Facebook software engineer Ashok Chandwaney has watched with growing unease as the platform has become a haven for hate. Tuesday morning (Sept. 8, 2020), it came time to take a stand.
“I’m quitting because I can no longer stomach contributing to an organization that is profiting off hate in the US and globally,” wrote Chandwaney in a letter posted on Facebook’s internal employee network shortly after 8 a.m. Pacific. The nearly 1,300-word document was detailed, bristling with links to bolster its claims and scathing in its conclusions.
Tuesday’s resignation made Chandwaney the latest Facebook employee to quit amid rising discontent within a company that, just a few years ago, was seen as an ideal employer – exciting, deep-pocketed and, as Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg frequently said, animated by the seemingly benevolent mission of connecting the world together. Worker frustration with Facebook’s policies on hate and racist speech has risen as protests against racial injustice have swept the country, with thousands of employees demanding that Zuckerberg, who controls a majority of Facebook’s voting shares, change his stances.
While Facebook does not disclose the number of engineers it employs, engineers are some of the most sought-after employees and command some of the highest salaries at the company, according to people familiar with Facebook.
Chandwaney, 28, who is gender non-binary and uses they and them as pronouns, described Facebook as a genial, supportive workplace but said they realized over time that the company’s leadership was focused on profits over promoting social good. The company has done too little to combat the rise on the platform of racism, disinformation and incitements to violence, Chandwaney said.
Chandwaney specifically cited the company’s role in fueling genocide in Myanmar and, more recently, violence in Kenosha, Wis. Facebook failed to remove a militia group’s event encouraging people to bring guns to protests ahead of fatal shootings last month despite hundreds of complaints, in what Zuckerberg called an “operational mistake.”
The letter, which Chandwaney elaborated on during an interview with The Washington Post, also cited Facebook’s refusal to remove President Donald Trump’s post from May saying “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” and dismissed the company’s response to civil rights issues as mere public-relations maneuvers. Chandwaney was hoping that Facebook would take all of the recommendations from its civil rights audit in July, which concluded that the company’s policy actions “were a tremendous setback,” and also said that it would be more responsive to the demands of the advertising boycott organized under the hashtag #StopHateForProfit.
“There have been so many comments that have been p.r. fluff rather than substantive,” Chandwaney said in the interview in which they also criticized the company’s policy that allows politicians to make false claims in campaign ads without fear of having them fact-checked. “Allowing lies in election ads is pretty damaging, especially in the current political moment we’re in.”
Facebook has softened some of its stances in response to outcries by employees and civil rights group, adding labels to misleading posts from politicians and directing readers to government websites with accurate information about voting and the covid pandemic – though they do not take a stance on whether the material is true or false. Critics have called the labels so neutral as to be misleading.
Chandwaney, who is of South Asian descent and who is based in the Seattle area, cited the work of civil rights group Color of Change, a frequent critic of Facebook, in the resignation letter. “It is clear to me that despite the best efforts of many of us who work here, and outside advocates like Color Of Change, Facebook is choosing to be on the wrong side of history,” they wrote.
That group’s executive director, Rashad Robinson, who said he had met Chandwaney more than a year earlier, said they were among many people of color within the company who have complained about its direction on similar issues.
“We need more Facebook employees to speak out. We need more Facebook people to push harder,” Robinson said. “I’ve just come to realize how all of these moments have hit them, how much they don’t trust Mark Zuckerberg.”
In the wake of the George Floyd protests, members of Facebook’s black employee resource group, Black@, met with Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg to complain about the company’s inaction on Trump’s May post, while a black employee has brought a lawsuit charging racial bias in its hiring practices. The lawsuit arises from broader frustrations, which were noted in the civil rights audit, that the most important decision-making at the company around hate speech are made by a group that does not include people who would be most affected by that speech.
The mood within Facebook soured nearly four years ago as it became clear that Facebook played a key role in the 2016 election of President Trump, by amplifying false news reports and Russian disinformation while allowing his campaign to deliver targeted messages to swing voters. Unrest has only grown since then among the company’s more than 52,000 employees.
For Chandwaney, whose work as a software engineer at the company included stints designing advertising tools and internal training programs, one turning point came when Facebook’s most senior Republican, the D.C.-based policy chief Joel Kaplan, appeared as a visible, on-screen supporter of Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh during his Senate confirmation hearing in October 2018.
Kaplan defended his support of Kavanaugh, a close friend, but the affiliation rankled many at Facebook at a time when the nominee was battling allegations of sexual assault and other misconduct during his youth. Kaplan has been a strong internal advocate that the platform remain “politically neutral,” but former employees have charged that in practice his approach has meant favoring Republicans and Trump.
The mood internally has worsened amid a steady beat of revelations about the role Facebook and its photo-sharing subsidiary, Instagram, have played in spreading foreign disinformation, anti-Semitism and white nationalism, while allowing the QAnon conspiracy theory and violent extremists such as the “Boogaloo Bois” to grow before recent crackdowns.
When Zuckerberg declined to take down Trump’s “looting shooting” post, some employees, who are working from home, staged a virtual walkout. A handful also quit, and thousands of others demanded that the company change its policies on hate speech and not fact-checking politicians, according to an employee poll obtained by The Post. On the company’s internal network, called Workplace, employees compared the company’s dynamic with the president to an “abusive relationship” with a romantic partner.
“What’s the point of establishing a principle if we’re going to move the goal posts every time Trump escalates his behavior?” software engineer Timothy Aveni asked on the internal message board last month. He subsequently quit.
The company’s approach to civil rights also gave rise to a boycott by major advertisers.