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Zuck’s “Political Awakening”? Not So Fast

The Facebook CEO points to last year’s primaries as the moment he had a “political awakening.” But do his actions—and words—reflect that?

Zuck’s “Political Awakening”? Not So Fast
[Photo: Flickr user Alessio Jacona]

Since January, we’ve seen story after story offer speculation about whether Mark Zuckerberg will make a bid for the presidency. It won’t surprise you, then, that a Bloomberg profile of the Facebook CEO published Thursday spilled a lot of ink on Zuckerberg’s politicking. One thing we learned was that his “political awakening,” as the story calls it, only took root in early 2016.

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“I guess it was while the primaries were going on,” he says. Trump was on the ascent, thanks to a nationalist message Zuckerberg saw as an attack on the global connectivity Facebook has long promoted. Similar movements were gaining ground in Europe.

On the surface, this rings true: Zuckerberg has grown more overtly political, from pledging his support for DACA—even responding to individual anti-immigration comments on Facebook—to making hires like former Obama advisors David Plouffe and Joel Benenson (the latter of whom, you might recall, was responsible for Hillary Clinton’s beleaguered 2016 campaign).

Zuckerberg says his desire—expressed in a plan he approved this summer—to maintain control of the company should he leave to serve the government relates more to an interest in “a temporary role in government related to technology or science.” But I’m not totally convinced of Zuckerberg’s political awareness, let alone any presidential aspirations, despite how pundits might view his actions and words since 2016. Let’s review:

His listening tour is (probably) mostly a ploy to get more people on Facebook

Oft-cited as proof of his political aspirations is Zuckerberg’s “listening tour,” which he announced in January as his personal challenge for 2017. “After a tumultuous last year, my hope for this challenge is to get out and talk to more people about how they’re living, working and thinking about the future,” he wrote at the time. He’s done exactly that, according to Bloomberg:

Since January, Zuckerberg has been on a tour of America that seems designed to combat those perceptions. He’s done laps at a Nascar track in North Carolina, sat in a big rig at a truck stop in Iowa, and jawed with workers at a fracking site in North Dakota. The ongoing road trip, organized in part by David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s former campaign manager and the head of policy and advocacy at Zuckerberg’s philanthropic organization, is being documented by a former presidential photographer for Newsweek. Much of the time on these trips, he’s accompanied by private security guards who resemble Secret Service agents.

It might appear Zuckerberg realized the gated community of Silicon Valley isn’t representative of the rest of the country, but his tour is also just good for business.

As Bloomberg notes repeatedly, Facebook has caught a lot of flak from Washington, most recently for selling $100,000 in political ads to accounts with ties to Russia. There’s also the fake news problem that has plagued Facebook since the election. And before the election, Facebook’s curation process was accused of having a liberal bias.

Zuckerberg’s tour is an attempt to both save face and put a face to the Facebook machine—and pick up some new Facebook users along the way. He also claims it’s just a personal challenge, another in an annual tradition that is, at this point, as much a publicity stunt as it is a genuine attempt at self-improvement.

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During the interview he insists his travels have been about personal discovery, not politics. Zuckerberg is a relentless self-improver who undertakes an annual personal challenge. One year he learned Mandarin; another year he built his own artificial intelligence bot, getting Morgan Freeman to provide the voice. This year was about getting in good with the flyover states. “Wouldn’t it be better,” he asks with a sly smile, “if it was actually an accepted thing for people to want to go understand how other people were living?”

He just realized Facebook is controversial

Judging by his comments in the Bloomberg piece, Zuckerberg is seemingly unaware of how the public has received Facebook for some time.

“I mean, for most of the existence of the company, this idea of connecting the world has not been a controversial thing,” he told Bloomberg. “Something changed.”

He’s referring, of course, to the nationalist platform that Trump rode into the White House. But it seems like Zuckerberg doesn’t realize that the idea of “connecting the world”–or, at the very least, the way it has manifested through Facebook’s platform–has long given people pause.

For years, the company has been accused of violating user privacy and trust. Just a few months back, Facebook was slammed with a $122 million fine from the European Union, after Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp had started sharing data with Facebook. The company’s Free Basics program, providing developing countries with free access to Facebook, has been blasted as a kind of digital colonialism. Facebook has also been found in violation of data protection rules in multiple EU countries, and has been the target of innumerable antitrust allegations.

Wanting to connect the world is a lovely sentiment, but Facebook’s execution of it is has been nothing if not controversial. And yet it’s as if the founder of the company is only now figuring this out. Yesterday—a full week after Facebook acknowledged the Russian ads and ProPublica reported that it had purchased ads targeted at users who listed interests like “Jew hater”–Zuckerberg posted a Facebook Live video outlining the ways in which the company will “protect election integrity.” (Most notably, he said, Facebook will hand over 3,000 Russia-bought ads to Congress, make political advertising more transparent, and be more stringent about its ad review process.)

He thinks nationalism is a response to a lack of community—but his answer is to make Facebook more siloed

The biggest complaint lodged against Facebook after the election was that its algorithms had turned the platform into an echo chamber, which was in turn responsible for the proliferation of fake news. Zuckerberg—who has long trumpeted the positive impact of Facebook on democracy—famously derided the claims that fake news on Facebook might have played a role in the election as “a pretty crazy idea.” Later, he walked that back, started talking more about the problem (including with Fast Company for an April cover story), and eventually announced his tour.

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In a 6,000-word open letter in February, he made the case that a lack of community might be responsible for the rise of nationalism, and he announced that Facebook would be investing more in its Groups feature. From Bloomberg:

The rising popularity of nationalism, he now argues, wasn’t caused by the economic stagnation in rural areas Trump has pointed to, but rather by a kind of social stagnation. Since the 1970s, Zuckerberg observes, membership in community groups such as churches and youth sports leagues has declined.

. . . In surveys of users, only 100 million people told Facebook they use the site to connect with groups they find “meaningful.” In almost any other context on Earth that would be an enormous population, but it’s only 5 percent of Facebook’s user base. Zuckerberg finds the figure disappointing and has told employees they should seek to increase the level tenfold. “It’ll take years,” he says, “but if we can get to a billion more people in meaningful groups online, that will reverse the decline in community membership and start strengthening the social fabric again.”

If that’s part of his political platform, it’s not very convincing. It sounds like a way to make Facebook even more polarized and siloed. Is that really what we need in a country already divided by news feeds?

He doesn’t get why people don’t view his actions as “expansive benevolence”

The through line of Bloomberg‘s story is that Zuckerberg is, well, peeved about how people interpret his actions. That’s most obvious in the following section:

Throughout the interview, he seems irritated that his actions could be viewed as anything other than expansive benevolence. “We’re in a pretty unique position, and we want to do the most good we can,” he says of Facebook. “There’s this myth in the world that business interests are not aligned with people’s interests. And I think more of the time than people want to admit, that’s not true. I think that they are pretty aligned.”

In other words, Zuckerberg means well, and he doesn’t understand why Facebook’s users (and critics) can’t accept that. But as any politician can tell you, actions don’t always reflect intention—and intention doesn’t always translate to the right action.

In an article in January, Bloomberg dared to disclose that Zuckerberg has a team of handlers who help manage his personal Facebook page. The story was neither surprising nor the least bit scandalous, and yet Zuckerberg—we learn from yesterday’s interview—is still harboring resentment about the report. Does that sound like a man who’s ready to gun for the presidency?

About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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