How Mark Zuckerberg Learned Politics13 min read . Updated: 18 Oct 2020, 05:59 PM IST
- Facebook’s chief, once uninterested, has transformed himself into an active political operator in the Trump era
For more than a decade as he built Facebook Inc. into a global force, Mark Zuckerberg made it clear he didn’t care for politics. Early advisers strained to hold his attention in briefings about D.C. lawmakers, people familiar with the matter say, and he frequently said he would gladly leave the politics to others.
No longer. Mr. Zuckerberg is now an active political operator. He has dined with President Trump, talks regularly with White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, and has pressed lawmakers and officials to scrutinize rivals including TikTok and Apple Inc., people involved in the discussions say.
Mr. Zuckerberg’s new political moves are part of an effort to protect his company from pressures that range from antitrust scrutiny on both sides of the Atlantic to criticism of its privacy practices and of its role in disseminating misinformation and conspiracy theories. Facebook is also facing new competitive threats from the likes of ByteDance Ltd.’s TikTok. Forging relationships with political leaders, media personalities and activists is now critical to Facebook’s continued primacy in social media.
Mr. Zuckerberg, 36 years old, speaks with conservative thinkers and civil rights groups, and—after leaving most planning for the 2016 U.S. election to deputies—he is now playing a hands-on role in setting Facebook’s policies for this year’s race. Many of those policies, especially those affecting political ads and user posts, have been contentious, eliciting criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike, including President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, as well as from within the company.
The political controversies haven’t appeared to inhibit rapid revenue growth for the company, to more than $70 billion last year, up from less than $28 billion in 2016.
Nick Clegg, a former British deputy prime minister whom Mr. Zuckerberg hired two years ago as global policy and communications chief, said the CEO has been “intimately involved" in deciding to bar new political ads the week before the election.
Mr. Zuckerberg declined to comment.
Just this month, Facebook said it would suspend all political ads after polls close on Election Day and limit posts about poll-watching operations that “use militarized language or suggest that the goal is to intimidate, exert control, or display power." Facebook this past week banned posts denying the Holocaust, reversing its longstanding policy, and said it would block ads that promoted antivaccine messages.
Then on Wednesday, Facebook and Twitter limited sharing of New York Post articles containing allegations about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his son Hunter that the Biden campaign denied. The New York Post is owned by News Corp, which is also the parent of The Wall Street Journal’s publisher, Dow Jones & Co. The Post responded with an editorial condemning the Twitter and Facebook actions and saying that “no one is disputing the veracity" of its reporting.
Mr. Zuckerberg’s evolution in many ways tracks Facebook’s development from a college-based social network into a central element in the American political system—and a punching bag for both parties. The intense scrutiny of the social-media giant’s influence from all sides during the past four years has made increased political acumen a necessity for its CEO. Facebook’s massive reach and focus on free speech have at times made it a super-spreader of falsehoods, hate speech, terrorist propaganda and other posts it struggles to control.
Mr. Zuckerberg has lectured Facebook’s broadly left-leaning staff about the need to understand that their user base is more conservative, and defended decisions not to remove posts from Mr. Trump that some employees argue violated Facebook’s rules. Mr. Zuckerberg’s stance has alienated prominent Democrats and civil-rights activists and has frustrated many inside Facebook—including, at times, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, people familiar with the dynamics say.
Ms. Sandberg declined to comment.
Mr. Biden’s campaign manager last month sent the CEO a letter, reviewed by the Journal, calling Facebook “the nation’s foremost propagator of disinformation about the voting process." The Democratic nominee has said he has “never been a big fan of Zuckerberg."
“Any insinuation that Facebook accommodates any one political party over another is simply false," a Facebook spokesman said, adding that Mr. Zuckerberg was the “driving force" behind Facebook’s election-integrity and civic-engagement efforts.
“Mark Zuckerberg believes strongly that the company must have rules in place to protect free expression, and that we continue to apply them impartially," the spokesman added. “As CEO, part of his job is to work on policy issues and engage with Democratic and Republican policy makers, as well as other voices from across the political spectrum."
Both the Biden and Trump campaigns continue to advertise heavily on Facebook. The Trump campaign considers Mr. Zuckerberg more of a pragmatist than top executives at other major tech companies, according to a person familiar with the matter. But the campaign also has sharply criticized Facebook’s policies. “Just like the rest of the Silicon Valley Mafia, Facebook erroneously believes it is the arbiter of truth and decider of elections," said Samantha Zager, a Trump campaign spokeswoman, adding that tech companies increasingly censor Mr. Trump and conservatives.
