Rumour mills have long mooted the prospect of a Mark Zuckerberg presidency. Recently the idea has gathered pace, with increasing commentators bristling with support.
Kevin Currie in the New York Observer last month claimed that without the Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg as Democratic nominee, Trump will once again prevail in 2020. This follows months of increasing support for the candidacy since the 2016 election. Even going as far back as April 2016, we saw Jim Vandehei, former CEO of Politico, arguing for Zuckerberg and Facebook board member Sheryl Sandberg, also a billionaire and tech executive, to lead a third party – an immediately impossible suggestion due to a pesky piece of US Constitution demanding candidates be over the age of 35. Zuckerberg was at the time 31. That same month however, Zuckerberg used his Keynote speech at the F8 conference to blast Donald Trump and his politics – in particular the notions of ‘building walls’ and ‘turning inward.’
While Zuckerberg himself continues to deny that he has Presidential ambition, much like the covert tactics of his social media platform, his actions seem to point to other intentions. Facebook’s board has already agreed ways in which Zuck’s shares could be distributed ‘in the event he takes office.’ Recently, Zuckerberg also announced he was ‘no longer atheist’ which, to the cynical among us was a move towards traditional ‘suitability’ for presidency in a land where almost all Presidents have been Christian, and as we saw in Trump’s campaign, religion still plays a pivotal role in energizing votes.
Mark Zuckerberg says he’s no longer an atheist, believes ‘running for president very important’ pic.twitter.com/C2mg8VO6ei
— Bill Dixon (@BillDixonish) 3 August 2017
Underneath a rather liberal bravado however, Facebook carries out data scoping of its ‘community’ (a favoured Zuck term) on a scale unrivalled. John Lanchester explained this business model in the London Review of Books last month: ‘Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does.’
And it’s not just the public which Facebook deceives, the company has repeatedly been untruthful about its capabilities and the extent of it’s data mining to various governments. Still, the Internet Giant often evades repercussions, as Sociologist Beverley Skeggs explained to Real Media earlier this year;
‘When we began our project in 2013 Facebook denied [tracking you offline] but the Belgian government took them to court and revealed through computer science departments that they were doing it. They said ‘yes okay we are tracking people when they are not on the platform’ but then [the Belgian government] lost on appeal the court case to stop them tracking people, because [Facebook] operate from Ireland and the Brussels government has no jurisdiction over Ireland. So again, outside regulation and accountability.’
So that’s mis-leading both state and public before mentioning the level of tax avoidance the company pursues globally, given it’s ‘commitment to community.’ However, the point we wanted to raise in this article was not the level of deception Zuckerberg and his behemoth engage in. Rather, it is the threat of political hegemony in the interests of tech giants which a Zuck presidency bid could create.
You see, another person on the Facebook board is Peter Thiel, the first institutional investor of Facebook in 2004, remaining on the board since 2005. Thiel is also known for mounting a political campaign against Gawker – a gossip news site founded in 2003. Thiel helped finance the case that got Gawker shut down, involving the infamous Hulk Hogan sex tapes. It is thought to be a grudge played out over years after a 2007 article by the site titled ‘Peter Thiel Is Totally Gay, People.’Forbes reports that the piece left ‘a mark’ on the billionaire tech giant, which may have sealed the site’s fate. While some called the article an ‘outing’ of Thiel, Gawker defended themselves by stating he had come out to close friends previously. Forbes noted that Thiel’s campaign added ‘a new twist’ to “alternate litigation financing,” which was used by Thiel not for a business opportunity but for personal political ends.
Thiel also made millions through Paypal, which Skeggs explains demonstrated the lucrative opportunities of unregulated tech and finance ventures; “If you think that one of the Facebook founders Peter Thiel set up Paypal to evade financial regulations and made millions as a result. So they have always been into financial regulations.”
Last year, Thiel became Donald Trump’s most high profile Silicon Valley supporter, with a donation of $1.25m to the Republican party. He was a top advisor to the president-elect and defended Trump amidst a wavering of his own reputation in some parts of Silicon Valley. Recent reports say that Thiel’s support is waning; he has been heard describing the White House as ‘incompetent’ and revealed his fears that ‘this whole thing [ends] in disaster.’ Despite his comments, his support goes on and he has not distanced himself from the Trump presidency.
Zuckerberg last year defended Thiel as board member of Facebook for his political choice, saying it was consistent with Facebook’s support for ideological diversity.
But during a time when we are grappling with how to deal with Internet giants such as Facebook, Amazon and Google, how different could the aims of Thiel and Zuckerberg’s politics be?
Last month, a survey found that while the tech elite feel they are liberal, they dislike labor unions and regulation – which *could* be read as the rights of their workers and their consumers. Rewriting labour conditions in the gig economy, and operating in unregulated environments while scooping your data has allowed the new household names to balloon to the size and presence they are.
Trump has been heavy on promoting deregulation, describing rules which ‘get in the way of business’, so it is clear he may have found a mutual financial and political interest with Thiel and the Republicans. But would Zuckerberg want anything different? Facebook is currently moving into the FinTech market – aiming to challenge traditional banks. A lack of regulation and mining of data to create internal credit ratings requires maintaining loose rules around our digital privacy.
If Zuckerberg wins or fights for nomination of the Democratic party in 2020, and if Thiel goes on to provide support for Trump, will the choice be Facebook or Facebook?
Far from demonstrating diversity within the social media company, it may be Facebook which wields ideological hegemony over the US election should Zuckerberg become the candidate that commentators like Currie so desperately want. It would surely quell any idea of regulating or reigning in the power of the Amazons, Ubers, Facebooks and Googles, instead affirming their influence and power for the years to come.
Tech, A Step Back: An irregular series of short thoughts on the politics of tech #TASB