ON JANUARY 3, 2017, Mark Zuckerberg posted a status update to his Facebook page. “Every year I take on a personal challenge to learn new things and grow outside of my work,” the Facebook CEO wrote to his 84 million followers. “In recent years, I’ve run 365 miles, built a simple AI for my home, read 25 books and learned Mandarin. My personal challenge for 2017 is to have visited and met people in every state in the US by the end of the year.” He framed the trip as a learning tour amidst a “turning point in history” as technology and globalization has led to “a greater sense of division than I have felt in my lifetime.” Hearing more voices, he wrote, “will help me lead the work at Facebook and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative,” his philanthropic LLC.
Very quickly, though, the public and the press began to interpret the highly-choreographed whistlestop tour as foregrounding a Zuckerberg 2020 presidential campaign. The 33-year-old billionaire hired a former White House photographer, whose images depict him, Obama-like, as a man of the people. A coterie of ex-politicos—including a former aide to Tim Kaine—were helping him orchestrate meet-and-greets. Zuckerberg met with recovering opioid addicts in Ohio. He dropped by the same quaint candy shop in Iowa where Mitt Romney once made milkshakes. He had a quick stint on an assembly line in Detroit. And it didn’t help that a month before he announced the tour, unsealed court documents revealed Zuckerberg had attempted to restructure Facebook stock to allow him to retain voting control if he served in government for two years, or served indefinitely, with a few stipulations.
Zuckerberg has twice denied during the tour that he’s running for office, and yet the rumors persist. Especially when more news emerges to support the theory: Earlier this week, Zuckerberg tapped Joel Benenson, a former Hillary Clinton pollster, to consult for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which is also helping with the tour. Both CZI and Facebook maintain that Zuckerberg still has no plans to run for office.
“Mark has been very clear on why he’s doing these visits starting from his post in January on his 2017 challenge,” a Facebook spokesperson told WIRED. CZI says Benenson’s relationship with the LLC is project-based, not a long-term contract, and will dovetail with the LLC’s chosen causes. “As a philanthropic organization focused on a number of substantive issues including science, education, housing and criminal justice reform, any research efforts we undertake are to support that work,” says a CZI spokesperson.
Zuckerberg’s camp elides the obvious campaign trail parallels, and Zuckerberg himself maintains his tour is an opportunity “to get out of my little bubble in San Francisco,” as he told students at North Carolina A&T, an historically black college in Greensboro in March.
But for close observers who want to parse Zuckerberg’s motivations, he has a more loquacious body of work to rely on: The numerous dispatches he has written on Facebook sharing all the “interesting” things he’s “noticed” or “been struck by” along his route. He’s said the tour is an attempt to break out of his bubble, and perhaps that’s happening, but it’s hard to ignore his sanitized conclusions.
In February, during a visit to the Civil War site Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi, Zuckerberg marveled at the fact that legacy of slavery remains. “It’s struck me over the past few days how much our history is still part of our every day life. Black and white families living in the same town together in Mississippi are likely descendants of slaves or those who held slaves generations ago,” he wrote. “History is recent enough that older folks today can tell stories their grandparents told them from their experiences with slavery and the Civil War. ”
In June, after a visit to the World’s Largest Truck Stop in Walcott, Iowa, Zuckerberg asked a some truckers what they thought about self-driving vehicles. “Everyone I met was skeptical self-driving trucks would replace jobs,” he noted. “[I]t’s interesting that people in the industry don’t believe this will happen soon.”
In mid-July at an oil rig outside Williston, North Dakota, Zuckerberg, an avowed opponent of climate change, a topic he concedes is “controversial,” talked to a group of geologists, oil workers, and rig hands to learn new perspectives about the upside of fracking. “A number of people [in Williston] told me they had felt their livelihood was blocked by the government, but when Trump approved the [Dakota Access] pipeline they felt a sense of hope again,” Zuckerberg wrote. “It’s interesting to see this perspective when science overwhelmingly suggests fossil fuels contribute to climate change, which is one of the great challenges our generation will have to deal with.”
