Rifts break open at Facebook over Kavanaugh hearing

The internal turmoil at Facebook illustrates how divisions over Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court have cascaded into unexpected places and split one of the world’s biggest tech companies.

By: New York Times | San Francisco | Published: October 5, 2018 11:40:58 am
Rifts break open at Facebook over Kavanaugh hearing Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. (The New York Times)

“I want to apologize,” the Facebook executive wrote last Friday in a note to staff. “I recognize this moment is a deeply painful one — internally and externally.”

The apology came from Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president for global public policy. A day earlier, Kaplan had sat behind his friend, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, when the judge testified in Congress about allegations he had sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford in high school. Kaplan’s surprise appearance prompted anger and shock among many Facebook employees, some of whom said they took his action as a tacit show of support for Kavanaugh — as if it were an endorsement from Facebook itself.

The unrest quickly spilled over onto Facebook’s internal message boards, where hundreds of workers have since posted about their concerns, according to current and former employees. To quell the hubbub, Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, last Friday explained in a widely attended staff meeting that Kaplan was a close friend of Kavanaugh’s and had broken no company rules, these people said.

Yet the disquiet within the company has not subsided. This week, Facebook employees kept flooding internal forums with comments about Kaplan’s appearance at the hearing. In a post Wednesday, Andrew Bosworth, a Facebook executive, appeared to dismiss the concerns when he wrote to employees that “it is your responsibility to choose a path, not that of the company you work for.” Facebook plans to hold another staff meeting Friday to contain the damage, said the current and former employees.

The internal turmoil at Facebook — described by six current and former employees and a review of internal posts — illustrates how divisions over Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court have cascaded into unexpected places and split one of the world’s biggest tech companies.

Kaplan’s show of support for Kavanaugh hits a particularly sensitive spot for Facebook. It has been weathering claims from conservatives and Trump that Facebook is biased against right-wing websites and opinions. The company has denied this, saying it is a neutral platform that welcomes all perspectives. By showing up at Kavanaugh’s side, Kaplan essentially appeared to choose a political side that goes against the views of Facebook’s largely liberal workforce.

The tensions add to a litany of other issues that have sapped employee morale. In the past few weeks alone, the company, based in Silicon Valley, has grappled with the departures of the co-founders of Instagram, the photo-sharing app owned by Facebook, plus the disclosure of its largest-ever data breach and continued scrutiny of disinformation across its network before the midterm elections.

“Our leadership team recognizes that they’ve made mistakes handling the events of the last week and we’re grateful for all the feedback from our employees,” Roberta Thomson, a Facebook spokeswoman, said in a statement Thursday.

The latest trouble began a week ago, with the testimony of Blasey and Kavanaugh in Congress. As Kavanaugh testified, one face stood out to Facebook employees: Sitting two rows behind the judge was Kaplan, a former senior adviser to George W. Bush who joined the company in a policy role in 2011 and heads up the social network’s Washington office. He was hired to help counterbalance Facebook’s perception as left-leaning.

Tweets about Kaplan at the hearing immediately began circulating among Facebook message boards such as “Women @ Facebook,” a communications chat room called “Just Flagging,” and a group called “Wait, what?” where employees can ask public relations questions. Many employees had one query: Why was Kaplan there?

“Let’s assume for a minute that our VP of Policy understands how senate hearings work,” one program manager said in a post about Kaplan that was reviewed by The Times. “His seat choice was intentional, knowing full well that journalists would identify every public figure appearing behind Kavanaugh. He knew that this would cause outrage internally, but he knew that he couldn’t get fired for it. This was a protest against our culture, and a slap in the face to his fellow employees.”

“Yes, Joel, we see you,” the employee added.

Facebook executives knew they had a serious problem on their hands, said the current and former employees. That led to last Friday’s apology from Kaplan, a former Marine who once clerked for two conservative justices.

In the note addressed to his policy group, Kaplan wrote, “I have known Brett and Ashley Kavanaugh for 20 years. They are my and my wife Laura’s closest friends in D.C. I was in their wedding; he was in ours. Our kids have grown up together.”

“I believe in standing by your friends, especially when times are tough for them,” Kaplan added in a later post.

He also said, “Laura and I felt it was important to be with them at the hearing to express our love and support for our friends during a very difficult time for all involved. I took a personal day to be there.”

Some Facebook employees noted that according to the company’s internal human resources software, Kaplan had not taken a personal day to attend the hearing. Only later last Friday did someone at Facebook update the system to say Kaplan had taken a personal day, said the current and former employees.

At last Friday’s staff meeting, Zuckerberg defended Kaplan’s appearance as a personal decision that did not violate company rules. Zuckerberg also said he trusted Kaplan’s judgment, even though he himself would most likely not have chosen to attend the hearing, said two people who were at the meeting.

The messaging backfired. Some employees — particularly women — said it came across as if Zuckerberg was shrugging off Blasey’s comments about sexual assault, saying that the chief executive’s remarks had caused “stress and trauma” and were “painful to hear.”

Many female employees were also upset that Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, who has made women’s issues a personal platform and project, did not publicly say something about Blasey and sexual assault. Kaplan is known as a friend of Sandberg’s, with the two having gotten acquainted at Harvard, which both attended.

Sandberg posted internally last Friday, writing, “As a woman and someone who cares so deeply about how women are treated, the Kavanaugh issue is deeply upsetting to me.” She added, “I’ve talked to Joel about why I think it was a mistake for him to attend given his role in the company.”

In one internal Facebook group that is aimed at supporting female employees, dozens of women this week posted accounts of their own struggles with sexual assault. Kaplan’s attendance at the hearing made them uncomfortable, they wrote, according to posts reviewed by The Times. Several said they would not feel comfortable working in the Washington office under Kaplan.

Other employees began criticizing Zuckerberg directly in recent days.

“I appreciate your desire to avoid taking sides, but please don’t insult our intelligence by declaring that this act did not violate our policies, or that it was only an honest lapse in judgement,” one engineer wrote in a post addressed to the chief executive. “Please don’t tell us that you know how hard it is for us when it is very clear from your words, your actions and your tone that you don’t.”

On Wednesday, Bosworth, a 13-year veteran of Facebook and close friend of Zuckerberg’s, weighed in in an internal post.

“If you need to change teams, companies or careers to make sure your day-to-day life matches your passions, we will be sad to see you go, but we will understand,” Bosworth wrote. “We will support you with any path you choose. But it is your responsibility to choose a path, not that of the company you work for.”

Bosworth backpedaled after facing opposition — including from Lori Goler, Facebook’s head of human resources — who said he was dismissing legitimate employee concerns, said the current and former employees. On Thursday afternoon, he posted, “I spoke at a time when I should be listening and that was a big mistake. I’m grateful to employees who shared feedback and very sorry that my actions caused employees pain and frustration when what they needed was better support and understanding from leadership.”

By that point, it was clear the tensions were not fading. Mike Schroepfer, Facebook’s chief technology officer and the sponsor of the group “Women @ Facebook,” scheduled a meeting Friday to deal with staff concerns. Zuckerberg, Sandberg and Kaplan are all expected to attend to field questions, said the current and former employees.

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