Frederic Legrand - COMEO/shutterstock

Frederic Legrand – COMEO/shutterstock

In early June, 143 scientists currently or previously funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative penned an open letter calling on Mark Zuckerberg to curb misinformation on Facebook. The letter expressed deep concern over Facebook’s decision to allow President Trump’s false and incendiary statements to remain on the platform.

The letter was relatively cordial, and Zuckerberg and co-CEO Priscilla Chan promptly responded, stating, “We understand that CZI’s relationship to Facebook is not an easy tension to bridge.”

A few weeks later, more than 70 CZI employees called for Zuckerberg and Chan to make a series of internal changes at the organization to combat systemic racism. Then, in late June, Vox’s Theodore Schleifer reported that Color of Change, a racial justice group that has also called on Facebook to curb misinformation, turned down a $2 million CZI grant over concerns it was “dirty money.”

Since Chan and Zuckerberg founded CZI in 2015, the LLC has emerged as a major grantmaker focusing on science, education and economic justice, and has remained somewhat insulated from the periodic turmoil surrounding Zuckerberg’s day job. But now, a drumbeat of discontent seems to be emerging, notably directed at both CZI and its founders’ business practices.

Granted, CZI doesn’t quite have a full-scale revolt on its hands. And even though the rejection of $2 million sends a strong statement, CZI is still far from a “toxic donor.” However, as long as Zuckerberg simultaneously leads CZI and Facebook, the two entities, however legally separate, will remain inextricably linked in the minds of some grantees and staff. This will likely continue to cause problems for the funder, particularly at a time when billionaires, philanthropy and the tech industry are under so much intense scrutiny.

I reached out to CZI to ask about any potential vulnerability as a result of this perceived connection. Along with reaffirming the LLC’s commitment to its mission, they offered us a statement:

“Although the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is a philanthropic organization that’s entirely separate from Facebook with its own mission and team, we understand that for some, there is frustration in feeling like CZI’s work is being impacted by an organization for which they don’t work. CZI’s strength is in its 400+ people from a diversity of backgrounds and areas of expertise—incredibly talented scientists, educators, technologists, policy advocates and community leaders— and hundreds of grantee partners across our science, education, criminal justice reform, housing, and immigration programs, and in our community giving across the Bay Area.”

It’s true that CZI is a large outfit cranking out a lot of grants to talented people, but I’d say that regardless of its track record or its team, there are some unique, inescapable realities surrounding Facebook’s past and present activity that are going to make life more challenging for Zuckerberg’s philanthropic arm. Here’s a rundown:

Privacy Violations Sow Distrust

Critics don’t forget Facebook’s handling of Russian interference in the previous presidential election, a record $5 billion Federal Trade Commission fine over user privacy violations, and perhaps the most damaging controversy to date, the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Just as that scandal “ushered in a new era of scrutiny for Facebook,” Schleifer wrote, “it also ushered in a sea change at CZI, introducing drama, staff turnover, and concerns from some employees about leadership.” More recently, some school leaders have told CZI officials they have concerns about Summit, the funder’s personalized learning platform, citing Facebook’s previous handling of user data.

In short, these transgressions have sowed deep distrust in Facebook and Zuckerberg himself as the public face of the company. While the entities are legally separate, he’s still co-CEO of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and that suspicion carries over.

A Troubling Track Record on Incendiary Speech

Rashad Robinson is the head of the civil rights group Color of Change, the organization that refused a $2 million CZI grant. Robinson has been pressuring the network to remove hateful content for years. Progress has been frustratingly slow.

“With Mark, there are moments when he just doesn’t understand something around the implications of race,” Robinson told the New York Times’ Charlie Warzel. “This is why a single person shouldn’t control something that’s talked about as a public square. He’ll always have deep blind spots.”

Facebook’s unwillingness in late May to flag or delete President Trump’s statement “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” was the final straw, releasing “a torrent of pent-up frustration,” wrote Bloomberg’s Kurt Wagner and Sophie Alexander. Referring to Trump’s post, Zuckerberg said that Facebook’s principles and policies supporting free speech “show that the right action where we are right now is to leave this up.”

CZI scientists cited Trump’s statement specifically in their letter to Zuckerberg. “Like many, we were disconcerted to see that Facebook has not followed their own policies in regards to President Trump, who has used the Facebook platform to spread both misinformation and incendiary statements,” the letter read, calling the post “a clear statement of inciting violence.”

Facebook’s Problematic Business Model

While Facebook says it catches 89% of hate speech before it is reported by users, the fundamental “architecture of the social network—its algorithmic mandate of engagement over all else, the advantage it gives to divisive and emotionally manipulative content—will always produce more objectionable content at a dizzying scale,” Warzel writes.

