As Facebook grapples with a backlash over its role in spreading disinformation, an internal dispute over how to handle the threat and the public outcry is resulting in the departure of a senior executive.
The impending exit of that executive — Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief information security officer — reflects heightened leadership tension at the top of the social network. Much of the internal disagreement is rooted in how much Facebook should publicly share about how nation states misused the platform and debate over organizational changes in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, according to current and former employees briefed on the matter.
Mr. Stamos, who plans to leave Facebook by August, had advocated more disclosure around Russian interference of the platform and some restructuring to better address the issues, but was met with resistance by colleagues, said the current and former employees. In December, Mr. Stamos’s day-to-day responsibilities were reassigned to others, they said.
Mr. Stamos said he would leave Facebook but was persuaded to stay through August to oversee the transition of his responsibilities and because executives thought his departure would look bad, the people said. He has been overseeing the transfer of his security team to Facebook’s product and infrastructure divisions. His group, which once had 120 people, now has three, the current and former employees said.
Mr. Stamos would be the first high-ranking employee to leave Facebook since controversy over disinformation on its site. Company leaders — including Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer — have struggled to address a growing set of problems, including Russian interference on the platform, the rise of false news and the disclosure over the weekend that 50 million of its user profiles had been harvested by Cambridge Analytica, a voter-profiling company.
The developments have taken a toll internally, said the seven people briefed on the matter, who asked not to be identified because the proceedings were confidential. Some of the company’s executives are weighing their own legacies and reputations as Facebook’s image has taken a beating. Several believe the company would have been better off saying little about Russian interference and note that other companies, such as Twitter, which have stayed relatively quiet on the issue, have not had to deal with as much criticism.
One central tension at Facebook has been that of the legal and policy teams versus the security team. The security team generally pushed for more disclosure about how nation states had misused the site, but the legal and policy teams have prioritized business imperatives, said the people briefed on the matter.
“The people whose job is to protect the user always are fighting an uphill battle against the people whose job is to make money for the company,” said Sandy Parakilas, who worked at Facebook enforcing privacy and other rules until 2012 and now advises a nonprofit organization called the Center for Humane Technology, which is looking at the effect of technology on people.
Mr. Stamos said in statement on Monday, “These are really challenging issues, and I’ve had some disagreements with all of my colleagues, including other executives.” On Twitter, he said he was “still fully engaged with my work at Facebook” and acknowledged that his role has changed, without addressing his future plans.
Facebook did not have a comment on the broader issues around Mr. Stamos’s departure.
Mr. Stamos joined Facebook from Yahoo in June 2015. He and other Facebook executives, such as Ms. Sandberg, disagreed early on over how proactive the social network should be in policing its own platform, said the people briefed on the matter. In his statement, Mr. Stamos said his relationship with Ms. Sandberg was “productive.”
Mr. Stamos first put together a group of engineers to scour Facebook for Russian activity in June 2016, the month the Democratic National Committee announced it had been attacked by Russian hackers, the current and former employees said.
By November 2016, the team had uncovered evidence that Russian operatives had aggressively pushed DNC leaks and propaganda on Facebook. That same month, Mr. Zuckerberg publicly dismissed the notion that fake news influenced the 2016 election, calling it a “pretty crazy idea.”
In the ensuing months, Facebook’s security team found more Russian disinformation and propaganda on its site, according to the current and former employees. By the spring of 2017, deciding how much Russian interference to disclose publicly became a major source of contention within the company.
Mr. Stamos pushed to disclose as much as possible, while others including Elliot Schrage, Facebook’s vice president of communications and policy, recommended not naming Russia without more ironclad evidence, said the current and former employees.
A detailed memorandum Mr. Stamos wrote in early 2017 describing Russian interference was scrubbed for mentions of Russia and winnowed into a blog post last April that outlined, in hypothetical terms, how Facebook could be manipulated by a foreign adversary, they said. Russia was only referenced in a vague footnote. That footnote acknowledged that Facebook’s findings did not contradict a declassified January 2017 report in which the director of national intelligence concluded Russia had sought to undermine United States election, and Hillary Clinton in particular.
Mr. Stamos said in his statement that “we decided that the responsible thing to do would be to make clear that our findings were consistent with those released by the U.S. intelligence community, which clearly connected the activity in their report to Russian state-sponsored actors.”
But Facebook’s decision to omit Russia backfired. Weeks later, a Time magazine article revealed that Russia had created fake accounts and purchased fake ads to spread propaganda on the platform, allegations that Facebook initially denied.
By last September, after Mr. Stamos’s investigation had revealed further Russian interference, Facebook was forced to reverse course. That month, the company disclosed that beginning in June 2015, Russians had paid Facebook $ 100,000 to run roughly 3,000 divisive ads to show the American electorate.
In response, lawmakers like Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the intelligence committee, said that although Facebook’s revelation was a good first step, “I’m disappointed it’s taken 10 months of raising this issue before they’ve become much more transparent.”
And the revelation also prompted more attention into how Russians had manipulated the social network. Last October and November, Facebook was grilled in front of lawmakers on Capitol Hill for Russian meddling on its platform, along with executives from Twitter and YouTube.
The public reaction caused some at Facebook to recoil at revealing more, said the current and former employees. Since the 2016 election, Facebook has paid unusual attention to the reputations of Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg, conducting polls to track how they are viewed by the public, said Tavis McGinn, who was recruited to the company last April and headed the executive reputation efforts through September 2017.
Mr. McGinn, who now heads Honest Data, which has done polling about Facebook’s reputation in different countries, said Facebook is “caught in a Catch-22.”
“Facebook cares so much about its image that the executives don’t want to come out and tell the whole truth when things go wrong,” he said. “But if they don’t, it damages their image.”
Mr. McGinn said he left Facebook after becoming disillusioned with the company’s conduct.
By December 2017, Mr. Stamos, who reports to Facebook’s general counsel, proposed that he report directly to higher-ups. Facebook executives rejected that proposal and instead reassigned Mr. Stamos’s team, splitting the security team between its product team, overseen by Guy Rosen, and infrastructure team, overseen by Pedro Canahuati, according to current and former employees.
Apart from managing a small team of engineers in San Francisco, Mr. Stamos has largely been left as Facebook’s security communicator. Last month, he appeared as Facebook’s representative at the Munich Security Conference.
Over the weekend, after news broke that Cambridge Analytica had harvested data on as many as 50 million Facebook users, Facebook’s communications team encouraged Mr. Stamos to tweet in defense of the company, but only after it asked to approve Mr. Stamos’s tweets, according to two people briefed on the incident.
After the tweets set off a furious response, Mr. Stamos deleted them.
Roger B. McNamee, an early investor in Facebook who said he considered himself a mentor to Mr. Zuckerberg, said the company was failing to face the fundamental problems posed by the Russian meddling and other manipulation of content.
“I told them, ‘Your business is based on trust, and you’re losing trust,’” said Mr. McNamee, a founder of the Center for Humane Technology. “They were treating it as a P.R. problem, when it’s a business problem. I couldn’t believe these guys I once knew so well had gotten so far off track.”