Rifts Break Open at Facebook Over Kavanaugh Hearing

Rifts Break Open at Facebook Over Kavanaugh Hearing

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Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president for global public policy, left, sat two rows behind Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh at his testimony in Congress last week. They are longtime friends.CreditCreditPool photo by Jim Bourg

SAN FRANCISCO — “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, Mr. Kaplan had sat behind his friend, Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, President 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. Mr. 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 Judge 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 Mr. Kaplan was a close friend of Judge 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 Mr. Kaplan’s appearance at the hearing. In a post on 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 on Friday to contain the damage, said the current and former employees.

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 Judge Kavanaugh’s side, Mr. Kaplan essentially appeared to choose a political side that goes against the views of Facebook’s largely liberal work force.

Many employees also viewed it as a statement: Mr. Kaplan believed Mr. Kavanaugh’s side of the story rather than Dr. Blasey’s testimony. That felt especially hurtful to Facebook employees who were also sexual assault survivors, many of whom began sharing their own #MeToo stories internally.

“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 on Thursday.

joined the company in a policy role in 2011 and heads up the social network’s Washington office. He had been hired to help counterbalance Facebook’s perception as left-leaning.

Tweets about Mr. 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 Mr. Kaplan there, front and center?

“Let’s assume for a minute that our VP of Policy understands how senate hearings work,” one program manager said in a post about Mr. 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 Mr. Kaplan, a former Marine who once clerked for two conservative justices.

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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: One Face, Among Many at Hearing, Causes a Rift at Facebook