Zuckerberg Gaslit Facebook Employees in Response to Trump Post, Ex-Staffer Says

A software engineer who spent more than seven years at Facebook has accused top executives of "gaslighting" staff over a controversial Trump post.

In a video message shared to an internal discussion board on July 1, the audio of which was obtained by Buzzfeed News, departing engineer Max Wang detailed his growing concerns with a variety of decisions made by the company leadership in recent months.

Facebook sparked controversy in May after it did not delete a post made by president Donald Trump following the killing of George Floyd that appeared to threaten U.S. citizens with violence.

Zuckerberg later said an internal review had found the post, which included the phrase "when the looting starts, the shooting starts," did not break Facebook policy. In his message, Boston-based Wang told remaining staffers the executives' response missed the point.

Reflecting on a Q&A session held by Zuckerberg as protests grew against the company's decision, Wang said Zuckerberg's stance had left him feeling "really uncomfortable."

"I felt like I was being lied to somehow, it took me a while to sort out exactly what that feeling was. I think it was gaslighting," he said, referencing the type of psychological manipulation that makes a person question their thoughts, situation or reality.

"I couldn't shake the feeling there was this subtle bait-and-switch happening," Wang noted, reacting to Facebook's assertion Trump's post didn't violate policy.

He said: "We weren't asking does this thing follow our policy, we weren't asking whether it was consistent with our policy not to take action, we were asking: why do our policies allow for this thing? Why don't our policies require that we do take some kind of action? But Mark framed his response about following policy, rather than fixing policy."

Wang continued: "Now these two things, this slight misdirection on one hand and this laser focus on consistency on the other hand was really really unsettling to me.

"And in part it's because we are talking about Donald Trump. And there's a bit of irony in that because this is a thing that Trump does all the time."

Wang noted that he did not believe that leadership was intentionally causing harm, but stressed "that does not mean their actions are not going to harm people."

It's been a tumultuous few months for Facebook.

Alongside criticism over Trump's post, it has also been hit with a vast advertising boycott amid accusations from a coalition of civil rights groups it is failing to curb hate speech, misinformation and extremism from spreading to its billions of users.

Zuckerberg has since announced the platform will start to label rule-breaking posts that are kept online for being newsworthy, following Twitter's approach.

After Trump's post, which remains on Facebook, the social network had received a barrage of negative comments from its own employees online.

In his exit message, Wang had a stark warning for fellow staffers after discussing how the site was catering to political speech over its human users: "We are failing."

He said: "Facebook has had a huge effect on people's social lives but we did this bait and switch... we started catering policies to political speech rather than human pain.

"I think this sends the confusing message... only the social person is an individual who experiences joy and sorrow and outage and pain, that's the person we need to serve, we are failing and what's worse is we have enshrined that failure in our policies."

In a statement to Newsweek, a spokesperson said: "Content decisions at Facebook are made based on our best, most even, application of the public policies as written.

"It will always be the case that groups of people, even employees, see these decisions as inconsistent; that's the nature of applying policies broadly.

"We've implemented a rigorous process of both consulting with outside experts when adopting new policies as well as soliciting feedback from employees... we've created an independent oversight board to appeal content policy decisions on Facebook."

Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Financial Services Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC on October 23, 2019. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty