Once a discreet celebrity, the Facebook CEO is suddenly acting like a politician—one that already seems to divide the nation.
Kenai Peninsula, Alaska. It’s the first days of July 2017, and the temperature hasn’t reached 60 yet. The sky is white, the waves are gray, the earth is black. The landscape would look like a grayscale photo were it not for Mark Zuckerberg’s red backpack planted in the middle of the scene, like boots in cold water. Near the town of Homer, 3,000 miles from the warm California sun, the founder and CEO of Facebook is carrying a fishing rod here, a long knife there.
He’s learning to catch and filet salmon. “I definitely recommend coming here in the summer if you get a chance,” he later wrote on his social network. “It’s absolutely beautiful and having the sun stay up until 11pm is a great experience.”
Zuckerberg takes on at least one personal challenge each year. In 2015, he tried to read “a new book every other week — with an emphasis on learning about other cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies.” In 2016, he built an artificial intelligence to manage his mansion in Palo Alto, ran 365 miles, and learned Mandarin. For 2017, Zuckerberg is visiting all 50 states and meeting the locals within them by the end of the year. “I’ve spent significant time in many states already, so I’ll need to travel to about 30 states this year to complete this challenge,” he wrote in January.
Since then, Zuckerberg has visited 14 states and met many more Americans. Before Alaska and its fishermen, there were Nebraska’s gay pride demonstrators, Iowa’s bus drivers, Minnesota’s hockey players, Wisconsin’s farmers, Indiana’s firemen, Ohio’s opioid addicts, Michigan’s auto plant workers, North Carolina’s soldiers, South Carolina’s faithful, Louisiana’s barbeque chefs, Mississippi’s musicians, Alabama’s Selma Times-Journal journalists, and Texas’ rodeo amateurs.
The tour is being carefully documented on Zuckerberg’s Facebook page, complete with camera shots that look as if they were taken by Pete Souza, Obama’s presidential photographer. Zuckerberg is even being advised by Obama’s former campaign director, David Plouffe. It does look strikingly like a campaign.
As for the text that accompanies the photos, it’s written partly by a communications team that follows his every move. And a lot of them have a distinctly political flavor. Returning from Alaska at the beginning of July, Zuckerberg underlined the fact that the state’s social safety net programs “offer good lessons to the rest of the country.” Upon meeting juvenile delinquents in Indiana in April, he stated that “the penal system constructs and reinforces a negative social environment” for “these children.” In front of the Selma Times-Journal in February, he thanked “all the journalists around the world who work tirelessly and sometimes put their lives in danger to surface the truth.”
David Kirkpatrick, founder of the Techonomy conference and author of The Facebook Effect, thinks that, despite all evidence, it’s unlikely Zuckerberg is considering a run. “I think there are more plausible explanations for his US tour,” he said. “Silicon Valley is cut off from a huge part of the United States, and he decided to meet real Americans. The divide between elites and the masses was a big factor in the election of Donald Trump. Zuckerberg being a highly analytic and pragmatic person, he knows it.”
And Zuckerberg is publicly opposed to some of Trump’s decisions. “My great grandparents came from Germany, Austria and Poland,” he wrote in January, criticizing Trump’s travel ban. “[My wife] Priscilla [Chan]’s parents were refugees from China and Vietnam. The United States is a nation of immigrants, and we should be proud of that.”
In June, after Trump pulled the US out of the Paris climate accord, he wrote: “Withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement is bad for the environment, bad for the economy, and it puts our children’s future at risk.”
But his stances, largely shared across Silicon Valley, don’t stop here. And they constantly feed the rumors of his candidacy.
Mark Zuckerberg may have left Harvard without a degree, but, following the footsteps of J.K. Rowling and Bill Gates, he gave a now-famous commencement speech to its graduating students in May 2017. He took the opportunity to lay out a new social contract for the US. “We should have a society that measures progress not just by economic metrics like GDP, but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful,” he said. “We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things,” he added, recognizing that “giving everyone the freedom to pursue purpose isn’t free,” and concluding that “people like me should pay for it.”
This isn’t the first fantastic promise Zuckerberg has made. (It should be noted that he seems to frequently forget that his own business is regularly critiqued for its tax optimization practices). At their son Max’s birth, he and Priscilla Chan had promised to give away 99% of their shares in Facebook–worth $46 billion—during their lifetimes. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative–the foundation set up to manage their philanthropy–carries the vague slogan of “advancing human potential and promoting equality,” but it does very real work in health, education, and technology.
Among the things highlighted in a 5,800-word letter Zuckerberg published last February: “Connecting everyone to the internet is…necessary for building an informed community. For the majority of people around the world, the debate is not about the quality of public discourse but whether they have access to basic information they need at all, often related to health, education and jobs.”
