Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke out Friday evening after pressure from inside and outside his company to respond to posts by President Donald Trump that seemed to threaten that the National Guard would shoot what he called “thugs” protesting the death of George Floyd, who died while in police custody.
Shortly after protesters outraged by the death of Floyd, a black man in Minnesota, torched a police building there Thursday, Trump said in social media posts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The phrase, once used by segregationist Georgia Gov. George Wallace, is seen as an approval of police violence against protesters. Within hours, Twitter hid the post behind a warning that the tweet violated the site’s rules against “ .”
But the posts remained on Facebook and on Facebook-owned photo sharing app Instagram, where they racked up more than 64,000 shares and more than 426,000 likes. Zuckerberg took to his Facebook page late Friday defending his decision, saying he’d discussed the matter with his team and chose to let the posts stand.
“I know many people are upset that we’ve left the president’s posts up, but our position is that we should enable as much expression as possible unless it will cause imminent risk of specific harms or dangers spelled out in clear policies,” he wrote. “Although the post had a troubling historical reference, we decided to leave it up because the National Guard references meant we read it as a warning about state action, and we think people need to know if the government is planning to deploy force.”
He added that the company is going to rethink its approach to this policy following Trump’s posts. “We have been in touch with the White House today to explain these policies as well.”
Facebook didn’t respond to a request for an interview. Nor did the White House, which was reportedly placed on a temporary security lockdown after protests erupted outside its gates Friday evening.
Zuckerberg’s comment comes at a time when big tech companies are under increasing pressure to help crack down on disinformation and misinformation, as well as harassing and threatening behavior. Twitter, which has borne the brunt of criticism for seeminglydisallowing such behavior, pushed back against the president Tuesday by at the bottom of a tweet about mail-in voting. The company moved again Friday morning, hiding the tweet about looting and shooting behind a warning that the post glorified violence. People have to click through the warning in order to read the tweet, and they can’t “like,” comment or retweet it either.
The moves before signing the order., who signed an executive order Thursday requesting that government agencies begin investigating ways to regulate or otherwise punish social media companies for their perceived biases and behavior. “This will be a Big Day for Social Media and FAIRNESS!” he tweeted
Meanwhile, Facebook and its Instagram app have left Trump’s posts alone, upsetting staff inside the company.
“All this points to a very high risk of a violent escalation and civil unrest in November,” one employee, according to a report by The Verge. “If we fail the test case here, history will not judge us kindly.”
Zuckerberg’s post defending his company’s lack of action wasn’t well received by some analysts either.
“This is such a cop-out,” Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies, wrote on Twitter. “What discussion is Facebook actually enabling by leaving the post up?”
Jeff Jarvis, a media critic and professor at the City University of New York’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, was similarly critical of Zuckerberg’s post. “What does Facebook stand for? What are its community standards? Why does it exist? What is its north star?” he tweeted.
“Facebook has once again failed to act against an explicit violation of its own rules and has allowed the violent and racist post to remain up,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in a statement. “Twitter’s action, while long overdue, is setting an important norm that can help build online dialogue that aligns with our national values and the rule of law.”
For his part, Zuckerberg seemed to realize his post wouldn’t be well received.
“People can agree or disagree on where we should draw the line, but I hope they understand our overall philosophy is that it is better to have this discussion out in the open, especially when the stakes are so high,” he wrote. “I disagree strongly with how the President spoke about this, but I believe people should be able to see this for themselves, because ultimately accountability for those in positions of power can only happen when their speech is scrutinized out in the open.”