This is the ethical crux of the#StopHateForProfit campaign, the CZI grantee letter, and some of the internal unrest within the CZI: Facebook, critics say, is intentionally and lucratively fanning the flames of division.

The idea that an organization should repudiate a donor if their business harms society may sound familiar, as it’s an increasingly common battle cry among those seeking social change. For example, protestors called on Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) trustee Larry Fink to divest his BlackRock investment fund of private prisons and fossil fuels. In March, activists protested MoMA’s affiliation with Board Chair Leon Black, who demonstrators labeled a war profiteer because of his private equity firm’s ownership of defense contractor Constellis Holdings.

And ExxonMobil has “engaged in a campaign to mislead the public about the reality of climate change,” said Saint Louis University Professor David Rapach, only to make donations to “purportedly support research to develop green energy.” This analogy feels especially relevant—Facebook, which traffics in algorithm-driven misinformation, has also given millions to combat fake news.

Grantees and the public are especially critical of donors aiming to create public good on one hand, when their for-profit endeavors are considered inherently damaging.

Competitors Have Stepped Up

Context is important in modern philanthropy, and critics instinctively weigh Facebook’s efforts to rein in misinformation with that of its competitors.

After Carole Cadwalladr, the journalist who exposed the Cambridge Analytica scandal, labeled Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey “handmaidens to authoritarianism” in April of 2019, Twitter banned all political ads, updated its hateful conduct rules to include dehumanizing speech against religious groups, and more recently flagged Trump’s “looting” tweet for violating the platform’s rules for “glorifying violence.”

In early July, Twitter announced it is building a subscription platform. If all goes according to plan, this approach could allow the company to wean itself off of an ad-dependent revenue model.

To be fair, Twitter’s current business model gives it more leeway in terms of moderating the president. Unlike Facebook, it does not rely on government contracts or advertising dollars to make up a sizable chunk of its revenue, and its small size—321 million monthly active users versus Facebook’s 2.6 billion—means it isn’t subjected to federal antitrust scrutiny.

It’s probably not the case that CZI scientists and employees would cut Zuckerberg more slack if Twitter hadn’t taken more aggressive measures. That said, the fact that other social media companies seem to be trying to clean up their platforms makes people less patient with Zuckerberg.

Increased Scrutiny of Mega-Donors

Finally, Zuckerberg is also operating in a climate that looks very different than the one in which CZI launched a mere five years ago. Critics are now regularly calling out billionaires on many counts—for not providing sufficient COVID-19 relief, for failing to acknowledge their complicity in perpetuating racial injustices, for not paying their fair share of taxes, and even the very fact that billionaires exist in the first place.

The public has become all too familiar with the archetype of the “toxic donor,” the most extreme versions being Jefferey Epstein and Raymond Sackler. But there’s also the heightened suspicion of a billionaire overseeing a legal operation who nonetheless engages in harmful business practices, paired with cynical philanthropy designed to “launder” their reputation.

The fact is, a business titan merely participating in philanthropy is no longer enough to bring about warm feelings from the public. It’s just one part of a much larger profile that society is now closely scrutinizing.

Jack Dorsey, for example, has been experiencing a boost to his reputation as a result of his recent commitment of $1 billion toward COVID-19 relief. But Dorsey’s transformation into a likable mega-donor wasn’t sudden. He’s faced his share of controversy, but also cultivated an image as a down-to-Earth CEO who walks to work every day, meditates, and whose company ultimately stood up to Trump. Earlier this year, after Paul Singer’s hedge fund pushed for Dorsey to be replaced as CEO, employees launched #WeBackJack in support of him. 

In contrast, Zuckerberg’s image problem was years in the making. Earlier this year, during Facebook’s fourth-quarter earnings call, Zuckerberg said his goal for the company in the next decade is “not to be liked, but understood.” With a presidential election coming up in a few months, his other big challenge will be making the public, grantees and staff understand that Facebook and CZI are two separate entities so that outrage directed at the former doesn’t impact the latter.

It won’t be easy. In late June, Facebook announced it would flag posts from “newsworthy” politicians that break its rules, including those from President Trump. Less than two weeks later, civil rights leaders met with Zuckerberg via Zoom to discuss the company’s efforts to curb hate speech. “Today, we saw little and heard just about nothing,” said a disappointed Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. “I believe this campaign will continue to grow. It will get more global, it will get more intense until we get the answers that I think we are looking for.”

Soon after, news leaked that Facebook was considering banning political advertising across its network before the election. While the ban has yet to materialize, Greenblatt’s prediction is looking more prescient by the day.

On July 24, San Francisco Supervisor Gordon Mar introduced a resolution to condemn the city’s public hospital for naming itself Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center in recognition of the couple’s $75 million gift in 2015.

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