook employees upvote questions of what they want to ask Mark Zuckerberg for the week. And then some of those questions are, “Are we going to get a snack budget for home? How do we get, how are we going to improve our lives at home?” And there were actually bonuses given to employees trying to improve home working situations. They have this ability to watch and send out some of their thoughts on what’s going on as it happens. Whereas if there was no pandemic and they were in the office, most of them would be watching this from Menlo Park.

Wood: I guess the other question is, do you have a sense of how many people actually are that upset? Because they don’t seem to be having a huge impact.

Mac: Facebook has these internal surveys. One of the questions in there is, “Do you think Facebook is making the world a better place?” Right after the company did not take down the infamous “looting and shooting” posts from Donald Trump, you saw this 20-25 percentage-point drop. That is Facebook’s own data showing their employees are just not believing in that mission anymore, or at least this one incident caused them to not believe in that mission.

Wood: Would you say they have a chance at making that internal change?

Mac: One of the things here that people have to realize is that the power lies in the hands of Mark Zuckerberg. He has sole decision-making power because he maintains majority voting control over the company. We looked back at the walkout, for example, at the beginning of June, and the company released a statement and said, “We hear you” kind of thing. But did Mark Zuckerberg really do anything to change how the company operates? I don’t think so. And it’s up to him, basically, what happens on the platform.

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

You can read more about how Mark Zuckerberg stepped in on conversations about policing and Black Lives Matter on the company’s internal platform and issued a new rule that employees “won’t be able to discuss highly charged content broadly in open groups.” That’s because, he went on to say, “I don’t believe people working here should have to be confronted with divisive conversations while they’re trying to work.”

I just want to pause for a minute and let that sink in.

Because I don’t know about you, but I literally know families who don’t speak to each other because of the divisive conversations that Facebook has fostered. So, must be nice, I guess.

There is a lot to read and say about Facebook’s announcement that it will ban new political ads the week before the election, not least of which is that it doesn’t address any of the issues that Joan Donovan raised in our interview with her on Thursday. Things like recommendation algorithms that keep pushing engaging content, misinformation that spreads organically in groups and posts that aren’t paid ads, or the business model that prioritizes you spending all your time scrolling and commenting and arguing.

Also, some journalists pointed out that it also doesn’t ban existing ad buys that might be scheduled to run during the week before the election, which seems like a pretty big loophole. Nevertheless, the Trump campaign issued a statement saying that the president would be silenced in the week before the election by the “Silicon Valley Mafia.”

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