Mr. Zuckerberg, who is worth more than $90 billion, has contributed to a handful of Democratic and Republican causes and candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But some people close to Mr. Zuckerberg say the only party he belongs to is the party of Facebook. The one constant for him over the years has been his broad belief that free expression should be paramount and that Facebook is, on balance, good for the world, according to his public comments and people familiar with his views.
Mr. Zuckerberg’s growing political awareness also has shaped his personal giving.
Mr. Zuckerberg and his wife have donated $400 million in personal funds to nonprofits that help fund local governments’ election costs such as hiring poll workers, providing personal protective equipment and sharing accurate Election Day information. Conservatives are trying to block those private funds from being used for public costs, and many liberals have criticized the effort as hypocritical given what they view as Facebook’s record of allowing users to post disinformation about elections and voting.
People who knew Mr. Zuckerberg at Harvard College, where he co-founded Facebook as a student in 2004, say he could best be described as center-left. In the run-up to the presidential election that year, he worried about the prospect that George W. Bush would be re-elected and closely tracked the race in the final weeks, one of those people said.
But he wasn’t particularly political. A few years after Facebook was created, political advisers met with him to understand how his views might shape company policy, according to a person familiar with the matter. The advisers explained the differences among the American political groups, including Democrats and Republicans, and the meeting ended when Mr. Zuckerberg agreed that he was best described as a libertarian, rather than closely aligned with either major American party.
“He was completely apolitical," said Tim Sparapani, a technology lawyer who was Facebook’s first public-policy director until 2011 and has been critical of the company. “His political views had to be coaxed out of him."
Facebook’s policy team—headed by Ms. Sandberg, a one-time Clinton administration official who joined Facebook in 2008—handled most outreach and relationships with lawmakers in the U.S. and globally. Mr. Zuckerberg started to focus on immigration reform and in 2013 he co-founded a nonprofit, Fwd.US, to pursue that cause.
The hands-off approach changed after Mr. Trump’s 2016 election. Mr. Zuckerberg was jolted by criticism that Facebook had failed to stem misleading pseudo-news articles and other disinformation that many of its critics said sharpened divisions among Americans and made the race’s rhetoric more toxic than in years past.
“What happened in 2016 casts a long shadow four years later," said Mr. Clegg. “Facebook was accused of being asleep at the wheel," he said, and Mr. Zuckerberg determined that it had to change.
Mr. Zuckerberg publicly presented himself as a work in progress, open to self-reflection and eager to understand other perspectives. In 2017, he completed a listening tour of 30 states, an extended road trip that had the trappings of a political campaign. In April 2018, he testified before Congress for the first time to answer questions about Facebook’s data-privacy controls. In 2019, he hosted a series of discussions with academics and other executives about the role of technology in society.
Behind the scenes, Mr. Zuckerberg intensified his focus on making sure Facebook wouldn’t be seen as partisan, in part by emphasizing Facebook’s support for free speech. Some Democratic officials, concerned about misinformation undermining political discourse, perceived him as growing overly deferential to conservatives, who have generally argued against limits on expression on social media. He started asking more policy-related questions and grew more involved in decisions about controversial content on the platform, including the 2018 decision to remove far-right talk show host Alex Jones’s properties from the platform, people familiar with the company say. Mr. Zuckerberg tends to get involved in situations where Facebook’s policies aren’t clear, Mr. Clegg said, but leaves enforcement to his deputies.
He also recently cultivated relationships with prominent conservatives with the help of longtime board member Peter Thiel, a prominent Trump backer, and his global head of policy, Joel Kaplan, a former deputy chief of staff to George W. Bush.
Mr. Zuckerberg maintains an open line with Mr. Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser. The two sometimes discuss Facebook policies over WhatsApp. The CEO spoke this year with Mr. Kushner and separately with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin about TikTok’s U.S. presence, people familiar with the talks said.
“Any insinuation that [Mr. Zuckerberg] encouraged the Administration to ban TikTok is false," a Facebook spokesman said.
Mr. Zuckerberg has also told government officials Apple doesn’t receive as much scrutiny as Facebook even though it owns an operating system used by a large percentage of Americans, people familiar with the discussions said.
As tech platforms announced new political-content policies over the past year, Mr. Kushner has argued to Mr. Zuckerberg that some of those moves could hurt Republican and Democratic campaigns alike, people familiar with the matter said.
Mr. Zuckerberg also has forged ties with right-leaning publishers that drive engagement on the platform, including Ben Shapiro, co-founder of the Daily Wire and a Trump supporter, people familiar with the matter say. The conservative news site has been flagged repeatedly by Facebook’s fact-checkers for sharing falsehoods and distortions. But it is frequently among the most popular on the platform based on user interactions, according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned analytics tool.
