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The imperial ambitions of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg

How the social media giant ate the world – and what its creator will do next.

John Wyndham’s novel The Day of the Triffids has an arresting opening sentence: “When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.” It captures the feeling you have when something isn’t quite right – and it was the sensation I had while watching Facebook’s co-founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, give the commencement speech at Harvard University in May last year.

This was Zuckerberg but different. Instead of his trademark jeans and hoody, the 33-year-old billionaire wore a neat, grey-blue suit, white shirt and gently patterned blue tie. Where in the past he would have fidgeted, he gripped the podium on each side – a power-speaker move – lifting one hand or the other emphatically and sparingly. In previous appearances, he had spoken with a questioning intonation, his sentences running together in a furious mumble. Now, he spoke in calm, measured tones. His sentences were spare, his register modern but lyrical, echoing the blend of lawyer and preacher that was the hallmark of Barack Obama’s rhetorical style. Zuckerberg even wept while recounting the story of an undocumented student he’d met who was afraid of deportation. He referred to people as “folks”.

In short, Zuckerberg – the one-time king of the geeks, depicted in David Fincher’s The Social Network as an emotionally stunted workaholic in Adidas flip-flops – delivered a presidential campaign-style speech. Was the Facebook CEO planning to leave the most powerful job in the world to run for the presidency of the United States? And if he did, would he use the awesome power of his social network and its two billion users to help him?

The speech wasn’t the only sign that Zuckerberg was becoming a more assured public figure. Through his multibillion-dollar philanthropic project, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, he has hired two senior Obama advisers, the pollster Joel Benenson and the strategist David Plouffe, and the former vice-president Joe Biden’s press secretary Amy Dudley.

He spent part of 2017 on a tour of the US that took in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire and swing states including North Carolina, Ohio and Michigan. His trip was documented by Charles Ommanney, a photographer who previously worked for Obama’s first presidential election campaign. In 2016, Zuckerberg inserted a special mechanism into Facebook’s stock structure enabling him to take a leave of absence to work in government – if he wanted to – while retaining voting control over the company’s board.

Zuckerberg has changed his position on faith, writing in December 2016 that he was no longer an atheist. This may have been a sincere change of heart, but it was convenient, too. America demands performative religiosity from its public figures; a Gallup poll in 2015 showed that 40 per cent of US voters wouldn’t consider voting for an atheist candidate.

Hiring Plouffe and Benenson “sends a message”, according to Jeff Hauser, the executive director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project, which tracks the links between government and the private sector. “Ordinarily, you hire those people because you’re running for president. And Mark Zuckerberg’s denial that he was running for president rang untrue and seems completely non-genuine.”

Zuckerberg is being trained in public speaking by the same speech coach who once helped Obama. Michael Sheehan first worked with Obama on the then senatorial candidate’s speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention and was a key asset to both Barack and Michelle Obama on the campaign trail and in government.

Sheehan also advises other CEOs, including Eric Schmidt, who is now the chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc. But there was more to Zuckerberg’s Harvard speech than just a new-found confidence: there were policy positions, too, weaved into his story. His core theme, finding a new “purpose” for a new generation, was a candidate’s classic, with its familiar blend of the vapid and the profound. He also floated specific positions, such as universal basic income and online voting.

Zuckerberg claims to have no party affiliation and has donated money to both Republican and Democratic candidates. His largest single donation – $10,000 – was to the San Francisco Democratic Party in 2015. In the 2016 cycle, he donated no money to any campaign or candidate but, since the election, he has spoken out against Donald Trump’s policies, especially the “Muslim travel ban”. In his Harvard speech, Zuckerberg outlined liberal policy positions.

It seemed as if he was in the early stages of an attempt to develop a new niche in the political landscape, trying to reconcile Bernie Sanders-style economic populism with Silicon Valley’s Schumpeterian instinct to disrupt, along with a kind of noblesse oblige.

“Let’s face it,” he said at one point. “There is something wrong with our system when I can leave here and make billions of dollars in ten years while millions of students can’t afford to pay off their loans, let alone start a business.”

Every year, Mark Zuckerberg sets himself a personal challenge. His choices have been eclectic. One year, it was to run a mile every day. Another year, it was to teach himself to speak Mandarin, so that he could talk to the older relatives of his wife, Priscilla Chan, whose parents were ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam. Another year, it was to program his own artificial-intelligence home assistant. His “personal challenge for 2017” was different: it was “to have visited and met people in every state in the US by the end of the year”, Zuckerberg announced last January.

He wasted no time in getting on the road. In January, he went to Texas, where he sat down for a chat with the Dallas police department and attended a rodeo in Fort Worth. In February, Zuckerberg met civil rights activists in Birmingham, Alabama. In March, he visited Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina, the site of a horrifying mass shooting by a white supremacist in 2015. In April, he went to the Midwest and visited a Ford truck plant in Michigan. In June, he visited a farm in Wisconsin, ate Iftar dinner with Somali refugees in Minnesota and met truckers in Iowa.

