Why a Mark Zuckerberg run for president would be truly terrifying

Welcome to our new dystopian future

What do we really know about Mark Zuckerberg?

We’ve all seen The Social Network, so we know he’s ruthless when he needs to be, is predominantly a super-smart nerd and is – ironically – socially awkward; he started The Facebook as a way to rank girls, remember?

But then, hey, we’re all intelligent people, so we know that The Social Network took serious liberties with the truth in the pursuit of a good movie, don’t we?

Fortune writer Jessi Hempel wrote that, rather than being distracted by Sean Parker’s bad boy antics, “the real-life Zuckerberg was ‘maniacally focused’ on building a website that could potentially connect everyone on the planet”.

Zuckerberg himself, of course, has stuck by his beautifully innocent claim that he created the site because he enjoys “building things” for years, and that he simply wants to “make the world more open and connected” (as reads the bio on his Facebook profile page). To that end, he launched internet.org back in 2013, with the aim to bring the internet to the 5 billion people on the globe who do not currently enjoy access to the web, through which he hopes to open up new markets and creating jobs.

As Facebook has grown, from its humble beginnings of a Harvard bedroom in 2004 to the giant, hulking social media beast it has become, Zuckerberg’s aims have grown ever loftier, culminating in his remarkable 5,700-word mission statement which – of course – was posted to his Facebook profile page in Februrary. It read “like a State of the Union address, tackling everything from fake news to growing anti-globalization sentiment” according to the Guardian, and, boy, they were not wrong. 

Zuckerberg explained how, having spent a decade focusing on connecting individuals, Facebook was now turning its attention to “developing the social infrastructure for community – for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all,” implying that it could be part of the solution to climate change, pandemics, terrorism and inequality.

Shorn of context, this statement would read like the laughable, power-crazed ramblings of a deluded dictator. And yet, because it’s Mark Zuckerberg, founder and hugely-successful CEO of the world’s biggest social media company, and the world’s fifth-richest man, they were treated with the utmost gravitas.

Because, in reality, Zuckerberg already is a dictator.

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Facebook’s headquarters in San Francisco Bay, California

In the world of social media, Facebook is utterly dominant. Twitter may generate the headlines, but it sure as hell doesn’t generate any money and it doesn’t have a great deal of active users – 317 million, as of January 2017. Meanwhile, Snapchat may have the huge valuation but, again, it runs at a loss, and has “just” 300 million active users.

Facebook, meanwhile, boasts an enormous 1.87 billion active users, with a further billion using Facebook Messenger, and another 1.6 billion from its companies WhatsApp and Instagram. Of the seven social media companies with the biggest userbase, Facebook owns four, with the other three being QQ, WeChat and QZone – all based in China and owing their relatively impressive numbers almost entirely to the size of that domestic market and Facebook’s inability to enter it due to the political situation there.

Through its brilliant concept and – crucially – a series of excellent decisions and purchases by Zuckerberg and his team, Facebook has simply steamrollered the opposition to become by far the most influential social media site on the web. Of course, MySpace was once in also in a seemingly ‘unbeatable’ pole position, but Facebook now seems so established that it is hard to see a rival threatening it. Moreover, if any rivals do emerge, Facebook’s policy is simply to pay whatever it takes to buy them – an incredibly smart business modus operandi whereby it quickly realised that once a rival company had momentum, there was no point trying to copy them. It’s easy to forget that people were astonished when Facebook paid $715 million for Instagram – now that looks like small change.

And their scale now is such that when they are forced to copy a rival – the irritant to Facebook that is Snapchat’s refusal to sell out – they can overtake them with ease. WhatsApp Status, their Snapchat clone, already boasts 175 million daily users, just 10 weeks after launch, making it larger than Snapchat as a whole.

Zuckerberg stands alone at the top of the Facebook tree. He invented it. He turned it from an idea into a monster. And he is planning its future. There is no doubt that he runs the shop, with former employees speaking of a him being a cult-like figure to the workforce. When he decides to change something, he is changing something for almost 2 billion of the richest – and by extension, most powerful - people on the planet. And he is answerable to no one.

It’s also a money-making machine, with numbers just out showing that it made $3 billion profit in the first quarter of the year, on $8 billion of income. As recently as Q2 in 2012, Facebook was losing money, but as soon as they turned the taps of advertising on, the cash started rolling in – they’ve now made more than $21 billion in cumulative profit since then.

The scale of the income that Facebook has received from advertising demonstrates one thing: that it’s really, really effective to advertise on Facebook. If it wasn’t, no one would be spending money on it.

And one particular group of people have realised just how powerful it is: politicians.

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Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on 20 January 2017

The work of Cambridge Analytica originally began attracting attention at the start of this year, with this piece on Motherboard updating a story originally published in Das Magazin in December 2016.

