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6 November 2019updated 01 Jul 2021 5:28am

The real reason for Mark Zuckerberg’s charm offensive? He’s scared of Elizabeth Warren

The Facebook founder has been on a “transparency tour” to try to shore up his company’s image – but leaked boardroom comments reveal that in private he sees Warren as an “existential threat.”

By Nicky Woolf

You would be forgiven for thinking, after a rocky couple of years which included – arguably – destroying global democracy, that Mark Zuckerberg might take something of a break.

But no: Zuck’s back. Recently it was confirmed that he has been advising Democratic presidential primary contender Pete Buttigieg over email on staffing hires for his campaign. On his recommendation, Buttigieg hired senior digital analytics adviser Eric Mayefsky and organising data manager Nina Wornhoff. 

He’s not just offering advice but getting stuck into the fray himself, swinging in the face of calls from other 2020 candidates to break up big tech monopolies and regulate Silicon Valley. The 35-year-old Facebook founder has been on a “transparency tour” of TV shows and press conferences in recent weeks, including a bizarre Fox News appearance in which he defended the existence of billionaires – Zuckerberg is himself worth $70 billion (£54 billion) – as “people who do really good things and kind of help a lot of other people. And you get well compensated for that.”

“Some people think that, okay, well the issue or the way to deal with this sort of accumulation of wealth is, ‘Let’s just have the government take it all … and now the government can basically decide all of the medical research that gets done,” he added. “I certainly feel responsible for how our platforms are used,” Zuckerberg told NBC’s Lester Holt in another interview. “They’re used in a lot of different ways … [it’s] going to be studied by academics and historians for a long time to come, what the overall effect is.” He concluded, a little weakly: “There are a lot of effects.”

That’s putting it somewhat mildly. Anger at Facebook and its founder has steadily increased into what is now being called a “techlash,” as the sheer scale of the political catastrophe his platform allowed and enabled became clear, especially after the report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller detailed with stunning clarity how core Facebook was to a concerted campaign by Russia to disrupt and interfere with the 2016 presidential election. 

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But in a long livestreamed address to Georgetown university students on 17 October, Zuckerberg struck a defiant tone. His address was defensive, filled with vague allusions to the importance of “free speech” and bromides like “I believe in giving people a voice because at the end of the day I believe in people.” This defensiveness is because, apart from his email exchanges with Buttigieg – who, politically, represents the centrist end of the Democratic party spectrum – Zuckerberg and Facebook have emerged as something of a bête noire for the progressives, like Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, who currently dominate the primary field.

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Zuckerberg testified again last Wednesday before the House Financial Services Committee about Facebook’s impact on the housing and financial services sectors. In 2018, he survived being dragged in front of the US Senate relatively unscathed; the stand-out moment of that long-awaited testimony was his answer to a dismally obvious question about his site’s business model, “senator; we sell ads.” In fact, Facebook stock jumped so much during that hearing that Zuckerberg’s personal fortune jumped $4 billion. His performance before the House last week was, similarly, largely undamaging – though Facebook’s recently-announced plan to launch its own cryptocurrency, named Libra, took a battering.

Nonetheless, it is the looming prospect of a progressive Democratic president, especially Warren, which is likely much more troubling to Zuckerberg. On October 1, The Verge published comments he made in a Facebook board meeting describing Warren as an “existential threat” to the company and saying “it would suck for us” if she won. 

Warren, who along with her progressive competitor, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, has long called for breaking up the big tech companies, struck back: “What would really ‘suck’,” she tweeted, “is if we don’t fix a corrupt system that lets giant companies like Facebook engage in illegal anticompetitive practices, stomp on consumer privacy rights, and repeatedly fumble their responsibility to protect our democracy.”

She has continued to attack. On October 12, she announced that her campaign had run a test by submitting an advertisement that contained false claims – in this case, that Zuckerberg had personally endorsed Trump for reelection – and it had been accepted by Facebook. This, she said, proved that Facebook was “explicitly … a disinformation-for-profit machine.”

This focus on ads may be missing the bigger picture. As Recode’s Peter Kafka pointed out, while Zuckerberg took a grilling from reporters a press conference Monday about Facebook’s “election preparedness” on the question of whether he should allow advertising containing demonstrable lies, he was not asked once about Russian interference – despite his company having just announced that it had discovered more ongoing operations on its platform by groups tied to Russia and Iran. 

Those groups, Facebook said, had been taken down. But the wider point is that the same attacks and pro-Trump interference that proved so effective in 2016 are already happening again. Zuckerberg’s defensiveness may be a sign that, ultimately, he and his company are unwilling to take the more drastic steps required to fully prevent them – especially if, as he himself said, the result of a Democratic victory in 2020 would “suck” for him.