At a dinner with a unionised steelworker’s family in Ohio – and there may not be another phrase in the English language that says “running for president” for a Democrat quite like “dinner with a unionised steelworker’s family in Ohio” – he said to his hosts, “If there are any news reporters that call you, just make sure you tell them I’m not running for president,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

Which is what you say at this point in the election cycle if you are planning on running for the presidency. “The team he’s assembled is a bit of a giveaway,” says Philip Davies, who runs the Europe, Middle East and Africa operation of the brand strategy firm Siegel+Gale. “Photographed doing lots of wholesome stuff. Driving tractors. Attending churches. Everything but kissing babies, though he did bottle-feed a calf. He’s even worn some ties.”

For Davies, Zuckerberg’s national tour was “a smart way of seeding the notion of a presidential run without having to announce it”. It has put the thought in people’s minds, he says, “so it won’t come as a surprise… Rather, it will make sense
because they have already filtered it.” Among the Facebook CEO’s inner circle, Jeff Hauser of Revolving Door says, “It is commonly understood… that Zuckerberg’s running for president.”

However, there might be another reason for the young billionaire to polish his public image. Just before the 2016 US election, BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman published a story showing how teenagers in Macedonia had gamed Facebook’s algorithm with fake news. It was a “digital gold rush”: the small town of Veles alone was home to more than 140 fake US news sites, running stories with headlines such as “Breaking: proof surfaces that Obama was born in Kenya – Trump was right all along”.

After the election, speculation began that some of the lies that spread during the campaign were not just the result of teenagers exploiting a “gold mine” but part of a Russian campaign to destabilise the country. The deeper the Russia story goes, Hauser says, “The idea that he might be building this team to play defence rather than offence, to protect Facebook rather than take over the presidency, becomes more and more plausible… He is building a team capable of running for president – but it might be to save the brand.”

At first, Zuckerberg’s response to the criticism was a carousel of missteps. Despite a personal entreaty by the then president, Barack Obama, he dismissed the idea that misinformation on Facebook could have affected the election as “crazy”. He retracted the remark after evidence emerged that Russia had paid Facebook to place ads in targeted media markets.

Critical articles began to appear in the American press. One, by Alexis C Madrigal in the Atlantic, carried the headline “What Facebook did to American democracy”. It concluded that the “roots of the electoral system – the news people see, the events they think happened, the information they digest – had been destabilised” by the social media site.

In September, the former FBI director Robert Mueller, now acting as a special investigator looking into Russian interference in the 2016 election, obtained a warrant to gain access to the Russia-linked Facebook ads and details about the accounts that bought them. The company admitted that it had sold $100,000 in ads to accounts “likely operated out of Russia” and handed over information to Mueller.

David Kirkpatrick, the author of The Face­book Effect, points out that being the boss of Facebook is a much better job than being the US president. Yet he also says that Zuckerberg is driven by a deep sense of purpose. “His ambition for the impact of his
life is to make as big a difference as he can in improving the lot of humanity.”

Of course, Zuckerberg doesn’t have to choose. “One of the truisms of politics is often that strategy emerges after the fact,” says Stu Loeser, a long-time political operative who served as press secretary for the former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. He tells the story of Charles E Wilson, the General Motors president who was nominated in 1953 by Dwight Eisenhower to be secretary of defence. Asked during his confirmation hearing about the potential conflict of interest, Wilson responded: “For years, I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.”

“It is not 100 per cent clear that what’s good for Facebook is good for the country,” Loeser adds, “but certainly, what’s good for Facebook’s business is also good for running for president.” Zuckerberg can keep his options open for a White House bid with the same machine that can also help him fight criticism over his handling of Russian propaganda and fake news – and protect the company from the threat of heightened regulation.

That threat is real. Because of the sheer amount of data on the platform, any laws that might force Facebook to examine all of its content could dent its profitability. Added to this, stringent new EU privacy regulations targeting the sale of user data – a cornerstone of Facebook’s business model – are expected to come into force in May.

On 21 September 2017, Zuckerberg issued a mea culpa. “I care deeply about the democratic process and protecting its integrity,” he said on Facebook Live, the company’s video service. “I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy.” Facebook was working with both Mueller and Congress, he said, and conducting its own investigation into Russian interference, while more than 250 new staff would work on election integrity initiatives.

But the narrative had passed beyond his control. US congressional committees summoned Face­book and other social media companies to testify; in the UK, the digital, culture, media and sport select committee also requested details about Russian political adverts during the EU referendum campaign in 2016.

At the end of October, Facebook’s general counsel, Colin Stretch – along with his counterparts from Twitter and Google – sat for his first interrogation by the Senate judiciary committee. “How did Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and instantly transform them into personal connections for its users, somehow not make the connection that electoral ads paid for in roubles were coming from Russia?” the Democrat Al Franken asked, his head in his hands.

The next day, it was the turn of the Senate intelligence committee to question the three men. There the public saw, for the first time, some of the ads that the Russian accounts had purchased. Mark Warner, the committee’s most senior Democrat, attacked Facebook and the others not just for allowing Russia to buy ads but for the whole “dark underbelly of the ecosystem you have created”. Republicans on both committees condemned the social networks, although they were careful not to imply that there was any problem with the election result.

