What does Mark Zuckerberg believe? What does he really care about? How could a man who marched in a gay pride parade, who advocated for increased immigration to the United States, who hired a high-profile Democrat and feminist as his second-in-command, sit and eat with Donald Trump?
Why, at a moment of global and national crisis, when more than 100,000 Americans have died of a virus that could have been contained by a competent government, a quarter of Americans are in danger of being evicted or thrown into poverty, and thousands of Americans are facing off against violent police forces in the streets of cities and towns of all sizes, does Zuckerberg get on the phone with Trump for a nice chat?
Like other billionaires, Zuckerberg has the money, power, and influence to take a stand against such malfeasance and malevolence. With three global platforms—Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp—capable of structuring the cultural and intellectual experience of billions around the world, Zuckerberg chooses to do the opposite. He chooses to bolster Trump and other authoritarians, despite all the harm they do to the world.
Zuckerberg knew in 2016 that Trump was a racist. He knew that Trump boasted of sexually assaulting women. Yet Zuckerberg allowed Facebook employees to help Trump use Facebook more effectively, certainly contributing to the electoral college win.
How could a person who seems so cosmopolitan let his company effectively support the campaigns of authoritarian nationalists like Narendra Modi in India or Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines? Why does he let them use his platforms to terrorize critics, journalists, and scholars?
Over the past two weeks these questions have taken on a new urgency as Facebook employees have for the first time publicly voiced anger and frustration with Zuckerberg’s decision to protect Trump’s calls for state violence against those who are protesting racist police violence. While Twitter took a modest stand against Trump’s hyperbolic threats, Zuckerberg announced that he sees the posts as different from those that threaten violence because they were about the use of “state force.” Seriously.
In a leaked staff phone call on Tuesday, Zuckerberg defended his decision to angry Facebook staffers. “We basically concluded after the research and after everything I’ve read and all the different folks that I’ve talked to that the reference is clearly to aggressive policing—maybe excessive policing—but it has no history of being read as a dog whistle for vigilante supporters to take justice into their own hands,” Zuckerberg said of Trump’s posts that taunted protesters with, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
And after some civil rights leaders spoke with Zuckerberg on Monday they left “disappointed and stunned,” convinced that Zuckerberg does not—or refuses to—understand basic issues like voter suppression and racism.
Now, as the United States faces its greatest threat since the Civil War, Zuckerberg panders to the authoritarian in the White House.
You have to ask yourself why. “It’s about the money” does not quite track. He would have all that money regardless. Zuckerberg and Facebook are deeply embedded in the global economy and power structure. He does not need Trump.
Trump has no direct or immediate power to regulate Facebook or constrict its actions in the short term. Perhaps Zuckerberg is hedging, assuming that Trump and the Republicans will go easier on him if they prevail in November. Zuckerberg already has purchased the support of some powerful Democrats, so he doesn’t have to work so hard to keep them at bay.
So what does Zuckerberg really believe? What does he really want for the world?
These are questions that for years have been perplexing those of us who write about Facebook. After going through hundreds of speeches, letters, and Facebook posts by Zuckerberg during the research for my latest book, I thought I had him nailed down.
I considered Zuckerberg an idealist, someone who naively believed in the positive power of human connectivity, communication, and community. Being largely uneducated and inexperienced, Zuckerberg was untroubled by facts, history, or complexity. Connectivity was just good—always and completely.
Never having grown beyond the bubbles of prep school, Harvard, Silicon Valley, and Davos, Zuckerberg had no grasp of the varieties of human cruelty, I thought. Being a straight, white, American man, Zuckerberg was oblivious to the ways in which “community” could oppress as well as comfort.
And after years of rich white men throwing money at him and calling him a genius, Zuckerberg, I assumed, was just enthralled by rich white men.
Despite, as Steven Levy describes in detail in his essential new book on Facebook, relinquishing much control of day-to-day and commercial operations of Facebook to COO Sheryl Sandberg for much of the past decade, Zuckerberg still embedded his values into the company. He did so imperfectly, though. Despite his claims to support free expression, Facebook has notoriously and enthusiastically executed the censorious wishes of authoritarian governments around the world.
So I expected that Zuckerberg was experiencing cognitive dissonance while watching his dear company be exploited to empower genocidal forces in Myanmar, religious terrorists in Sri Lanka, or vaccine deniers around the world.
I was wrong. I misjudged Zuckerberg. Another thing I learned from Levy’s book is that along with an idealistic and naive account of human communication, Zuckerberg seems to love power more than he loves money or the potential to do good in the world.
Having studied just enough Latin in prep school to get him in trouble, Zuckerberg was known to quote Cato, shouting “Carthago delenda est” (Carthage must be destroyed) when referring to Google. Emperor Augustus was a particular inspiration, Levy reports, and Zuckerberg named his child after Augustus, the adopted son of the tyrant Julius Caesar who ruled over the greatest and most peaceful span of the Roman Empire as its first emperor.
It was not Zuckerberg suffering from cognitive dissonance. I was. As I watched him cooly face questions from congressional representatives about the Cambridge Analytica debacle, he never seemed thoughtful, just disciplined.
That Facebook could serve people well—and it does—and that it could be abused to contribute to massive harm, pain, and death, didn’t seem to generate that one troublesome phenomenon that challenges the thoughtful: Contradiction.
Zuckerberg continued and continues to believe in the positive power of Facebook, but that’s because he believes in the raw power of Facebook. “Domination!,” he used to yell at staff meetings, indicating that everything is a game. Games can be won. He must win. If a few million bones get broken along the way, his game plan would still serve the greatest good for the greatest number.
He believes in himself so completely, his vision of how the world works so completely, that he is immune to cognitive dissonance. He is immune to new evidence or argument. It turns out megalomaniacs don’t suffer from cognitive dissonance.
Considered this way, one might see how Zuckerberg and Trump might get along. Trump, as well, sees life as a series of competitions that he must win, even if that means he has to cheat. Not only must Trump convince himself he won (even when he loses), he must convince himself that he dominated his opponent (even when he failed to).
There are more differences between Trump and Zuckerberg than similarities, of course. Zuckerberg actually wins most of the games he plays. The younger man has legitimate intelligence and prowess, demonstrable success, and earns far more money in one year than Trump has lost in his entire life. Zuckerberg is a dominator and an idealist. He’s an idealist about himself and his vision for how the rest of us must live.
Like the notorious architect Philip Johnson, Mark Zuckerberg is a social engineer. He knows what’s best for us. And he believes that what’s best for Facebook is best for us. In the long run, he believes,
Facebook’s domination will redeem him by making our lives better. We just have to surrender and let it all work out. Zuckerberg can entertain local magistrates like Trump because Zuckerberg remains emperor.
The only hope we have to depose this emperor is that his troops might rebel and refuse to do his bidding. That might be starting to happen. But it might be far too late.
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