Despite Mark Zuckerberg’s numerous denials, few seem to believe that the Facebook chief is not running for president, with speculation fueled by his recent resolution to visit every U.S. state this year, starting with flyover swing states like Ohio and Iowa.
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Perhaps it’s due to his stop at the same Ohio milkshake joint where Mitt Romney campaigned; or his statement that he now finds religion important after being a declared atheist; or maybe it’s the rash of recent hirings of former Democratic political aides, including a former Obama photographer and Clinton campaign manager, to his team — but whatever it is, commentators across the political spectrum just can’t seem to shake the idea of a Zuckerberg run in 2020.
As a recent New York Post opinion piece argued, with Donald Trump in the White House it seems “every billionaire businessman is suddenly an armchair president.” And indeed, picking a purportedly liberal-leaning 33-year-old billionaire to counter Trump seems like a logical response to THE populist mogul’s upset win. However, fantasizing about Zuckerberg 2020 is a bad idea, and one that could pose no less of a threat to American democracy than Trump’s omnishambles of a presidency.
Why? Just imagine how the last election would have looked like if Trump actually owned Twitter.
Unlike your annoying friend struggling to get “likes” for their new business page, Zuckerberg enjoys an unfair advantage on Facebook, to say the least. Meanwhile, the site’s centrality in the media market is only becoming further entrenched.
Over 79 percent of Americans have Facebook and 51 percent say they use it to get some part of their news, according to the latest Reuters Institute Digital News Report. However, we know very few details about how the site is really run or what considerations inform the algorithm curating our news feed.
Indeed, Facebook is not big on transparency and we can only assume the same of Mark given the lack of information about him. Moreover, what we do know about Facebook isn’t great.
A recent report by ProPublica shed much needed light on Facebook’s hate speech algorithm, the foundation of its censorship policy and a good gauge of Zuckerberg’s ethical fault lines. It found that “the company’s hate-speech rules tend to favor elites and governments over grassroots activists and racial minorities. In so doing, they serve the business interests of the global company, which relies on national governments not to block its service to their citizens.”
“From Black Lives Matter in the United States, to journalists in Palestine, Facebook’s lack of transparency has resulted in reports of censorship on almost a weekly basis,” a civil rights activist in the U.S. claimed last year, after a coalition of groups including the ACLU sent Facebook an open letter demanding it stop agreeing to police requests to remove videos documenting alleged brutality.
Indeed, Facebook doesn’t always do its business in broad daylight, most recently launching a spinoff to their Moments app in China called Colorful Balloons which bears no sign of its mother brand. Surprised you’ve never heard it? Don’t be. Facebook didn’t report it and the app was launched with no press from Menlo Park.
Facebook’s guidelines for moderators, leaked to The Guardian this May, reveal a similar pattern of self-preservation at the expense of wider ethical considerations. Among other things, the leak showed that the social media giant only takes down content flagged as Holocaust denial if the country it was posted in could pursue legal action against it, a far cry from the responsibility old world publishers like newspapers are used to taking.
If Facebook was a country, one could say it has a somewhat checkered censorship record, one that extends to critics as much as competitors. The Israeli site Mizbala claimed it was banned from Facebook, with anyone attempting to share a link from it being told that the website was “deemed unsafe.” Tsu.co, a rapidly growing social media site which Facebook decided was an online pyramid scheme, was also banned from the site and even reports on the ban could not be shared, not even in private messages. The ban was eventually lifted, but only after an outcry from the tech community.
Only this week, an artist from California who put up anti-Zuckerberg posters was reportedly banned from Facebook for his “Fuck Zuck 2020” campaign, which Facebook deemed “hate speech”: “Imagine if your phone company shut off your phone because they disagreed with your political opinion,” he tweeted.
Yet, even those banned from the site many times choose to stay active on it, simply because they cannot afford to leave if they want to stay relevant. And that is exactly the problem: Facebook is too central and its powers too broad to be enlisted for the benefit of any one person.
He could use his brand’s reach to leverage his own political aspirations, talking directly with his almost 95 million followers in much the same way Trump uses Twitter. In addition that fear, we have little to no assurances that Zuckerberg would not abuse the access he enjoys to Facebook’s data to advance his cause.
Facebook is essentially a pollster’s fantasy, a perfectly organized book of potential voters, all divided into neat categories of names, interests, affiliations and more — and that’s just the information we know about.
A potential presidential candidate, Zuckerberg would have unfettered access to voter data unlike any candidate before him. Facebook uses this data for its own purposes, but what’s to stop the Zuck from using this data to cater to different voters concerns, curating for each the news feed they need to secure a vote for him in November 2020?
With Facebook at his fingertips, Zuckerberg could easily silence critics without us even knowing about it because it would never even break into our news feed.
Claims of Zuckerberg’s anti-democratic tendencies may seem speculative or exaggerated, but it seems the young CEO does not even believe in boardroom democracy, recently cementing his status as the company’s controlling shareholder even if he has to give up his majority shares, due to say some unforeseen political opportunity.
All this jives quite well with Zuckerberg’s purported liberalism, for though he does seem to swing in favor of liberal causes — most notably immigration — he is part of a technological elite that subscribes to a point of view dubbed the “California ideology.” The term, coined by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, described the Silicon Valley outlook as “dotcom neoliberalism,” an ideology that mixes ideas from both the left and the right, combing “the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies.” This is a culture that fetishizes technology as an almost messianic force of personal and economic liberation, and values individual liberties above all else, be it democracy or human rights.
Indeed, if Facebook was a country, Zuckerberg would be seen less as its president and more as its philosopher king. When his daughter was born, he published an open letter to her announcing he will give away 99 percent of all his stock throughout his lifetime. Like a king from the bible he bestowed unto us his wealth in honor of the birth of a new princess, and to her he gaveth a better world.
Judging by his recent pledges to “cure all diseases” and hook up the entire world to the internet, it seems he is as prone to delusions of self-grandeur as Trump is and thinks of himself as more of a god than a CEO or president.
So is it wise to allow the man regulating the ebb and flow of access to news to try to hold one of the most powerful political positions in the world, one which requires the greatest scrutiny by the media and the lion’s share of its resources? Judging by how little we know about Zuckerberg’s real politics and what we do know about the way he runs his company, the answer is an emphatic no.
Omer Benjakob is a news editor at Haaretz. He holds a B.A. in political science and philosophy and is pursuing an M.A. in philosophy of science. Follow him on Twitter: @omerbenj