- Facebook shut down an anonymous online group for employees in late 2016 after it was increasingly used to talk about Donald Trump and other US presidential candidates.
- While initially pitched in 2015 as a way for employees to anonymously voice their concerns, the nature of the group became more political around last year’s election. A poster advertising the group on Facebook’s campus ahead of the election said, “Trump supporters welcome.”
- The group was abruptly shut down by Facebook in December 2016 without explanation. CEO Mark Zuckerberg later told employees that the group had been used to harass others.
An online discussion group inside Facebook where employees conversed anonymously turned ugly last year and was ultimately shut down by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, after the divisiveness of the US presidential election transformed the forum into a hub for political comments that alarmed Facebook management, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.
The internal group, named Facebook Anon, was first created in May 2015 as a way for employees to freely share concerns and opinions about the workplace. But Facebook shut the group down in December 2016 for what CEO Mark Zuckerberg later described as spreading harassment.
While never pitched by company management as a forum specifically for conservatives, Facebook Anon became heavily used by right-leaning employees in the months surrounding Trump’s election, multiple people with knowledge of the group said. Just before the election, a poster, seen by BI, that advertised the group on Facebook’s campus proclaimed: “Trump supporters welcome.”
The previously unreported incident highlights the tricky balance Silicon Valley tech companies face between protecting their employees’ rights to free speech and combatting hate speech.
Earlier this month, a Google employee’s internal memo criticising the company’s diversity initiatives caused an uproar inside and outside the company. James Damore, the Google employee, was fired and quickly became a cause celebre to members of the alt-right, who said he represented an example of Silicon Valley’s intolerance for conservative viewpoints.
And as Facebook centres its mission statement around creating groups for its consumer service, Facebook Anon is a telling example of how one of its own internal groups backfired.
“Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together, and a cornerstone of our culture is being open. The FB Anon internal Facebook group violated our Terms of Service, which require people who use Facebook (including our employees) to use an authentic identity on our platform. Last year we disabled any anonymous internal groups or pages within Facebook, and reminded our people of the places at our company where they can have discussions about issues that matter to them, openly or confidentially as appropriate,” Facebook Head of People Lori Goler said in a statement sent to Business Insider.
“Silenced, but not silent.”
Facebook Anon first became controversial inside Facebook when employees used it to debate the Black Lives Matter movement in early 2016, according to a former group member. It was around that same time that Zuckerberg denounced employees who crossed out ‘black lives matter’ and wrote ‘all lives matter’ on the walls of Facebook’s California headquarters.
With hundreds of members, what was posted on Facebook Anon was regularly discussed by employees outside of the group and throughout the company, according to current and former employees. The group was created as a side project by a handful of employees in early 2015.
While all employees use a work version of Facebook’s website to communicate with each other, multiple people said that the anonymous group gave many the opportunity to vent their complaints or concerns about company policy and office culture more candidly.
The tone of Facebook Anon became increasingly political as the 2016 presidential campaign season began, the people said, and as right-leaning employees began to see the group as a safe haven.
“There was a feeling that everyone at the company was a democrat or left-leaning,” one former employee who asked to remain anonymous told Business Insider, while another said the company didn’t envision “the wildfire around the election.”
“I don’t think they really thought there would be too many people on the Trump side,” the former employee said.
Facebook decided to pull the plug on the group just one month after Trump was elected president. It wasn’t until three months later that Zuckerberg explained why during one of the company’s regular all-hands meetings.
After an employee asked why the group had been shut down, Zuckerberg explained that the forum had been used by employees to harass people and stressed that the behaviour wouldn’t be tolerated, according to people in attendance.
Shortly after Zuckerberg’s explanation was given, another poster seen by BI was put up in Facebook’s campus featuring the group’s beginning and end dates. Above the dates it said, “Silenced, but not silent.”
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