Zuckerberg can’t admit to a 2020 candidacy because it’s bad for business
A poll came out today that will probably not surprise you too much. It appears that if an election were held tomorrow rather than 2020 as tradition dictates, Donald Trump would lose to Joe Biden (54-39), Bernie Sanders (52-39), Elizabeth Warren (49-42), Cory Booker (45-40) or Kamala Harris (41-40). Ignoring the quite depressing sexism implied by the fall-off for Democratic women, one thing is clear: Trump is very very beatable. Comedian David Cross (Tobias from Arrested Development) puts it best with this tweet:
But actually, amusing as that is, this isn’t true. Dig a little deeper into the polling and you find an interesting play-off in fantasy politics. If Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg were to stand, the poll suggests, it would be a dead heat between him and Donald Trump: 40-40. After four years in office, Trump would have finally found an opponent less qualified than him for the job, and the voting public would be torn.
Mark Zuckerberg definitely isn’t running for president. Like, definitely not. No sirree. He’s just visiting every state in the USA recreationally, in the same way that you or I might drop in at every stop on the Circle line out of curiosity. He’s denied presidential ambitions, albeit in that carefully crafted way that doesn’t completely close down the option, giving enough wiggle room to flip-flop later. In fact, it’s a very politician-y answer to a pretty unspecific question. I may have no plans to buy a chocolate bar on the way home from work, but there’s a good chance I’ll end up buying a chocolate bar. What a waste of skills if he doesn’t end up running.
Why would he deny presidential ambitions if wants to run for president? Well, there are two logical reasons I can think of, off the top of my head. The first is “who needs that kind of scrutiny for three-and-a-half years?” The second thought is a little more cynical: the second that Mark Zuckerberg announces a run for president is the second the US government gets serious about regulating Facebook.
This would actually be no bad thing but would be terrible news for company shareholders. As former Facebook sales executive Antonio García Martínez told The Guardian: “It’s crazy that Zuckerberg says there’s no way Facebook can influence the election when there’s a whole sales force in Washington DC that does nothing but convince advertisers that they can.” Political spending on digital adverts was estimated to exceed $1 billion in 2016, but the actual numbers are fuzzy, because Facebook likes it that way. In the UK, there are strict electoral laws that define how much parties can spend on local candidates, but no limit on national spend. In theory, Facebook advertising comes from national spending, but given the level of targeting Facebook has, it’s clear how quickly that philosophy falls apart, even with gentle scrutiny.
America is more of a free-for-all in terms of campaign spending, with PACs and Super PACs splurging money at will. But they may take a bit more of an interest in Facebook if the CEO of the company is running for president and can smother the platform with free advertising for his campaign.
And that’s just looking at paid advertising. At the time of writing, Mark Zuckerberg has 93,545,000 followers. Donald Trump has almost exactly a quarter as many, with 23,822,236. Barack Obama has 52,777,926 – but that was after eight years in office. In other words, with Facebook’s famously obscure algorithms, Zuckerberg not only has the power to put his message in everyone’s Facebook feed – he also has the ability to bury rivals with a tweak of the mysteriously obscure algorithms. If Zuckerberg were to go public with presidential ambitions, you can bet your bottom dollar that the more tech-savvy members of congress would suddenly take an interest in making algorithms public, and possibly even pushing legislation to water down Facebook’s undoubted effectiveness as a campaigning tool.
That’s not even looking at the power Facebook has to boost or suppress voter turnout at will. Facebook has proved that it has the power to get people voting: just by showing you a montage of friends who clicked the “I voted” button, the social network was able to add an extra 340,000 voters in the 2010 congressional elections. Donald Trump’s campaign did its own experiment in voter suppression in 2016, with adverts aimed at keeping Hillary Clinton voters at home using messages tailored specifically to black and female voters. If Trump can do it, so can a hypothetical Team Zuckerberg – only with far more expertise. Facebook could look very different on a screen in Texas to a screen in New Hampshire – but more than that, it could look very different to screens on the same street. All that free personal data will come home to roost one way or another, but a Zuckerberg candidacy would certainly accelerate the process.
The numbers may or may not hold. A week is, after all, a long time in politics, and the actual US election isn’t for another 172 of them. The point is that with Zuckerberg’s unique powers, he has more ability than anybody to push the current 40-40 polling number in his favour – and with that in mind, it’s no wonder he’s being coy with his possible governmental ambitions. Government may be depressingly slow to react to the problems that come from internet monopolies, but you just watch how quickly they’ll take an interest if they think there’s a chance of swearing in President Zuckerberg on 20 January 2020. And while he remains a private citizen, protecting Facebook’s stock value is what he’s duty-bound to do. No wonder he’s keeping schtum.
Images: Anthony Quintano, used under Creative Commons