I wrote a summary of the findings of German investigative journalists Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus, who looked at the role ‘Big Data’ had to play in Donald Trump’s successful campaign to become president, which, in short, uncovered the crucial and, essentially, hidden role that Cambridge Analytica had played in both the ‘Leave’ campaign in last year’s European Union referendum and the Trump campaign.

In essence, the company compiled a vast array of demographic data, legally collected via Facebook itself, together with things like credit reference information, supermarket club card data and land registry information, and combined them with data on personality traits, to create “the largest dataset combining psychometric scores with Facebook profiles ever to be collected”.

This enabled them to utilise ‘microtargeting’ on Facebook, whereby they knew exactly the sort of people to target, and exactly how to target them with a barrage of specific messages to influence them to vote ‘Leave’ or to vote for Trump – or, in many cases for the latter campaign, to depress the Democrat vote. Trump’s constantly contradictory messaging ended up being a huge bonus for them – they could simply pick whichever argument, or to use a more emotive term, propaganda, might appeal most to a particular voter and ram it home repeatedly on Facebook. There was an incredible claim that “Trump’s team tested 175,000 different ad variations for his arguments, in order to find the right versions”.

Donald Trump might have used Twitter to get his messaging out, but his team used Facebook to spread it across the country.

Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix brazenly revealed in a September 2016 presentation, that “pretty much every message that Trump put out was data-driven. We can address villages or apartment blocks in a targeted way. Even individuals…We have profiled the personality of every adult in the United States of America – 220 million people.”

Donald Trump might have used Twitter to get his messaging out, but his team used Facebook to spread it across the country.

The British version? Gerry Gunster, an American strategist who worked for Leave.EU during last year’s referendum campaign, told Panorama:

“You can say to Facebook, I would like to make sure that I can micro-target fishermen in certain parts of the UK so that they are specifically hearing that if you vote to leave that you will be able to change the way that the regulations are set for the fishing industry. Now I can do the exact same thing for people who live in the Midlands, who are struggling because the factory has shut down. So I may send a specific message through Facebook to them that nobody else sees.”

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Then UKIP leader Nigel Farage celebrates the ‘Leave’ victory on 24 June 2016

The story has hit the headlines again now with a new article in the Guardian by Carole Cadwalladr which went a step further to uncover the sheer scale of the spending with the company – potentially in breach of Electoral Commission rules – by multiple wings of the Leave campaign, which should have been independent from each other.

Moreover, there is an additional layer to the story, with the suggestion that, far from ‘Leave’ and Trump both simply coincidentally using the services of the same company, they were in fact intrinsically linked via a complex web of people involving Trump’s chief strategist - and ex-Vice President of Cambridge Analytica - Steve Bannon, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage and 90% owner of Cambridge Analytica, computer scientist Robert Mercer.

Cadwalladr makes a pretty astonishing claim: that US citizen Bannon wanted ‘Leave’ to triumph in a UK referendum as a “crucial part of his strategy for changing the entire world order”. She also uses the term “psychological warfare”, mentioned by a former employee, to describe their methods: “the same methods the military use to effect mass sentiment change. It’s what they mean by winning ‘hearts and minds’.”

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Steve Bannon, senior advisor to President Trump, and ex-Vice President of Cambridge Analytica

An anonymous former employee of Cambridge Analytica told Cadwalladr: “He believes that to change politics, you have to first change the culture. And Britain was key to that. He thought that where Britain led, America would follow. The idea of Brexit was hugely symbolically important to him.”

And so billionaire Mercer and Bannon, now established in the White House of course, used their companies, Cambridge Analytica, Aggregate IQ and ASI Data Science, to provide services for a variety of ‘Leave’ campaigns in order to influence the referendum result, in turn to help Trump’s campaign. And it most certainly did just that, with Trump’s references to ‘Mr Brexit’ and all the rest.

Meanwhile, a company called Palantir, owned by PayPal and Facebook investor Peter Thiel, which is “trusted to handle vast datasets on UK and US citizens for GCHQ and the NSA, as well as many other countries”, enters the picture. The Trump campaign said that Peter Thiel helped it with data and Cadwalladr’s article states that “witnesses and emails confirm that meetings between Cambridge Analytica and Palantir took place in 2013”. Could NSA data have been provided to Cambridge Analytica to aid its microtargeting and thus influence the US election? We don’t know. But even if it didn’t happen, it must have been – and must remain - a tempting possibility.

So far, so dystopian.

But just imagine what would happen if you cut out the middleman. If you had access to all of Facebook’s data on 2 billion people and the ‘psychological warfare’ methods of Cambridge Analytica. And all your microtargeted adverts on Facebook were free. Whoever had access to those tools would have political influence on a scale usually reserved for the likes of an old-school dictator of a one-party state.

And that’s exactly the situation that Mark Zuckerberg finds himself in in 2017.

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The future president?

If Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t want to run for president in the near future, he’s doing a very good job of hiding it.