Mr. Zuckerberg invited Mr. Shapiro to dinner at his house last year, the people said. While the two aren’t friends, they sometimes discuss broader political and philosophical themes, the people added, many of which they disagree on.
Mr. Shapiro said in a statement that he doesn’t comment on people he speaks with because many in the media try to “stigmatize open communications between conservatives and anyone who differs politically."
In late 2017, when Facebook tweaked its newsfeed algorithm to minimize the presence of political news, policy executives were concerned about the outsize impact of the changes on the right, including the Daily Wire, people familiar with the matter said. Engineers redesigned their intended changes so that left-leaning sites like Mother Jones were affected more than previously planned, the people said. Mr. Zuckerberg approved the plans. “We did not make changes with the intent of impacting individual publishers," a Facebook spokesman said.
“I have not found any relationship at Facebook to be particularly beneficial to our business," said Jeremy Boreing, co-founder and co-CEO at the Daily Wire. He also said Facebook’s fact-checking program, announced in December of 2016, has caused “serious losses" for the Daily Wire, which depends on Facebook for traffic, and thus ad revenue, adding that the fact checks are sometimes “wholly inaccurate."
Some on the left believe Mr. Zuckerberg has been less accommodating to news sites that promote a progressive agenda.
After the launch last year of Courier Newsroom, a network of eight progressive local-news sites that is part-owned by a left-leaning nonprofit with close ties to Democratic donors, Mr. Zuckerberg argued that Courier wasn’t a real news outlet, given its political connections, according to people familiar with his views.
The discussion sparked a new Facebook policy in August that limits the reach of partisan-backed sites by blocking their pages from inclusion in Facebook News, restricting their access to the Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp platforms and curtailing their advertising.
The nonprofit behind Courier Newsroom, called Acronym, criticized the policy, saying it favors conservative news sources.
Mr. Zuckerberg has also begun meeting with progressive groups, whose leaders argued that if he was developing personal relationships with conservatives like Mr. Shapiro, he should hear from the other side, too. The conversations haven’t always gone smoothly.
Rashad Robinson, president of the civil-rights group Color of Change, said that Mr. Zuckerberg appeared to lack an understanding of the ways Facebook could be contributing to voter suppression.
“I was talking to someone with such tremendous power but was not serious or educated about the issues," Mr. Robinson said, “and was deeply ill-equipped and unqualified for the task at hand."
Mr. Zuckerberg also has been trying to steer a safe political course at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the for-profit charitable and investment organization he oversees with his wife, Priscilla Chan.
In recent years, officials at the nonpartisan organization, known as CZI, have increasingly grown wary of projects that might be seen as overtly political, according to people familiar with the matter.
“We fund a lot of really progressive groups on the left, and also groups in the center and on the right, and in between," the organization said.
One casualty was a plan to aggressively pursue immigration reform with the Trump administration, according to a person with direct knowledge of the work. In 2018, during the family-separation crisis, employees at CZI discussed absorbing Fwd.US, the immigration and criminal-justice reform nonprofit Mr. Zuckerberg co-founded in 2013, and other ways to tackle reform.
A few months later, Mr. Zuckerberg told employees that the immigration issue was “too hot," the person said. CZI decided against taking over Fwd.US., though it still funds the group while focusing on its own work on more bipartisan issues like affordable housing and criminal-justice reform.
David Plouffe, a former Obama administration adviser who was a top CZI official until 2019, said CZI opted not to pursue the additional immigration work because Fwd.US had already devoted considerable resources to the issue. A CZI spokeswoman said its broader immigration-reform program is in its early stages and it funds groups focused on family separation.
At Facebook, Mr. Zuckerberg’s greater involvement in politics shifted the dynamic between him and Ms. Sandberg, his longtime second in command, who endorsed former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s 2016 bid.
Ms. Sandberg has told some colleagues and associates that she disagrees with certain Facebook decisions about political content, including the move last spring not to take down a video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that had been manipulated in a way that made her appear to be drunk, according to people familiar with the matter.
Ms. Sandberg argued for the video’s removal but Mr. Zuckerberg believed making the video less visible across the platform was a better route, the people said. At a Facebook-sponsored event last year, Ms. Sandberg said she and Mr. Zuckerberg “disagree all the time but we tell each other and support each other," according to a video of the event viewed by the Journal.
Some of Ms. Sandberg’s colleagues have heard her use an expression that underscores the shifting balance of power between the two executives, who were long regarded inside and outside the company as nearly equals. Now, according to these people, she sometimes says: “I serve at the pleasure of Mark and the board."
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.