Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke out Friday evening after pressure from inside and outside of his company to respond to posts by President Donald Trump seeming to threaten to shoot what he called “thugs” protesting the death of George Floyd while in police custody.
Shortly after after protesters outraged by the death of Floyd, a black man in Minnesota, torched a police building there Thursday, Trump vowed “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” in social media posts. The phrase, once used by segregationist Georgia Governor George Wallace, is seen as an approval of police violence against protesters. Within hours, Twitter hid the post behind a warning that it violated the site’s rules against “glorifying violence,” the first of such moves the company took against Trump’s tweets.
But the posts remained on Facebook and Instagram, where it racked up more than 64,000 shares and more than 426,000 “likes.” Zuckerberg took to his Facebook page late Friday defending the move, saying he’d discussed the matter with his team and chose to let them stand.
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“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 “Although the post had a troubling historical reference, we decided to leave it up because the National Guard references meant we read it as a warning about state action, and we think people need to know if the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.”
Neither the White House nor Facebook responded to requests for interviews.
Zuckerberg’s post comes at a time when big tech companies are under increasing pressure to help tamp down on disinformation and misinformation, as well as harassing and threatening behavior. Twitter, which has born the brunt of criticism for seemingly allowing Trump to regularly violate its terms of service disallowing such behavior, pushed back against the president Tuesday by slapping a fact check 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 it glorified violence.
The moves enraged Trump, who signed an executive order Thursday requesting government agencies to 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 before signing the order.
Meanwhile, Facebook and its Instagram photo sharing app have left Trump’s posts alone, upsetting social media critics and staff inside the company alike.
“All this points to a very high risk of a violent escalation and civil unrest in November,” one employee wrote on a company message board, according to a report by The Verge. “If we fail the test case here, history will not judge us kindly.”
Zuckerberg’s posts defending his company’s lack of action wasn’t well received by some analysts.
“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.
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.”