On a Wednesday in July 2020, a Facebook employee wrote in the "Green @ Global'' internal message board that outside climate groups and activists were urging the company to treat climate misinformation as a public health threat. The employee posted an open letter that called for more action on the part of the company.
The first employee responses seemed benign, routine. "Thank you, we are engaging with the policy team to determine a FB response," one unknown employee wrote in the discussion, according to disclosures made to the SEC and provided to Congress in redacted form by Frances Haugen's legal counsel. A consortium of news organizations, including Protocol, has reviewed the redacted versions received by Congress. All of the names in the conversations are blacked out.
But the third comment took a turn. "Is there something wrong with us having an open platform where people can post arguments for either side of an issue and then people make up their own minds for themselves?" an unknown worker wrote. "If there's a group that wants to post the earth is flat, should they not be allowed to?"
Employees balked at the comment. "As an environmental program manager, can you explain why you've repeatedly sided with climate change denial in this group?" one person asked, to which the original poster responded, "Please take your attacks elsewhere because you've now created an unsafe space for open discourse here."
There are plenty of similar conversations on Workplace, Facebook's internal communication forum that looks a bit like Facebook itself. Facebook employees generally treat each other kindly on the platform; if an employee puts together a well-researched presentation, others cheer. But employees also use Workplace to level serious criticism and have hot-tempered discussions on issues ranging from Facebook's role in climate denial to how it should handle restricting and demoting content.
Workplace pitches itself as a highly accessible, transparent workplace platform. Facebook also sells the product to other companies to use for messaging, collaboration and knowledge storage. But Workplace was a Facebook tool first, as it grew out of Facebook employees' need for more central communication. Facebookers rarely use email for their day-to-day.
The conversations are a product of Facebook's "open culture." "Mark wants an open culture. He wants people to be able to know what's happening in product, to know what's happening across the company," said Monique Hall, a former policy communications spokesperson referring to how Haugen accessed the leaked documents. Hall left Facebook last December.
Facebook spokesperson Tracy Clayton said the company "deeply values expression" and has guidelines for company expectations regarding respectful communications, but did not explain those policies. "Feedback is a core part of our culture and it helps us learn where we're doing well or where we need to improve," Clayton told Protocol.
Those expectations are a bit higher for employees than Facebook users, said Sophie Zhang, a former employee and whistleblower who was fired last year. "If you post something calling out Mark Zuckerberg and accusing him of leading a conspiracy to destroy democracy, it doesn't matter if there's a rule against it, the company will find a rule to fire you."
Hosting an open employee forum in an official capacity like this is "somewhat unique," according to Claire Schmidt, CEO of employee feedback platform AllVoices. "I think it's actually fantastic for a company to provide as many communication channels as possible for employees," Schmidt said. But public employee feedback only goes so far, Schmidt noted. "There are a lot of employees who will not feel comfortable sharing completely honestly in a public internal forum like that," she said.
Jessica Yuen, a human resources advisor, said companies are generally more focused on receiving employee feedback than before, as the pandemic squished work and home life closer together. Tools like Slack, Workplace and Discord have made worker communication easier than ever — in some cases helping workers build power. Some companies have leaned into open lines of communication; others have not.
Even in companies that welcome uninhibited feedback, there can often be retaliation. Schmidt said this is why offering an anonymous option is so important. "If it's a company-sponsored tool, there's probably a feeling of safety for some employees using it, whether that's false or not," she said. "People don't really know what's acceptable and what's not and what type of action might be taken as a result of something they post."
Facebook uses anonymous feedback forms as well, and designates groups within Workplace for asking sensitive questions. Group administrators will post questions on behalf of other anonymous employees.
The company doesn't mind openness, Zhang said, "as long as it doesn't interfere with self interest." She added that recently the company more often chooses the latter.
Still, employees are remarkably blunt with each other on the Workplace platform. In August 2020, an employee expressed concern over the way Facebook dealt with an assault on protesters during demonstrations that took place after Jacob Blake was shot by police and severely injured. The platform was sued for failing to take action on the attack, even after hundreds of people complained.
"I know our company is full of dedicated smart people who want to do the right thing, including our leadership," the person wrote. "However, I don't think the current system we are working in enables us to succeed, even as we have the money, talent and motivation that should lead us on the right path."
The employee said workers should be asking why hateful content doesn't proliferate on other platforms like it does on Facebook, adding a few suggestions for the problem. "I still believe that the best way to complain is to build things, so I'd love to build something better rather than just pontificate."
In another instance, Fidji Simo, head of the Facebook app at the time, posted a lengthy update about Facebook's plan to introduce more private spaces within the app in March 2019. The post provoked spirited discussion, with mostly positive feedback. Some felt comfortable posting honest criticism: "As positive as all these changes are, it feels like we could have had them a lot sooner if we had done a better job at listening to our critics over the course of this company's history," one employee wrote. Another employee responded "It's hard to put stock in the words of critics when your share price is soaring. Now that we are hurting, we start to listen more."
Not all banter is critical; some is full of encouragement. In June 2020, when an employee sent out a proposal to deal with newsworthy content that violates Facebook's rules, coworkers expressed support. "This is awesome. Thank you for putting this together," one person said. "THIS IS AMAZING," another said.
And then there are the badge posts. These are farewell posts Facebook employees leave on Workplace when they exit the company. Zhang posted a particularly infamous one that was later deleted by Facebook. In the post she wrote that she had "blood on [her] hands" and called out the company for being slow to act on fake accounts sowing misinformation. A "Social Good" team member posted a farewell on Dec. 4, 2020, cautioning against relying on AI to solve all problems and against Facebook pushing risky features to achieve growth.
"The last two years have been some of the most intense, interesting, and exhausting of my career," the team member wrote. "But right now it's time for me to take a breath."
Additional reporting by Issie Lapowsky.