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Workers of the Facebook, Unite!

Trust-busting isn’t the only way to bring the tech behemoth to heel. The company’s own employees can organize to force Mark Zuckerberg’s hand.

Illustration by Joan Wong/Getty

“I think Facebook is hurting people at scale,” said a software engineer when he left the company in the summer. “I know that I have blood on my hands by now,” lamented a data scientist who policed political misinformation campaigns around the world for Facebook until earlier this year. Another data scientist, in a farewell note earlier this month, wrote of the “many internal forces propping up the production of hateful and violent content,” adding, “It also makes it embarrassing to work here.” And a product designer who also resigned this month said to his colleagues, “AI will not save us. The implicit vision guiding most of our integrity work today is one where all human discourse is overseen by perfect, fair, omniscient robots owned by Mark Zuckerberg. This is clearly a dystopia, but one so deeply ingrained we hardly notice it any more.”

Clearly, some Facebook employees are waking up to the dystopia around them. Once considered one of the best places to work in Silicon Valley, Facebook is facing—among many crises—an urgent problem of tumbling morale. Worker complaints from its middle ranks now leak to the media with regularity, and the recent documentary The Social Dilemma revealed that misgivings about the company’s influence in the world extend to well-compensated former executives. But such on-the-record discontent tends to surface only when an employee leaves; the ones who choose to stay typically keep their criticisms anonymous, for fear of violating Facebook’s no-leaks policy.

Herein lies an underappreciated path to reforming Facebook. Everyone in Washington and the media these days is talking about how to break up the tech giant through antitrust law—and understandably so, as that dream inches closer to reality. In early December, the federal government and nearly every state sued Facebook for engaging in “predatory” anti-competitive behavior. But even if Facebook were forced to spin off WhatsApp and Instagram, as the suit calls for, it would not solve the huge power asymmetries between Facebook’s leadership—dominated by Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg, and a handful of former Republican political operatives—and its employees nor would it do anything to stanch the flood of hate speech and misinformation on its namesake platform.

That’s why we should also be talking about the power of workers to rein in Facebook. Besides griping to the media or on internal message boards (which themselves are increasingly policed), the company’s employees have failed to assert their collective power. Perhaps the best way to fundamentally change Facebook—to limit its mounting damage to democracies and the free press—is for its 45,000-plus workers to organize and make demands as one. But first, they must have a moral awakening.

Tech worker activism isn’t foreign to Silicon Valley. In the 1970s, workers at semiconductor factories organized into unions, published newspapers, launched strikes, and exposed dangerous working conditions. In more recent years, unionization efforts have tended to focus on gig and contract workers and, during the pandemic, especially, on Amazon warehouse workers. Subcontracted cafeteria workers have voted to unionize at Google and Facebook, where they were punished by their direct employer for the decision. (Facebook and other social platforms have been a double-edged sword for contract and gig economy workers, who use them to organize but also fear surveillance and infiltration from managers.)

Higher up the economic chain, why haven’t programmers and designers and ad reps unionized? There are many interlocking answers. Beyond a national decline in union membership, one could point to Silicon Valley’s general libertarian bent, its workers’ get-rich unicorn dreams, and the fact that many are already making good money and experiencing lush office perks. Some smaller initiatives, like walkouts and temporary strikes at Google, have catalyzed worker activism, but union busting at the company and its peers—which hire notorious anti-labor law firms and private investigators like the Pinkerton firm—instill fear, creating a suspicious atmosphere not conducive to organizing.

Assuming they can surmount some of these obstacles—which will require no less than a change in company and employee culture—what will Facebook workers fight for? What should they fight for?

There’s a laundry list of potential issues: worker influence over major company policies; more equitable and transparent pay structures; at least one board seat reserved for a union member; the right to talk to the press without being fired; increased investments in content moderation and disinformation fighting; reassessing operations in overseas markets where the introduction of Facebook, especially without local language expertise, has been a political disaster (Myanmar, Philippines, Sri Lanka, etc); severing quid pro quo relationships with conservative politicians; a voice in Facebook’s political donations (which are extensive and tilt conservative); full-time employee status for moderators and exploited contract workers; and more data sharing with outside researchers, who can study Facebook’s problems with right-wing radicalization, disinformation, and other sources of polarized division.

Then there are the pie-in-the-sky demands: curb data collection and ad targeting; find alternative business models that don’t involve spying on users; spin off units like Instagram and WhatsApp; remove Mark Zuckerberg as CEO. There will be demands that Facebook never caves to—and with a majority of voting shares on the company board, Zuckerberg’s control over Facebook is practically autocratic. But if workers push impossible positions and the compromise is that Facebook will do more to stop right-wing conspiracies, foreign misinformation, and hate speech, that’s a valuable step. But it’s not the end.

This isn’t just about worker power. It’s also a moral question, one that requires thousands of workers to take the risks necessary to improve a company that originally sought to bring people together but now excels at—and profits mightily from—tearing us apart. These employees all, to varying degrees, share responsibility for enabling Facebook. If they’re actually concerned about the company’s poisonous impact on the world, then they’ll have to do more than post on a company message board.