Facebook took the most criticism. However, it was not acting like a company panicked by the spectre of public opprobrium. Instead, it was casually demonstrating its astonishing power over the media.

On 19 October, less than a fortnight before Facebook appeared at the US congressional hearings, journalists at Soy502, a Guatemalan news site, arrived at their office in Guatemala City to find that two-thirds of their audience had vanished overnight. Staff quickly worked out that it was the traffic coming from Facebook that had disappeared. It was “brutal”, says Dina Fernández, a journalist who sits on the publication’s editorial board.

It wasn’t just Soy502. Journalists in Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Slovakia, Serbia and Cambodia had been selected by Facebook to test a new on-screen layout, which moved most news content to a secondary list, away from user’s main feed. The only way to get back in prime position? Pay to promote posts.

“Our journalistic pieces that went viral did so organically, because they were relevant to our community,” Fernández says. With a single tweak, Facebook had taken that away.

In a media industry largely reliant on advertising revenue, the financial threat was clear. Once it became apparent what Facebook had done, there was a backlash. Critics called the move “catastrophic”, “a pay-to-play nightmare” and “downright Orwellian”. As Helen Lewis wrote in the New Statesman, “Facebook could, at any moment, turn off its taps and whole publications would die of thirst.” (In response, Face­book said that there were “currently” no plans to roll out the change worldwide.)

This isn’t the first time that Facebook has turned its users into lab rats. In a trial conducted on 61 million Americans during the 2010 midterm elections, it discovered that adding an “I voted” button at the top of the newsfeed increased turnout by 340,000 votes. In 2012, it conducted a psychological experiment on 700,000 users to see if it could manipulate their emotional state by showing them happy or sad content. It found that it could – although it failed to predict the outrage when, on the study’s publication in 2014, users found out that Facebook had messed with their emotions.

“The possibility that any of these kinds of algorithms could be gamed or manipulated is a major concern,” says Joel Penney, an associate professor of communications and media at Montclair State University in New Jersey. “This is the place where most people are finding out about the world around them, and it’s persuasive in terms of opinion formation.” Facebook, he says, has “more ability to manipulate public opinion than any other media entity that has existed before. Newspapers, broadcast – none of that has the reach of Facebook… There’s an absolute risk that if somebody wanted to abuse that power, there’s a lot of power there to abuse.”

Kirkpatrick, the author of The Facebook Effect, puts it more succinctly. “The reality is that Facebook could determine the winner of any election, in any democratic country.”

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One of Zuckerberg’s favourite books is the Aeneid, Virgil’s epic poem mythologising the founding of Rome. As the Napster co-founder Sean Parker once told the New Yorker, it mirrors a “kind of imperial tendency” in Zuckerberg’s personality. His aim often is not just to succeed but to crush his enemies. Antonio García Martínez, a former Facebook employee, wrote in an article for Vanity Fair in 2016 that when Google tried to muscle in on Facebook’s turf with a social network, Google Plus, in 2011, Zuckerberg put the company into “lockdown” mode. No one was allowed to leave until the threat was vanquished. In a speech to the company, he quoted a line from Cato: “Carthago delenda est.” Carthage must be destroyed. “Facebook was not fucking around,” Martínez wrote. “This was total war.”

In the early days of Silicon Valley, there was “a delusion that the internet would create this endless cycle of start-ups who would dislodge each other”, says Andrew Keen, a Silicon Valley commentator and
the author of How to Fix the Future. But in reality, the internet aided the creation of monopolistic behemoths. “Once they acquire the dominant position, it’s very, very hard to dislodge,” Keen says.

Meanwhile, news publishers have become increasingly reliant on Facebook for their traffic. “Facebook aggregated an audience of two billion people, and then went to the people who make the news and said: ‘Hey, if you want to get to these two billion people, you come through us. And, by the way, we set how much the advertising split is,’” says Jonathan Taplin, the author of Move Fast and Break Things.

An industry emerged devoted to the art of divining the whims of Facebook’s algorithm. For a while, the newsfeed favoured links based on the number of clicks, which led to the proliferation of clickbait headlines (“You won’t BELIEVE what happened next!” and so on). New publications – most notably Upworthy – emerged to take advantage of this new ecosystem.

Facebook was a callous god, however,  and it changed the algorithm, rewarding sites for time spent on an article as well as clicks. Publications whose business model was based on clickbait had to change or die. It wasn’t only publishers who were figuring out how to game the algorithm. Propagandists and political agitators, in Russia and elsewhere, were beginning
to learn as well.

Moisés Naím, a former editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine who is now a distinguished fellow of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me that Facebook has “both market power and political power, melded together by the very nature of the product… a very new and unique kind of corporate power”.

Yet Naím is optimistic about the future and believes that the system will reset itself, aided by the investigation into Russian meddling in the US election. “You have one of the largest, more mature democracies in the world, debating if the results of its last presidential election were legitimate or were interfered [with] by a foreign power, and the interference was facilitated by platforms like Facebook… That’s why I believe it is not sustainable.” For the moment, the current time of transition reminds Naím of the words of the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Mark Zuckerberg may not have intended to create a monster but that is what he has done. The question is: what will he do with it – and what will he do next? 

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old