Do we really want Mark Zuckerberg to run the world?
The question is almost a year old, and not currently being asked in quite the feverish way it was over the summer. But let’s try it again: could Mark Zuckerberg run for US president? The founder, chairman and CEO of Facebook began 2017 by announcing his latest “challenge”: a pledge to visit the 30 US states he had never spent time in before, which has now been achieved. Along the way, he has made a point of meeting Trump voters, sampling the mood in post-industrial backwaters, and seeing at first hand evidence of his country’s opioid crisis. He now talks about the importance of community, and the need for his generation to find a collective sense of purpose, rather suggesting the leading actor in a school play about Bobby Kennedy.
“Some of you have asked if this challenge means I’m running for public office,” he wrote back in May. The previous month, he had dinner with a Trump-supporting family in Newton Falls, Ohio, who didn’t seem to mind that he brought his own food and a retinue of aides, and were reportedly told: “If there are any news reporters that call you, just make sure you tell them I’m not running for president.” There again, we also know that close associates have spoken to him about “the gov’t service thing” and how his embrace of it might play with Facebook’s shareholders; that his charity has hired a handful of Washington insiders, including David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign manager; and that he has taken the strange step of publicly renouncing his atheism.
For the time being, though, Zuckerberg’s possible political ambitions are not really the issue. Far more important is what we know already: that his power is titanic, and Facebook is shaping millions of people’s understanding of who they are and their place in the world, often in grim ways.
To be more specific, Facebook’s promotion of “fake news” remains a huge issue. The story of its manipulation by geopolitical forces – Russia, chiefly – that see it as an effective means of shaping the world has only started to be exposed. Facebook’s weakening of the traditional fourth estate continues apace, with profound consequences for how power is held to account, not least in Facebook’s own case.
Meanwhile, nothing appears to have shaken Zuckerberg and his close associates’ dream of a communication platform that will collect such a huge volume of personal information that it will become a kind of ever-expanding global brain – and, as an added bonus, the only reliable means of marketing things to people.
Staring at a face whose expression somehow seems to combine deep awkwardness with an unquenchable optimism, presumably traceable to the fact that Zuckerberg is now rich beyond the dreams of avarice, I have often wondered: how does he understand all this?
For all that his company is a byword for the future, Zuckerberg is something of a throwback to the political past. It’s often said that fame freezes people’s development at the age they first become well known; as with many of the stars of Silicon Valley, there is something of the same syndrome with him. When Facebook launched, in 2004, the global crash was four years away, and wealthy and successful liberals could still cling with confidence to the credo that had defined much of the preceding decade: a mixture of the fuzzy philanthropy decisively introduced to the culture by Live Aid, mixed with the closely related politics pioneered by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.
In this vision, boosted by digital utopianism, globalization was great, liberalized capitalism was a given, and just about everything difficult – from the power of finance capital, through deindustrialization to global warming and the stubborn persistence of racism – could be either overcome by simple goodwill, or safely ignored. Notwithstanding 9/11 and the start of the Iraq war, all of this would have sat comfortably with a 19-year-old about to make his fortune and change the world. Thirteen years on, it evidently still does. (To instantly grasp Facebook’s ties to the failed liberal politics of the 1990s, always remember that its chief operating officer is Sheryl Sandberg, who was a high-up in Bill Clinton’s administration and remains a good friend of Hillary, once tipped as her running mate.)
Zuckerberg’s new sense of mission was laid out in the commencement address this Harvard dropout delivered at his alma mater in May. He wants to stop climate change. He intends to be part of a generation “that ends poverty, that ends disease”. He talks about “a level of wealth inequality that hurts everyone”, and says he “wants 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 talks about being on the side of “freedom, openness and global community” against “authoritarianism, isolationism and nationalism”. But every word highlights the same absence. The ends seem nice. What of the means?
In Zuckerberg’s case, the sense of liberal cant is made even more glaring by the contradictions that swirl around him. As he sketches out his nebulous utopia, he says: “People like me should pay for it.” But he makes no mention of his company’s questionable record on tax, instead emphasizing his belief in charity. He affects to worry about social and political polarization while the very algorithms that power his platform encourage it. He superficially sets himself against the global forces of reaction while they make merry on his servers.
And though Facebook’s continuing travails have evidently rattled him, he inevitably has no sense that its ethos and operations need any reining-in. Quite the reverse, in fact. Judging from his recent pronouncements in response to the way that society and politics have become more divided and fractious, Zuckerberg wants Facebook “to develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us”.
He thinks there is a small subset of Facebook’s 2 billion users who make up “meaningful communities” on the platform, and that via a reinvention of Facebook’s Groups, more of us should follow their example. All this is as vague as everything else, but it boils down to something captured in a headline from Wired magazine: “Mark Zuckerberg’s answer to a world divided by Facebook is more Facebook”.
If his rhetoric were merely a front for the cynical pursuit of profit, Zuckerberg and his minions might sooner or later recognize its essential absurdity and back off. But it’s much worse than that, for reasons beautifully captured in Chaos Monkeys, a recently published memoir by a former insider called Antonio García Martínez. “Facebook is full of true believers who really, really, really are not doing it for the money,” he writes, “and really, really will not stop until every man, woman and child on earth is staring into a blue-framed window with a Facebook logo … The greedy man can always be bought at some price or another, and his behaviour is predictable. The true zealot? He can’t be had at any price, and there’s no telling what his mad visions will have him and his followers do.”
Two thoughts arise from that. First, why would Zuckerberg bother with a parochial distraction such as the presidency when he has the power to make his hubristic dreams a global reality? Second, given that the liberal delusions of the recent past are a big part of the reason the world finds itself in such a mess, have any grownups recently sat him down and reminded him that, as we used to say in the 20th century, the road to hell is paved with good intentions?
- By: John Harris, a Guardian columnist