In the open letter, which the New York Times called “close to a political statement” insomuch as it denounced the rise of protectionism across the globe, Zuckerberg also dwelled on the issues raised by his social network and on what Facebook has done to try to address them.
He pointed out that false news items, or fake news, had generated more traffic on Facebook than real news during the 2016 election. To counter this, the social network established a reporting system, first in the US, then in France, with the help of eight partner outlets: Le Monde, l’Agence France-Presse, BFM-TV, France Télévisions, France Médias Monde, L’Express, Libération and 20 Minutes. This feature allows users to “submit” information they believe to be false. The info is then verified by the partner media. If more than one of them determine that it’s false, the story is flagged, and it can’t be shared without the user seeing a popup alert.
“Mark Zuckerberg is fully aware of the fact that Facebook’s reputation has changed rapidly, and that people now worry more and more about its size and influence,” David Kirkpatrick says. “I don’t think, though, that it knows exactly what to do to remedy or to lessen the destructive power Facebook can have.”
Take terrorist propaganda, for example. The CEO wrote in an open letter that he believes he can eradicate it with artificial intelligence. “Right now, we’re starting to explore ways to use AI to tell the difference between news stories about terrorism and actual terrorist propaganda, so we can quickly remove anyone trying to use our services to recruit for a terrorist organization.”
About four months later, Facebook published an article on the subject. As the journalist Sam Biddle points out, the names of ISIS and Al Qaeda are mentioned 11 times. Those of extreme right American groups are mentioned only once, even after armed men from the groups Oath Keepers and Three Percenters seized a government building in Oregon in 2016, announcing themselves ready to kill.
That has brought some fresh criticism for Facebook and its CEO, whose alleged electoral ambitions are not popular with all Americans.
When Observer journalist Sage Lazzaro published an article on Zuckerberg’s potential run in March 2017, the reaction on Twitter was virulent. “Everyone was replying and quote tweeting along the lines of ‘no no no no no please no,'” she wrote. Many users worried about the kind of advantage his social network would give him in a presidential campaign: “The advantage he’ll have with FB is terrifying.” Others pointed out that the data Facebook collects should not be mixing with public administration: “Makes sense Mark Zuckerberg should run for president. We’ve already given him more of our personal info voluntarily than NSA will ever want.” Still others refused to replace a rich businessman riddled with conflicts of interest—Donald Trump—with another rich businessman with possible conflicts of interest: “Great. Awesome. Cool. Election 2020: ‘Vote for our billionaire shithead, not the other side’s billionaire shithead.’ Can’t wait.”
Sage Lazzaro herself believes it’ll happen. “Maybe there are other explanations for his US tour, but some other things he’s done lately are hard to explain,” she says. “He made it clear he’s not an atheist. Then he wrote the 5,800-word manifesto which reads like a State of the Union address. And finally—most importantly—he rewrote Facebook’s statutes in such a way that he could continue running it even if he’s elected to a governmental post or the presidency.” A 2020 campaign entry does appear at least possible: “It wouldn’t be the ideal year for Mark Zuckerberg, but I don’t see why he’d be doing all this if he wanted to wait.” In any case, it’s probably not going to cut it. “After Donald Trump, the people are going to be pretty reticent to the idea of another billionaire president.”
David Kirkpatrick agrees. Despite his friendly image, “Americans will probably see him as a product of the West Coast liberal elite. That’s probably not where people will want to turn after Trump.”
Keith Spencer also draws the parallel to Donald Trump. He calls attention to the fact that “the idea that the rich, by the sole means of their richness, are so-called experts—not only in business, but in every area,” is becoming increasingly contagious in “our market-obsessed society.”
“This is why Zuckerberg, who has no education experience whatsoever, believed he could save Newark public schools with an $88 billion donation that came with many conditions,” he says. “The mayor, Cory Booker, was perfectly happy to play along. No need to point out that the whole project was a spectacular failure.”
Internet users nevertheless highlight the differences of opinion and lifestyle between Mark Zuckerberg and Donald Trump, usually with a bit of humor. “The difference between Mark Zuckerberg and Donald Trump is that one is intelligent and philanthropic while the other is president,” wrote one Twitter user. “Mark Zuckerberg running for president and winning will be the final ceremony to mark the transition of power from banks to Silicon Valley,” wrote another.
But the entrepreneur denied his presidential pretensions. Twice. “I’m focused on building our community at Facebook and working on the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative,” he wrote last January, when the rumor was just starting to swell. “Some of you have asked if [my] challenge means I’m running for public office. I’m not,” he insisted in May. “I’m doing it to get a broader perspective to make sure we’re best serving our community (…) at Facebook and doing the best work to promote equal opportunity at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.”