On June 27, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, announced that “the Facebook community is now officially 2 billion people!” It took the platform a little more than eight years to reach 1 billion users, and then less than five years to reach the second billion. Close to two-thirds of users visit the site at least once a day. There is no other human entity on earth as big as Facebook—no country, no business, no single religious denomination.
Once it was said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. In our digital age, coders are the unacknowledged legislators, determining the rules and pathways that we use to connect with one another. And one coder, Zuckerberg, is the unacknowledged president of the largest nation on earth, which I call Facebookistan.
Because Zuckerberg has hired two buckraking campaign operatives, David Plouffe and Ken Mehlman, to advise him, and because he’s been traveling around America on a “listening tour,” many have speculated that he is planning to run for president of the United States. But this is using a 20th-century lens to look at a 21st-century phenomenon. As someone who zealously protects his own privacy, Zuckerberg would never submit to the rituals of an American presidential campaign. Besides, with two-thirds of American adults on Facebook, and with 43 percent saying that online social networks are where they often get their news, Zuckerberg already has all the power he needs. In Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Bahrain, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, the European Union, Ecuador, Iceland, Indonesia, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Thailand, Tunisia, and Vietnam, Facebook is the dominant online social network, with anywhere from 40 to 90 percent of the local population using it. Like the Lawnmower Man, a fictional character who defeats his adversaries by uploading his consciousness to the world’s computer networks, Zuck’s reach extends far beyond our humble borders.
It’s much more likely that Zuckerberg has gone on the road to contain the fallout from the ongoing investigations into Facebook’s role in the 2016 election and the myriad questions they raise. We now know, from research published by the company’s own data scientists, that Facebook has the power to alter its users’ moods merely by changing how many positive or negative posts it surfaces in their feeds. We also know that it can increase voter registration by reminding people of upcoming deadlines, and it can increase voter turnout by showing people that their friends are voting—a tool that Facebook calls its “voter megaphone.” We know that it can and has tweaked the News Feed algorithm many times. For example, in 2012 it decided to add more “hard news” to the mix (with a list of supposedly acceptable news sources ranging from Mother Jones to RushLimbaugh.com) after discovering that doing so didn’t turn users off. Now there are suspicions that another change to the algorithm may be hurting traffic to left-wing news sites.