All throughout 2017, as part of what he describes as a “personal challenge…to have visited and met people in every state in the US by the end of the year,” Mark Zuckerberg has taken to the half-trillion-dollar social-media platform he controls to share his awkwardly staged and cartoonishly one-dimensional attempts to interact with non-billionaires across the country. Here he is at a rodeo in Texas. Here he is on a shrimp boat in Louisiana. Here he is in Ohio, dropping in for dinner with a family he’d found by “ask[ing] his staff to find Democrats who voted for Donald Trump.” His excursion to Iowa over the weekend produced another pitch-perfect medley of sanitized clichés: cornfields, fried food, a truck stop, a small-town ice cream parlor.
These canned photo ops and issue-specific listening tours are easily recognized as part of the grammar of political stagecraft, and in the wake of Donald Trump’s norm-shattering election to the presidency, they’ve unsurprisingly prompted widespread suspicion that Zuckerberg, the world’s fifth-richest man, is planning his own presidential run. There’s other evidence; last year he successfully pushed for a change in Facebook’s corporate structure allowing him to retain control if he were to take a “leave of absence…in connection with his serving in a government position or office,” and maybe most conspicuously of all, he made sure to announce in a Christmas Day Facebook post that he is no longer an atheist.
The implied, half-joking vision of a post-Trump world in which the presidency is contested among a small club of addled billionaires is in some ways appropriately bleak and cynical. But we’re still letting ourselves off the hook too easily. Zuckerberg probably has no interest in running for president; he and his corporate handlers have got something much worse in mind.
Facebook’s market cap has grown 30% in the first half of this year, making it at least for now the fifth-largest publicly-traded company in the world, but it entered 2017 with what at least by the kid-gloved standards of the tech press qualified as a bruised reputation. Not, mind you, for allowing advertisers to filter users by race, or for patenting a method that would allow banks to deny loans based on your friends list, or for its full-throated vote of confidence in board member and fascist vampire Peter Thiel, or for censoring Palestinian news at the behest of the Israeli government, or for agreeing to even more severe censorship to be allowed back into China, or for undervaluing its assets to the IRS, or for just generally being a gilded digital cage that study after study after study has shown makes its users less happy, or even for pissing off corporate advertisers by overstating a key video metric for years. Not really, anyway. What finally got Facebook in trouble, sort of, was fake news.
After initially trying to downplay the role that viral misinformation on Facebook may have played in Trump’s election, Zuckerberg and Facebook have made an effort to show they’re taking the problem seriously—which is not to say they’re actually doing anything about it. Doing something would require acknowledging, for instance, that misinformation is at least twice as big of a problem on the right as on the left; it would require hiring an army of news editors to think critically and make value judgments and inevitably emboldening the right-wing grievance factories that already accuse the company of liberal bias. Doing something would puncture the illusion that a $450 billion corporation that counts over a quarter of humanity as users can operate at all times in a kind of magical slipstream of political neutrality.
Zuckerberg doesn’t want to break out of this illusory neutrality; he wants to deepen, reify, and expand it, to sink the claws of impartiality as defined by his for-profit megacorporation into as many systems and sectors as possible. In a manifesto he posted to Facebook in February, “Building Global Community,” he all but explicitly laid out a vision of Facebook’s future as a kind of rival or successor to state governance. Throughout history, Zuckerberg writes, humanity has “built social infrastructure like communities, media and governments to empower us to achieve things we couldn’t on our own”; now, “the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.” Last week he rolled out a revised mission statement to reflect this new vision, with the concept of “build[ing] community” foregrounded in place of old language about “mak[ing] the world more open and connected.”
Zuckerberg was most forthright about his ambitions for Facebook in an interview with the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo in April:
“‘There’s a social infrastructure that needs to get built for modern problems in order for humanity to get to the next level,’ he said. ‘Having more people oriented not just toward short-term things but toward building the long-term social infrastructure that needs to get built across all these things in order to enable people to come together is going to be a really important thing over the next decades.’ …
‘We’re getting to a point where the biggest opportunities I think in the world … problems like preventing pandemics from spreading or ending terrorism, all these things, they require a level of coordination and connection that I don’t think can only be solved by the current systems that we have,’ Zuckerberg told me. What’s needed, he argues, is some global superstructure to advance humanity.”
Manjoo suggests these ambitions smack of megalomania, but that’s not right, not really; this is a disorder not of one man’s mind, but of the entire rotten system we’ve created for ourselves—the diseased “social infrastructure” whose symptoms Zuckerberg finally got around to noticing only when (and only to the extent to which) a vulgar dipshit got elected president and people blamed him for it.
And thus his proposed response, one no doubt also favored by the men in charge of the other four tech behemoths that round out the five largest corporations in the world: further concentration and consolidation of power within a cloistered elite, within a global corporate oligopoly, within a small cadre of doofus tech CEOs accountable to nobody but their shareholders, and even then just barely. More power, in Facebook’s case, to a company that can and does censor and suppress information at will, sells users’ personal data to private firms for the purposes of “digital redlining,” and brags to advertisers that it can target teenagers who are feeling insecure with specific product ads.
But we’re not so far gone, probably, yet, that Facebook’s plans to acquire more and more power over our lives under the buzzword-steeped auspices of “building social infrastructure” can proceed without any regard for popular consent. At the very least, people need to keep using it, and the more users trust the company and the goofy billionaire running it, the better. And so just as corporate elites have done for decades, albeit in a more overt and comprehensive way, Zuckerberg has begun to borrow heavily from traditional methods of political performance and outreach. An entire team within Facebook, reports Bloomberg, is dedicated to managing Zuckerberg’s public image: a “handful” of employees writing his posts and speeches, a dozen more “delet[ing] harassing comments and spam on his page,” and “professional photographers [who] snap Zuckerberg, say, taking a run in Beijing or reading to his daughter.”
We should be worried, then, that we’ll look back one day on all of our “So he’s running” jokes and think, if only. If only he’d just launched a vanity campaign for president in the new celebrity-billionaire mold. If only we’d been subjected to just a year or two of parodic Uber-for-health-care neoliberalism and cringeworthy campaign ads narrated by Morgan Freeman, instead of the decades-long rise of world leader Mark Zuckerberg—deified by all the news outlets he owns for turning Facebook into the largest financial institution in the world, or developing the AIs that automated entire industries overnight, or enabling advertisers to turn the entire physical world into a shopping mall through AR, or mining your medical records in the name of “curing all disease” and selling the data to Pfizer.
The sky’s the limit, really; in his manifesto, Zuckerberg mentions his “favorite saying about technology: ‘We always overestimate what we can do in two years, and we underestimate what we can do in ten years.’” Being president, in two years or ten, isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? Being the CEO of a trillion-dollar company with more power than any president could ever dream of.