In January, he announced that his ‘personal challenge’ for 2017 is “to have visited and met people in every state in the US by the end of the year.”

He stated that “my hope for this challenge is to get out and talk to more people about how they’re living, working and thinking about the future… it seems we are at a turning point in history. For decades, technology and globalization have made us more productive and connected. This has created many benefits, but for a lot of people it has also made life more challenging. This has contributed to a greater sense of division than I have felt in my lifetime. We need to find a way to change the game so it works for everyone.”

In all but name, Zuckerberg is out on the campaign trail, ready to indulge in a whole host of useful photo ops with teachers, scientists, ‘normal folks’ and all the rest.

In addition, in December, he made a U-turn worthy of any aspiring politician, by renouncing his previously stated atheism. Responding to a comment on his status that said he was “celebrating Christmas”, which asked “But Aren’t You Atheist?” he said: “No. I was raised Jewish and then I went through a period where I questioned things, but now I believe religion is very important.”

Even in these crazy times – especially in these crazy times – it is (and Mark will enjoy this one, if he’s been reading his Bible) easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for an atheist to become president.

He’s got his charity work nailed down of course – the Chan Zuckerberg initiative pledges to donate 99% of his shares in Facebook to fund the pursuit of two goals: advancing human potential and promoting equality, which include alleviating poverty and preventing health crises “like HIV or polio”.

According to several people who spoke to Vanity Fair, it’s simple: Mark Zuckerberg “wants to be emperor”.

But what about the enormous conflict of interest of a man who has access to the personal data of virtually everyone in the United States being able to run for president?

Well, as Donald Trump has shown, there would be absolutely no need for Zuckerberg to relinquish even the slightest degree of control in Facebook if he entered the race. No one has stepped in to ensure that Trump disentangled himself from his enormous web of business interests to avoid huge conflicts of interest, so who on earth would take Zuckerberg on?

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Donald Trump speaks of his plans to divest from his business interests on 11 January. Despite his words, it is believed that he still maintains direct ties to his business empire

If Zuckerberg decides to run – and it’s likely that it will be 2024 rather than 2020 - it is difficult to see how anyone could stop him, whether he was the best candidate or not.

He could run unlimited adverts in his favour, he could suppress the adverts and reach of his rival. He could even remove any negative reference toward himself and no one would ever know, because you only see what is served to you – you have no idea what’s going on on a larger scale.

And on the latter point, as Facebook has become the dominant way of consuming news, much of the media has been forced to adapt its ways in order to fit what Facebook wants. Media outlets are so utterly reliant on Facebook to get their stories out that they mould themselves to fit what Facebook wants. If Facebook changes its algorithms, websites change their methods. When Facebook says jump, the media simply says “how high?”

Facebook and, by extension, Mark Zuckerberg, already has the power to shape the news agenda, it just hasn’t chosen to use it – yet. If it wanted to remove any article that painted Zuckerberg in a negative light, it could do. It could choose to simply strangle the reach of any publication that dared criticise it.

It already has the power to move the needle of public opinion; once Zuckerberg was in power? Well, he could manipulate public opinion to serve his needs, much like any totalitarian state does. You thought Donald Trump was trying to suppress the media? You ain’t – potentially – seen nothing yet.

Now, of course, there is nothing to say that Zuckerberg would do this. He could, as a hugely successful entrepreneur and a savvy business leader, quite feasibly run for president and win without needing to employ any dirty tricks. And if the public ever got wind that they were being deliberately played, then the platform could very quickly lose its credibility and people could start to boycott it; and remember, a social platform is only as strong as the users it has and the time they spend on it. But the possibility for easy mass manipulation of the public is clearly there.

And what happens if Zuckerberg were to suddenly die? What if the next head of Facebook is not a man with seemingly lofty ideals but someone who wanted to exploit the enormously valuable information they have at their fingertips for less-than-wholesome aims? There is no successor lined up to take over Facebook. It would be a power grab by the most ambitious underling.

The point is that we simply don’t know anything about Mark Zuckerberg, the person. We don’t know what his motivations are, and there is virtually no regulation in place to moderate any of his behaviours. Facebook is above government and it is so big that competitors simply bounce off it. It can decide winners and losers and it doesn’t promise that it’ll be a fair fight.

The arguments over the activities of Cambridge Analytica’s activities will continue. You could easily say that either side – Leave or Remain, Clinton or Trump – could have harnessed that technology, and it was simply ‘Leave’ and Trump that got there first, and used it most effectively, but the fact that the whole arena – potentially a completely crucial one – is completely unregulated, with no rules over fair spending, fair messaging and the like, is deeply worrying.

But the level above that – the idea of Facebook gaining actual, real political power itself - is an even more dangerous possibility.

To paraphrase Frank Underwood: Zuckerberg 2024… 2028… 2032… 2036… 

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(Images: Rex)