“Regardless of your views on energy,” he continued, “I think you’ll find the community around this fascinating.”
Zuckerberg is a curious person and his descriptions of the people he meets can be moving. They have also reportedly affected him. But if the Americans that Zuckerberg is encountering have expressed overt hatred or racism—or even the kind of opinions often found on Facebook—you won’t read it in his travelogues. He also often ends dispatches by bending the conversation back to Facebook’s word of the year (“community” this time, not 2016’s “connectivity”) or his business and philanthropic interests (personalized learning and criminal justice reform). Taken together, Zuckerberg’s posts could be a b-school class in corporate equivocation. It takes hard work to write that much, yet reveal so little.
Plus, if Zuckerberg were trying to build a political base, his dispatches would sound more like his recent commencement speech at Harvard, in which he exalted solar energy and clean jobs. “So what are we waiting for?” he said back in May, hyping the crowd. “It’s time for our generation-defining public works. How about stopping climate change before we destroy the planet and getting millions of people involved manufacturing and installing solar panels?” His posts aren’t rallying his followers around a partisan platform; rather, they rely on stilted language and forced visual poignancy that offers insight so bland it’s virtually useless. Zuckerberg is, however, accumulating valuable social currency. For tech CEOs in the post-Trump world, the ability to speak knowingly about life outside their “ bubble” is an asset, one that silences critics and opens doors.
And all the while, Zuckerberg and his posts are amassing followers (now more than 94 million) and likes. In the comments, people praise him for those sketches of people and places they might not otherwise see on their NewsFeed, posts that read like a local news story, written by national correspondent Mark Zuckerberg, filling in for the understaffed newspaper industry. His admirers say, He’s trying a lot harder than any other tech executive. What more could you ask from a CEO with shareholders to worry about it?
They’re right. It’s unrealistic for Zuckerberg to risk angering conservatives, who nearly turned against him when they thought he played political favorites with Facebook traffic. He can’t anger China, where Facebook, like other tech companies, has compromised its principles to try to gain a foothold. He can’t anger antitrust authorities. Or members of Congress, who, in recent weeks have had Facebook officials brief them on whether the Trump campaign helped Russians boost fake news articles on Facebook and whether Russian intelligence agents used Facebook to spy on a foreign leader. And, most of all, he can’t anger his global constituency of 2 billion Facebook users.
Those are all the same reasons a presidential candidacy would be too risky. Just look at the last time Zuckerberg threw his weight behind a particular policy. A super PAC he started,., funded ads for Republicans who supported the Keystone XL oil pipeline as a means to rally political support around an immigration bill that critics said benefitted Facebook. It was political sausage-making, but it led to accusations of hypocrisy and bribery.
If Zuckerberg is that restricted in taking a stand, then his personal politics almost don’t matter. Which makes it all the more reasonable to believe him when he says he’s not running for president. (And even if he was, he probably wouldn’t have a shot: A recent poll showed Zuckerberg and Trump tying for 40 percent of the vote in 2020. But it also found that 47 percent of voters have no opinion about Zuckerberg and 29 percent have a negative one. In the same poll, Trump lost to every other Democrat besides Zuckerberg, including Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris.)
It’s tempting to project that there’s another motivation behind the tour, especially considering that Facebook, which is only 13-years-old, just crossed the two billion user mark. The most alarming thing about Zuckerberg is his drive to consolidate power, as evidenced by the growth of Facebook’s data and influence.
And it’s easy to distrust the man most responsible for pushing the world to perform their lives online, the man whose platform has been criticized for giving users a false sense of reality by enabling filter bubbles, fake news, and micro-targeted ad campaigns—especially as he responds to this fear of false reality by manufacturing interactions based on cultural stereotypes. And then broadcasting those filtered conclusions in a way that signals authenticity, but distorts our perception.
So ultimately, the question remains: Is he building a political base or a user base? Maybe the answer is just, yes.