Shortly before he left the company, a partnerships manager at Facebook sent a memo to everyone on staff, around the world: “Facebook has a Black people problem,” the message began.
The memo, written by Mark S. Luckie, who managed relationships with influencers who use the platform, spells out the many ways that he believes the company has failed Black employees and Black users with its policies and staff makeup.
“The population of Facebook employees doesn’t reflect its most engaged user base,” he wrote in the memo, which he publicly published on Facebook and LinkedIn Tuesday. “In some buildings, there are more ‘Black Lives Matter’ posters than there are actual Black people … racial discrimination at Facebook is real.”
Luckie has been a high-profile employee at several Silicon Valley companies, and, before that, was part of a team at The Washington Post that was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He was named by The Root as one of the most influential African Americans in 2013 and 2014, and is author of The Digital Journalist's Handbook. Before to Facebook, Luckie worked at Reddit and Twitter, where he worked with journalists to show them how they could best use those platforms (While at Twitter, Luckie gave training sessions to journalists at my former employer's office that I attended.)
The memo says that, while he was at Facebook, other employees at Facebook’s Menlo Park headquarters would “tap or hold their wallet or shove their hands down their pocket to clutch it tightly until I pass.” He said his experience wasn’t uncommon, and that many Black employees are scared to speak up because they know that “by raising our voices we risk jeopardizing our professional relationships and our career advancement.” He believes that many Black employees are part of teams solely to hit diversity goals and as sensitivity checks on certain policies, and are not appropriately integrated into meeting the larger goals of the team.
“Over the last few years, we’ve been working diligently to increase the range of perspectives among those who build our products and serve the people who use them throughout the world," Facebook spokesperson Anthony Harrison told Motherboard in an email. "The growth in representation of people from more diverse groups, working in many different functions across the company, is a key driver of our ability to succeed. We want to fully support all employees when there are issues reported and when there may be micro-behaviors that add up. We are going to keep doing all we can to be a truly inclusive company."
Luckie said that because Black employees feel marginalized—or are marginalized—at the company, the policies Facebook ultimately implements are hurting Black people who use the site. Luckie noted that the company has repeatedly taken down content posted by Black people that are “meant to be positive efforts as hate speech, despite them often not violating Facebook’s terms of service.”
“There is a prevailing theory among many Black users that their content is more likely to be taken down on the platform than any other group. Even though the theories are mostly anecdotal, Facebook does little to dissuade people from this idea,” Luckie wrote. “It upends the communities of color Facebook claims to be supporting. It decreases the likelihood that people will continue to engage at the same level on our platform.”
Facebook’s hate speech policies do indeed harm people of color and, specifically, Black Americans. As Motherboard first reported earlier this year, Facebook bans “white supremacy” on the platform but specifically allows “white nationalism” and “white separatism,” which, according to historians who have studied race in America, are indistinguishable from white supremacy. In fact, these labels have been used by white supremacists to rebrand supremacy as somehow less violent and hateful.
Since reporting Facebook’s policies on white supremacy, groups such as Color of Change and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law have formally asked Facebook to make policy changes. The company told Motherboard that it is considering a change, but no formal decisions have been announced yet.
Facebook has committed to participating in an external civil rights audit, but the company has sought to undermine some of the groups that most vocally pushed for the audit to be done. The New York Times reported earlier this month that Facebook hired a conservative group called Definers Public Affairs to fight some of its PR battles for it; Definers highlighted Color of Change’s ties to billionaire George Soros, who is often villainized by the right in anti-Semitic attacks.
“Facebook and Silicon Valley at large has built its business model on the backs of Black people and people of color, who over index on Facebook and Twitter,” Brandi Collins, Color of Change’s media justice director, told me on the phone earlier this year. “We’ve seen time and time again Facebook’s hand caught in the cookie jar, whether it’s censoring Black activists online or being reticent to deal with hate groups. They keep coming in a day late and a dollar short and treating Black people like they’re a PR disaster to deal with.”
In a press release published over Thanksgiving weekend, Facebook’s outgoing head of communications and policy, Elliot Schrage wrote that the company hired Definers to “understand the backgrounds and potential conflicts of interest of our critics.”
“This work can be used internally to inform our messaging and where appropriate it can be shared with reporters,” Schrage wrote. “This work is also useful to help respond to unfair claims where Facebook has been singled out for criticism, and to positively distinguish us from competitors.”
Color of Change has met with Facebook several times and Color of Change’s Johnny Mathias told Motherboard that for years, Facebook has “had access to Color of Change and our allies who are experts in this space,” but the New York Times’s reporting suggests that the company was undermining the group at the same time.
Earlier Tuesday, Facebook agreed to a face-to-face meeting with Color of Change to discuss some of its concerns. Luckie’s memo may give the two groups more to talk about.
Luckie announced in the memo that he was leaving the company in part because of the issues he outlined: "After my departure, I’ll be focusing on rebuilding my life and the further development of my recently launched sci-fi drama podcast," he wrote.
Facebook and Luckie did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Motherboard.
Update: This story has been updated with a comment from Facebook.