Mark Zuckerberg sits in the audience at a rodeo, the stadium around him festooned with red, white, and blue curtains. Next to him is Betsy Price, mayor of Fort Worth, Texas, her short blonde hair tucked under a cowboy hat. Zuckerberg has on his uniform: plain shoes, plain jeans, plain hoodie. He’s clearly out of place, some 1,600 miles from Silicon Valley, but smiling wide.
The photo is part of a series of publicity shots, posted on Zuckerberg’s profile page, from a trip to Texas last week. Others in the album have a similarly all-American tone: Zuckerberg petting a baby longhorn bull. Zuckerberg deep in conversation with Dallas police officers. Zuckerberg meeting with community leaders. Zuckerberg huddled in a cafeteria with local educators. Zuckerberg, arm in arm with fellow volunteers, gardening during a day of service in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.
Facebook’s 32-year-old CEO was technically in Texas for a trial—Oculus, a virtual reality company owned by Facebook, has been accused of stealing some of the technology involved in its VR headsets. But if you happen to be one of the 85 million people who follow Zuckerberg on Facebook, his visit to the Lone Star state looked a lot more like a campaign stop.
“In many ways, I still don’t have a clear sense of Texas,” Zuckerberg wrote of the trip. “This state is complex, and everyone has a lot of layers—as Americans, as Texans, as members of a local community, and even just as individuals. But this trip has helped me understand just how important community is, and how we’re all just looking for something we can trust.”
With the exception of the hoodie, everything about Zuckerberg these days seems to hint at political aspirations. The Texas trip, though legally necessary, was also the first stop on Zuckerberg’s 50-state US tour, itself a New Year’s resolution he made in order to “get out and talk to more people about how they’re living, working, and thinking about the future.” (This is a huge improvement from the wording of his 2011 resolution: “The only meat I’m eating is from animals I’ve killed myself.”) Zuckerberg has recently decided that religion is important, he and his wife Priscilla have vowed to give away 99% of their Facebook shares to “promote equality for all children,” and the Facebook chief’s own Facebook profile is now managed by more than a dozen people. Oh, and Zuckerberg’s foundation just hired former campaign managers who helped win three of the past five US presidential elections.
“Zuckerberg 2020” already turns up more than 100,000 results on Google News—Quartz even wrote its own speculative vision of a US president Zuck—but there could be another reason that Zuckerberg has launched what is essentially a political campaign: He basically runs a country already.
President of the internet
Facebook has 1.79 billion monthly active users—one quarter of the world’s population, and more than the populations of the US and China combined. Most of the 60% of Americans who use social media for news turn to Facebook. For some of the social network’s users, Facebook essentially is the internet.
While Facebook doesn’t directly govern its users, there are rights and responsibilities to being a citizen of the social network, and community standards to which all citizens are held. Like many governing bodies, Facebook has a process for weighing the rights of free speech against threats and hate speech, and a system for assisting victims of natural disasters. It has bureaus around the world. Zuckerberg has had sit-downs with the pope, the prime minister of India, and the last US president.
Decisions Facebook makes impact its large constituency, often immediately. The site can influence voter turnout by changing the mix of stories in its news feed or adding a widget to its interface. False news and propaganda that spread on Facebook reportedly contributed to ethnic violence in Myanmar, and influenced elections in Indonesia and the Philippines. During the US’ most recent election, the social network was accused of suppressing conservative stories in its trending topics section, and fake news stories generated more engagement on Facebook than stories from legitimate sources.
Many of these decisions are shaped by Zuckerberg himself, whose personal philosophy informs Facebook’s technical development. (Like a president, Zuckerberg doesn’t have unlimited power to implement that vision, though Facebook’s share structure does give him pretty comprehensive authority.)
“We believe building tools to help people share can bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials, and better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time,” Zuckerberg wrote in a letter to potential shareholders ahead of Facebook’s IPO in 2012. It wasn’t the only line that would have felt at home in an inauguration speech. Zuckerberg also said he hoped Facebook would “create a stronger economy with more authentic businesses” and lead to “a better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others.”
Unity as a business model
Zuckerberg has long painted Facebook as a neutral (if admittedly influential) conduit for information, and he has a business interest in pushing that framing. Facebook wants to sell as much advertising as possible to as many advertisers as possible, which means recruiting a diverse (i.e. segmentable) pool of users, whose ranks are consistently growing.
Day to day, Facebook users may be the ones actually sharing fake news and burrowing into their echo chambers. But in a macro sense, being known as the company that sows cultural discord is not a good look. It’s in Zuckerberg’s interest to address head-on the criticism that Facebook has fostered a deep divide in the US. As venture capitalist Om Malik said in the New Yorker, “When you are a data-driven oligarchy like Facebook, Google, Amazon, or Uber, you can’t really wash your hands of the impact of your algorithms and your ability to shape popular sentiment in our society.”
Zuckerberg’s first rodeo and American tour may be earnest endeavors, but they are also his way of addressing Facebook’s critics. As was a meeting Zuckerberg had with Glenn Beck to smooth over the conservative news charges. As were the measures Zuckerberg announced to combat Facebook’s fake news problem. And as are Zuck’s constant references on his own page to the Facebook community, a warm welcoming place that brings people together rather than driving them apart.
Even if Zuckerberg doesn’t end up running for elected office, which he says he won’t, being the CEO of a company like Facebook—huge, populist, and closely scrutinized—requires some of the same tactics.