Facebook Shut Down Employee Chat Room Over Harassing Messages -- Update

By Deepa Seetharaman Features Dow Jones Newswires

Facebook Inc. dismantled a popular anonymous discussion board for employees last year that had become a forum for conservative political debate that sometimes degenerated into racist or sexist comments, people familiar with the matter said, a rare move to censor speech internally.

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FB Anon, the name of the forum shut down in December and reported on Wednesday, became a hub for employees who backed Donald Trump's candidacy, the people said. Before the election, the group put up posters across campus that read "Trump Supporters Welcome."

But FB Anon also attracted comments that many employees found offensive, the people said. For example, some posts last year said Facebook lowered the bar to attract female engineers to boost its diversity numbers, one of the people said, provoking angry responses from others in the chat room.

"A cornerstone of our culture is being open," said Lori Goler, Facebook's head of people, in a statement Wednesday. "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."

In explaining the decision in early 2017, Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg told employees that FB Anon contained harassing messages, according to one of the people.

At the time, Facebook reminded employees that there were other forums where they could discuss confidential matters, but not anonymously.

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The disabling of the board illustrates Facebook's struggle to cultivate open, freewheeling debate, while still following company rules of decency to not alienate employees with racist and sexist views. The internal challenges mirror the social-media company's difficulties in policing speech and extremist views on its broader platform, used by more than two billion people a month.

Some employees disagreed with Facebook's move, even if they found some views expressed on FB Anon offensive. There was "lots of information that you would not have had otherwise," one of the people said.

The clampdown on the anonymous forum echoes the recent controversy at Alphabet Inc.'s Google after an engineer was fired for suggesting in a lengthy memo that men are better suited for tech jobs than women. The engineer, James Damore, has said he felt Google suppressed discussion of his views.

Similar to Google, Facebook prides itself on an open culture that welcomes criticism and debate among employees. It is common for Facebook employees to raise difficult topics directly to Mr. Zuckerberg during his weekly question-and-answer sessions and even more so in internal discussion boards, created for employees to discuss topics ranging from the cafeteria food to projects, current and former employees say.

For example, many employees had criticized Mr. Zuckerberg's decision to leave up Mr. Trump's Facebook posts about banning Muslims from entering the U.S., even though the posts qualified as hate speech under Facebook's content guidelines.

Facebook executives, including Mr. Zuckerberg, have tried to cultivate ideological diversity within the company, especially after a May 2016 report said curators of Facebook's "trending topics" feature suppressed news from conservative sources.

The decision to disable anonymous posting came in the wake of last year's presidential election, which sparked debate among the company's liberal employees, many of whom openly lamented Facebook's failure to uproot fabricated news articles in the run-up to the election, the people said.

Built by Facebook employees as a side project a couple of years ago, FB Anon became a forum for Facebook employees to air grievances or share information that could get them in trouble.

One year, someone shared on FB Anon a spreadsheet with detailed compensation information across Facebook, sparking an internal controversy over pay differences between technical and nontechnical employees, some of the people familiar said.

Last year, some posts within FB Anon said code written by women was rejected more often than code written by men because Facebook lowers the bar for female engineers so it can improve its diversity numbers, one of the people said. The comment was in response to debate on FB Anon about a female engineer's analysis showing a discrepancy in code rejections by gender. Facebook rejected the engineer's conclusion after doing its own assessment.

One casualty of the disabling of anonymous posting was a second anonymous page, meant for women and minorities to air grievances without retribution. It contained few offensive posts, others said.

Some details of the anonymous forums were first reported by news site Business Insider.

Write to Deepa Seetharaman at Deepa.Seetharaman@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 16, 2017 21:00 ET (01:00 GMT)