India and Israel Inflame Facebook Fights With Its Own Employees


The social network wrongly bowed to government demands to take down content in the countries, employees said, in more signs of internal dissent.

SAN FRANCISCO — When India’s government ordered Facebook and other tech companies to take down posts critical of its handling of the coronavirus pandemic in April, the social network complied.

But once it did, its employees flocked to online chat rooms to ask why Facebook had helped Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India stifle dissent. In one internal post, which was reviewed by The New York Times, an employee with family in India accused Facebook of “being afraid” that Mr. Modi would ban the company from doing business in the country. “We can’t act or make decisions out of fear,” he wrote.

Weeks later, when clashes broke out in Israel between Israelis and Palestinians, Facebook removed posts from prominent Palestinian activists and briefly banned hashtags related to the violence. Facebook employees again took to the message boards to ask why their company now appeared to be censoring pro-Palestinian content.

“It just feels like, once again, we are erring on the side of a populist government and making decisions due to politics, not policies,” one worker wrote in an internal message that was reviewed by The Times.

Discontent at Facebook has surged over its recent handling of international affairs, according to interviews with more than half a dozen current and former employees. For weeks, they said, employees have complained about the company’s responses in India and Israel. The workers have grilled top executives at meetings about the situations and, in one case, formed a group to internally report Palestinian content that they believe Facebook had wrongly removed. This week, more than 200 employees also signed an open letter calling for a third-party audit of Facebook’s treatment of Arab and Muslim posts, according to a person who saw the letter.

The actions are another sign of internal unrest at Facebook as employee criticism broadens beyond domestic issues. For the past few years, workers largely challenged Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, on his handling of inflammatory posts from former President Donald J. Trump. But since Mr. Trump left office in January, attention has shifted to Facebook’s global policies and what employees said was the company’s acquiescence to governments so that it could continue profiting in those countries.

“There’s a feeling among people at Facebook that this is a systematic approach, one which favors strong government leaders over the principles of doing what is right and correct,” said Ashraf Zeitoon, Facebook’s former head of policy for the Middle East and North Africa region, who left in 2017.

Facebook is increasingly caught in a vise. In India, Russia, and elsewhere, governments are pressuring it to remove the content as they try to corral the platform’s power over online speech. But when Facebook complies with the takedown orders, it has upset its own employees, who say the social network has helped authoritarian leaders and repressive regimes quash activists and silence marginalized communities.

The result has played out in a kind of internal culture clash, with a growing movement of dissenting rank-and-file workers versus its global public policy team, which deals directly with governments, said the current and former employees. Many workers have argued that policy team members have been too willing to accede to governments, while policy team members said their colleagues did not appreciate the delicate dance of international relations.

Dani Lever, a Facebook spokeswoman, denied that the company had made decisions to appease governments.

“Everyone at Facebook shares the same goal, which is to give a voice to as many people around the world as possible, and we push back on overreaching government requests wherever we can,” she said. She added that Facebook removed content only after it was reviewed according to the company’s policies, local laws, and international human rights standards.

Of the employee discontent, Ms. Lever said, “Just as people off of the platform are debating these important real-world issues, people who work at Facebook are, too.”

BuzzFeed News and the Financial Times earlier reported on some of the employee dissatisfaction at Facebook over Israeli and Palestinian content.

A divide between Facebook’s employees and the global policy team, which is composed of roughly 1,000 employees, has existed for years, current and former workers said. The policy team reports to Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer.

Many employees subscribe to the idea that Facebook should stand up to what they see as dictatorial governments. But the policy team, which operates in dozens of countries, often has to weigh the likelihood that a government will shut off the social networking service if the company does not cooperate with take-down orders, they said. Sometimes allowing some speech is better than none at all, they have said.