‘Wartime CEO’ Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to leave Trump’s Facebook post untouched isn’t surprising at all

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in a meeting with his employees on 2 June, stated that his decision to leave posts by US President Donald Trump untouched, was final and thoroughly thought through. 

According to a New York Times report, this meeting which was scheduled to take place on 4 June, was preponed to 2 June, following the virtual walk out by employees on 1 June. The employee walkout was triggered by Facebook’s decision to give Trump a free pass on making controversial statements pertaining to the protests following the death of George Floyd. 

You may think what’s new in that? Trump has been known to rant on social media. Well, he still does that. But one of his social media tools of choice, Twitter, has started labelling any false claims Trump makes with a sticker. On 26 May, a tweet from Trump was slapped with a warning label with a link to the fact-checked news. This naturally irritated Trump. While Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey stood by his platform’s decision to fact-check Trump, Zuckerberg was quick to go on TV and state that he would never do that on Facebook.

A recent Trump tweet, seen to be inciting violence, got this treatment:

Following the brutal death of George Floyd—yet another instance of a white police officer using excessive force against a black man leading to his death—protests erupted across the US. There was one right outside the White House.

Many Silicon Valley tech giants have condemned the attacks. Facebook employees, in an unprecedented move, even staged a virtual walkout on Monday (virtual walkout as most of the employees are working from home). The reason for the virtual walkout was Facebook’s hands-off approach on Trump posts. 

“I disagree strongly with how the President spoke about this, but I believe people should be able to see this for themselves, because ultimately accountability for those in positions of power can only happen when their speech is scrutinized out in the open,” said Zuckerberg justifying why Trump’s post was up and how it didn’t violate any Facebook policy. Zuckerberg claimed that he had even got a call from President Trump, where he made his displeasure known to him.

Wartime CEO Mark Zuckerberg 

I am not an expert on Facebook’s finer policies on hate speech. But Zuckerberg’s response to this incident is not in the least surprising. In fact, he had made his operational style quite evident in November 2018, where he got together 50 of his close lieutenants and announced that going forward he would be a ‘wartime CEO’. 

Ben Horowitz, the co-founder of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, had explained the concept of peacetime CEO and wartime CEO quite nicely in a 2011 blog post. According to Horowitz: 

In peacetime, leaders must maximise and broaden the current opportunity. As a result, peacetime leaders employ techniques to encourage broad-based creativity and contribution across a diverse set of possible objectives. In wartime, by contrast, the company typically has a single bullet in the chamber and must, at all costs, hit the target. The company’s survival in wartime depends upon strict adherence and alignment to the mission.

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, the company was weeks away from bankruptcy—a classic wartime scenario. He needed everyone to move with precision and follow his exact plan; there was no room for individual creativity outside of the core mission. In stark contrast, as Google achieved dominance in the search market, Google’s management fostered peacetime innovation by enabling and even requiring every employee to spend 20 percent of their time on their own new projects.

Ben Horowitz, Peacetime CEO/Wartime CEO

2018 was a crucial year in Facebook’s history. It was just about dealing with the aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential elections and had successfully distanced itself from it, when in March 2018 data consultant Christopher Wylie blew the whistle on the Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

Facebook was caught with its pants down as its partnership had led to the data hoovering of over 87 million of its users. A large majority of these users in the US were probably used for influencing voters before the 2016 US Presidential elections. Zuckerberg even had to appear before the US Congress for a couple of hours, answering questions pertaining to the data harvesting of US voters among many other things. 

Despite these scandals, Facebook’s stock has never shown a massive decline quarter over quarter. Quite the contrary. 

Source: Statista

While Zuckerberg may have officially made it clear as to what type of CEO he was going to be in November, we had already begun to see a glimpse of that earlier that year. In September 2018, Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, had left the company. In May 2018, the second co-founder of WhatsApp, Jan Koum, had also departed. Oculus co-founders also left Facebook in 2018. It almost felt like Zuckerberg was done with letting these individual founders have their way, and was ready to take over.

Not long after all these departures, in March 2019, Zuckerberg announced his vision for a privacy-first messaging platform which would integrate Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. All these products were now headed by Zuckerberg’s chosen lieutenants and had no resistance from its actual founders. 

In Steven Levy’s Facebook: The Inside Story, on being questioned why Facebook was treating conservatives with kid gloves Zuckerberg says:

If you have a company which is 99 percent liberal – that’s probably the makeup of the Bay Area – I do think you have some responsibility to make sure that you go out of your way and build systems to make sure that you are not unintentionally building bias in.

Is Zuckerberg’s current stand on the matter his “going out of the way” to let Trump have his way? If it isn’t, then I don’t know what is.

But unlike earlier instances when Facebook employees were generally on the fence about issues outside their work-related KRAs, this time many are protesting. So far, two employees have quit

Of course, two employees quitting wouldn’t mean much for Facebook as there will be many more waiting to be hired in their places. But something that Facebook was known for—unquestioned support for its CEO—is on shaky grounds now.

Will that force Zuckerberg to take a policy stand against Trump? I really doubt that. As Horowitz notes:

Peacetime CEO strives for broad based buy in. Wartime CEO neither indulges consensus-building nor tolerates disagreements.

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