Some Facebook employees have argued that Donald Trump’s posts on the social network should be designated as hate speech and removed, according to a new report. The Wall Street Journal said today that Trump posts calling for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States had triggered an emotional debate inside Facebook over enforcement of the company’s community standards. CEO Mark Zuckerberg ultimately ruled against deleting the posts, which he argued would amount to censorship of a political candidate, according to the Journal.
The internal arguments started after Trump began discussing Muslim immigration last December, the report said. Zuckerberg’s decision not to delete Trump’s posts, as an unspecified number of employees had called for, drew complaints from employees around the world, it said. (It reportedly also generated support for Zuckerberg’s decision.) The Journal’s report comes on the same day that Facebook said it would loosen some of its restrictions on explicit content if the post is deemed newsworthy or in the public interest.
The dispute reflects both Facebook’s enormous importance as a distributor of news and opinion and its deep discomfort with making editorial judgments around the content of speech. A controversy over reports that it had "suppressed" conservative news from its Trending Topics module earlier this year led the company to purge most of its editorial employees, who helped make decisions about which stories to highlight.
But the company has since been repeatedly hammered for editorial missteps. A BuzzFeed analysis this week charted in ugly detail the way Facebook has been used this year to spread inaccurate and outright false stories to millions of readers. The company also drew criticism for removing an iconic photo of the Vietnam War and blocking an animated video that promoted breast cancer awareness.
Still, removing a presidential candidate’s posts from the site, no matter how inflammatory, could have had dire implications for Facebook. The company’s connect-the-world ethos requires political neutrality whenever possible, lest liberals or conservatives abandon it for a partisan alternative. And as the Journal reports, Facebook stands to make $300 million in political advertising this year — an amount that could be threatened if it were to be perceived as unwelcome to conservative or Republican ideas.
It also puts Facebook in the uncomfortable position of serving as the arbiter for acceptable political speech. Banning any political speech, particularly from a major party candidate likely to draw at least 40 percent of the popular vote, sets a dangerous precedent for a company that delivers news to 44 percent of Americans.
But as today’s news shows, Facebook is in an uncomfortable position no matter which path it takes. (This was also true of this week’s news that Zuckerberg is defending Trump donor Peter Thiel’s continued presence on the Facebook board.) So far, Zuckerberg has erred on the side of permitting the broadest range of political views. But given the hate speech and outright violence that Trump’s views have incited, the criticism isn’t likely to dissipate any time soon.