Mark Zuckerberg is probably going to run for president. Speculation about the Facebook CEO’s political ambitions has been swirling ever since he embarked on a highly publicized “personal” tour in January to meet Facebook users all over the country. Later that month, he hired former campaign managers for George W. Bush and Barack Obama and soon after released a perplexing manifesto about “building the world we all want.” The recent news that he has brought on pollster Joel Benenson to pursue vague philanthropic “research” sparked another flurry of “Zuckerberg for President?” articles, ranging from musings on his potential platform to advice on his path to the White House.
Kate Losse, who worked at Facebook from 2005 to 2010 and served as Zuckerberg’s ghostwriter for part of that time, has no doubt about what all this means: In an interview with The Nation, Losse said that a presidential run by Zuckerberg is “perfectly plausible.” She added that many of the journalists she’s spoken with have treated the idea as ridiculous, but to her it represents “the logical outcome of his current trajectory…. If he doesn’t run, I’ll be surprised.” And if Zuckerberg runs as a Democrat, he might even have a chance at winning the nomination: It’s not hard to imagine the party’s corporate-friendly leadership backing an “outsider” tech mogul in a desperate (if ill-fated) attempt to win back young Bernie Sanders voters.
There are a number of easy criticisms to make of a Zuckerberg candidacy, most of which have to do with either his geeky appearance or his mind-boggling fortune. These criticisms are fairly legitimate: Zuckerberg has been spotted in a suit maybe twice, and despite having come a long way from the “dissolving in a lake of his own sweat” days, he’s not known for his public-speaking skills. Even worse, he’s the ultimate poster boy for Silicon Valley, which isn’t exactly quite a selling point in a country currently witnessing populist surges on both the left and the right.
But there are deeper problems with Zuckerberg than his status as a corporate shill. His potential presidential candidacy should make us uneasy not because he’s a CEO, but because he’s the CEO of Facebook, the company responsible for the largest and most brazen data-collection project in human history.
As its user base has grown to encompass more than a quarter of the world’s population, Facebook has built an unparalleled system for tracking, analyzing, and exploiting our behavior. The company owns (and sells) a totally unregulated storehouse of data about our most minute habits and inclinations: what we bought and when and where, whose pictures we looked at and for how long, where our cursor moved, what we sent, what we typed but didn’t send, and what we deleted—not to mention patterns in our browsing history, our e-mail activity, and our facial structures. This fearsome data apparatus has been pitched as part of Facebook’s “journey to connect the world.” Losse’s memoir about the company’s early years, The Boy Kings, recounts how Zuckerberg instructed her to generate rhetoric that would justify Facebook’s burgeoning data-collection practices to the public.
To this day, “connecting people” remains the company’s stated rationale for what Maurice Stucke, a professor at the University of Tennessee who studies antitrust law and emerging technology, describes as an ever-expanding “data treadmill”: Simply by using the site, people bolster Facebook’s behavioral algorithms and thereby further expose themselves to targeting by advertisers and other entities. Stucke says that as it collected this data, Facebook became first too big to compete with and then too big to avoid, so that socially connected people have little choice but to use the site. And by checking the box at the bottom of Facebook’s byzantine terms-of-service agreement, they “consent” to give away huge amounts of information about themselves.
“The idea was that a globally connected community wouldn’t need any boundaries between people,” Losse recalls. “That’s one positive way of stating the purpose of collecting all that data. But it was never clear what users get in return for giving their data to the company—that’s the part that was starting to get difficult to argue around the time I left.” Losse says that in recent years, Facebook and Zuckerberg have “gone further and further in the direction of proposing the creation of a kind of global community…. What’s always been there, implicitly or maybe explicitly, is that Mark is leading that community.”
Zuckerberg’s election would mean handing over the leadership of an already privacy-violating government to the creator of one of the world’s most invasive surveillance platforms. Although he’s only ever worked in the private sector, Zuckerberg’s history of pushing data collection and analysis well beyond reasonable limits suggests that he would take the technocratic elements of Obama’s presidency into overdrive. Losse notes that the Facebook posts Zuckerberg has made while touring America don’t include taking traditional political stances, but rather seem to express the desire that political debate itself be usurped by technology-based analysis. With that outlook, President Zuckerberg would do much more than continue the project of state surveillance begun under Bush and expanded under Obama. He would apply the logic of data collection and analysis to all policy problems, intensifying the state’s gaze on civilians in order to generate “pragmatic” solutions.
Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle who studies the intersection of privacy law and emerging technology, contrasted in an interview with The Nation how he thought Trump and Zuckerberg would deal, in their respective ways, with a social problem like the opioid crisis. It sounds like choosing between the frying pan and the fire: “Trump might come to West Virginia and announce that cops are going to get tougher on drug dealers,” Calo said, “but Zuckerberg might order the development of a program that could determine who’s most at risk of trying opioids for the first time and target them with ads or even personal intervention.” While that response might sound reasonable to those in Silicon Valley who view people as equations to be solved, in fact, Calo says, it would involve Americans surrendering even more of their privacy to the government.
A government that pursued such technocratic policies would be creating a far more massive surveillance state one “initiative” at a time, complete with a wonky human face and a set of buzzword justifications. For that reason, the idea of someone like Zuckerberg being elected as leader of the country—someone who doesn’t appear to believe that there should be limits on how much people can be tracked, catalogued, analyzed, and manipulated—is terrifying. Even if Zuckerberg has paid lip service to progressive positions (he recently mused about a universal basic income in his Harvard commencement speech), the high-handed way in which his administration would be likely to pursue those solutions should give us pause. “He just keeps going; he doesn’t really know when to stop,” Losse says of Zuckerberg’s approach to problem-solving. “He doesn’t have a fear of centralized power.”
Trump’s hate-mongering and vulgarity are likely to make whoever occupies the White House after him seem innocuous by comparison, but a Zuckerberg presidency would be dangerous in far more subtle ways. The benign public face of the Obama administration masked an unprecedented program of privacy invasion and surveillance, all carried out in the alleged interests of “national security.” Who’s to say whether “innovation” and “fresh thinking” under a Zuckerberg administration wouldn’t serve as euphemisms for an even broader campaign of observation and analysis, implemented not just to protect us from enemies abroad, but to surreptitiously shape and manage our society at home? If we do find Zuckerberg tossing his hat in the ring come 2020, we should take care to remember what he built at Facebook—and, more importantly, how—and ask ourselves whether elevating a quasi-progressive boy genius is worth the significant costs to our privacy and our freedom.