Sometimes in business, a hand grenade lands in your lap. You know that grabbing hold of it will be perilous – but you can’t ignore it.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, was left such an incendiary problem when Donald Trump posted on the world’s largest social network about the protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” the US President wrote, tastelessly invoking the words of bigoted 1960’s white police chief Walter Headley.

When Trump had posted the same message on Twitter, the platform responded quickly by hiding the tweet behind a label warning that it glorified violence and stopped it being shared.

Zuckerberg had a crisis on his hands that left him balancing ethics, political interests, PR, internal communications and employer brand.

Censor the message and be attacked by Trump. Leave the message up and anger millions of Americans, including his own employees. Was the post tolerable in a land of free speech? Or was it incitement to violence at a time of intense civil unrest?

His dilemma was further complicated by his long-standing insistence that Facebook is a platform, not a publisher.

Twitter’s swift and decisive action piled on the pressure. Messaging app Snapchat followed suit, refusing to promote the President’s account because it would “not amplify voices who incite racial violence”.

Zuckerberg tried to steer a middle course, writing that while he had a personal “visceral negative reaction” to Trump’s sentiments, he (Zuckerberg) was also the leader of an institution dedicated to free speech.

This did not play well. The argument did nothing to assuage the anger of civil rights leaders, the American people or his employees. Four hundred staff staged a virtual walkout and two resigned. Senior leaders in the business called for Zuckerberg to change his mind and remove the post.

In a bid to win them round, Zuckerberg held a virtual Q&A for 25,000 Facebook employees where he reiterated that it had been a tough call.

He took questions from employees, including one who asked if any black people were involved in his decision. Zuckerberg confirmed that one – but only one – had been among the small group who took the call, according to US news site Vox.

Zuckerberg said Facebook would not take a knee-jerk decision on the Trump post and said it was considering labelling posts, rather than taking them down. He pleaded that policies needed time to develop.

But the man who became a world powerbroker by inventing the social network – ironically the very medium that sped up communications – has discovered that time is the one thing you can’t buy in an explosive crisis.

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