If I were Mark Zuckerberg — newfound defender-to-the-death of liberal free expression even if it includes outright lying except if there's female nipples, a would-be curer of all the world's disease, side-gig education reformer, immigration crusader, quirky dad, fifth wealthiest person in the world, hobnobber to pundits and politicians and all-around do-gooder digital hegemon who is also now vying to run the world's money supply, I mean my God, Mark, where does all this end? — I'd be packing a go bag right about now.
But if I'm Mark Zuckerberg, I probably have a whole go trunk ready, and I'm consulting with Alfred and Jeeves about the best routes for driving the prepper RV straight out of Dodge.
Instead of dealing with annual congressional grillings, I'd retreat to a nice island out of the limelight somewhere deep in the Pacific, like my other other house. I would take a page from Bill Gates, who pulled back from Microsoft and transformed from the corporate villain of a generation into the philanthropic patron saint of billionaires, the billionaire who made billionairedom so lovable and blameless in the first place.
Or I'd pull a Larry Page and Sergey Brin and just ghost society. Page and Brin are co-founders of Google, the biggest advertising company in the world, keepers and miners of all our data. But several years ago, Page, who suffers from a condition that causes vocal cord paralysis, appointed managers to run his vast empire, and according to numerous reports both he and Brin have since been disengaged from many of the upheavals Google has endured in the past few years. The only time we talk about Larry Page anymore is to point out that no one talks about Larry Page anymore.
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Perhaps you can admire Zuckerberg for his commitment to publicly taking on the biggest issues of the day. Yet as a symbol and messenger for his own ideas, Zuckerberg draws more heat than light. He is constantly muddled about the complexities of the problems Facebook faces, tries to please all sides and persistently fails to read a room. He makes frequent unforced errors — in a speech last week about free expression, he floated the canard that Facebook's early use was as a hotbed of opposition to the Iraq War, which isn't the case — and he has a terrible tendency to conflate what's good for Facebook with what's good for America.
No wonder, as Vox's Teddy Schleifer points out, Zuckerberg has become the Democratic Party's newest political villain. Elizabeth Warren has made him her go-to billionaire punching bag. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez name-checked him in her endorsement of Bernie Sanders. When Bloomberg reported that Pete Buttigieg's presidential campaign took Zuckerberg's staffing advice — playing very neatly into the story line that Mayor Pete will play nice with the Ivy League billionaire class — his campaign rushed to point out that it has also taken staffing advice from lots of other people, including one of Mayor Pete's high school teachers.
It's not just Democrats who don't like Zuckerberg. Even though his platforms are crucial to the distribution of global right-wing thought, vast sections of the American right — from opportunistic senators to Tucker Carlson — have made a sport of badgering him for his supposed liberal bias. This is called working the refs, and it turns out Zuckerberg is a terrifically easy ref to work. When conservatives accuse him of being in the bag for liberals, he concedes their premise and allows them to lie in their ads.
See: It pays to hate Zuckerberg. Politically, he is such a juicy target, I am almost surprised he doesn't see the trap he's in.
There is something slightly unfair about this, in a very tiny-violin sort of way. Zuckerberg is not an evil business mastermind. He doesn't run private prisons, his product doesn't kill hundreds of thousands of people a year, and he isn't destroying the environment. In many ways he epitomises the American dream: He turned a privileged upbringing into a life of super-extra-Bond-villain power and privilege by building a better, more capable version of a thing that many other people had thought of before he did. Then he bought up every competitor he could and copied the ones he couldn't.
He played the game very well, ruthlessly and with frequent flashes of genius, and even if he failed to anticipate nearly every problem with his technology, he managed to deliver fabulous results to shareholders. Now he possesses more power to shape commerce, democracy and the human psyche than anyone ever thought possible — at least according to his sometimes hyperbolic critics in media and politics, who, let's not forget, also have a lot to lose in his rise.
But it is Zuckerberg's very wealth and power that is now becoming a cross to bear. Recently he has found it very hard to defend the existence of billionaires. And when critics point out his power, his instinct is to disclaim it.
This has been Facebook's whole message recently: Look, we're trying! We never asked to be this powerful! It just sort of happened! In speech after speech Zuckerberg now warns lawmakers that getting him to stringently police his network will only reward him with more power than he has somehow already lucked into.
For which I'll give him points: That's a correct position. No one can defend your wealth and power, Mark Zuckerberg, not even you.
But this is exactly why Zuckerberg makes a perfect political target for this moment. It's why Warren set him in her sights early and fires upon him so often. As a leader of what Zuckerberg recently called a "Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society," he possesses a new and unusual kind of leverage in the world, and none of us — not lawmakers, not the traditional media, not academics or tech companies — has figured out the best way to curb his role in society.
There's only one thing everyone seems to agree on, Zuckerberg included: that he is the epitome of having too much. To quote Kanye West, no one man should have all that power.
Written by: Farhad Manjoo
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES