By Jeff Horwitz
Facebook Inc. is moving to curb internal debate around divisive political and social topics, Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said Thursday, after a spate of disputes and criticism that has fueled discord among staffers.
The steps will include delineating which parts of the company's internal messaging platform are acceptable for such discussions, and careful moderation of the discussions when they occur, Mr. Zuckerberg told employees at a company meeting, according to a spokesman. Employees shouldn't have to confront social issues in their day-to-day work unless they want to, the CEO said.
Specific details of the new policy are still being decided, with more information to come next week, but Mr. Zuckerberg said Facebook plans to "explore ways to preserve our culture of openness and debate around" its work, according to a spokesman.
The planned changes will arrive amid a contentious U.S. presidential election that Mr. Zuckerberg has said he fears could lead to civil unrest, as well as a series of other controversies that have intensified discussion inside and outside Facebook over how it handles controversial content.
Several employees recently have posted memos internally that leaked outside the company criticizing its content policies. Some employees last month pressed Facebook's leadership to review its handling of hate speech in India, after a Wall Street Journal article detailing what current and former Facebook employees said was a pattern of favoritism toward that country's ruling party and Hindu hard-liners.
And a group of employees staged a virtual walkout in early June to protest Facebook's decision to leave up a post from President Trump about social unrest that the employees said broke Facebook rules about inciting violence, prompting Mr. Zuckerberg to defend the decision in a highly charged employee meeting.
Other companies also have struggled to balance employee freedoms with a desire to limit internal discord and division -- especially in Silicon Valley, where companies have long encouraged more freewheeling company cultures. Alphabet Inc.'s Google last year issued guidelines limiting employee discussion of politics and other topics, saying staffers should avoid spending time hotly debating matters unrelated to their jobs.
Internal tensions have been heightened for some companies during the coronavirus pandemic, when many employees are communicating primarily using messaging systems such as Slack that can facilitate simple conversations but also become a forum for grievances and animosity.
Restrictions on internal discussion are likely to be especially sensitive at Facebook, which has billed itself as a platform for free expression -- and where Mr. Zuckerberg's reluctance to put constraints on discussion of controversial topics by users has been a source of discontent among some staffers.
Facebook employees have long had the ability to set their profile photo with an image expressing support for a particular cause, such as Black Lives Matter. And Mr. Zuckerberg said at the employee meeting that part of Facebook's intention with the new measures is to ensure that Black employees and other underrepresented communities don't face a hostile environment when they come to work. Facebook has voiced support for the Black Lives Matter movement, even as it has drawn ire from some activists for not doing enough to curb what they say is hate speech and incitements to violence on its platform.
But Facebook has concluded that the regular discord that has erupted within the company over social-justice issues is untenable, according to current and former employees who spoke with the Journal.
"We deeply value expression and open discussion," said Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne. "What we've heard from our employees is that they want the option to join debates on social and political issues, rather than see them unexpectedly in their work feed."
Write to Jeff Horwitz at Jeff.Horwitz@wsj.com