Donald Trump’s current approval ratings are lower at this stage in the presidency than any other President in the last forty years. Emboldened by this perceived vulnerability, candidates are already beginning to position themselves in what is expected to be a crowded field to contest the Democratic Party nomination; a process which will decide who challenges Trump in the 2020 presidential election. Trump’s success in 2016, despite his lack of experience in public office, appears to have opened the door for Democratic challengers from the private sector. Of the potential candidates who appear to be positioning themselves for a run in 2020, the most striking and perhaps most problematic is Facebook’s CEO, and one of the wealthiest people on the planet, Mark Zuckerberg.
The 33 year-old billionaire has previously denied the claim that he is considering a run for the presidency, but his recent activity mirrors those who have run in the past. Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, have recently hired Barack Obama’s former campaign manager David Plouffe for their joint philanthropic project, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Joel Benenson, the chief strategist of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, has also recently been hired.
The tech-mogul has also completed a tour across America, visiting all fifty states. During this tour, Zuckerberg’s interaction with Americans living their day-to-day lives was documented by former White House photographer Charles Ommanney. The Facebook founder is also learning Mandarin, which would have strategic benefits beyond breaking into the Chinese social media market. In a commencement speech at Harvard University on May 25th, Zuckerberg even advocated for a universal basic income as part of a “new social contract for our generation”, as concerns continue to grow about automation and technology eliminating large numbers of jobs in the near future.
Zuckerberg’s position as CEO of Facebook puts him in a strategically strong, but morally uncertain position to seek public office. What started in a Harvard bedroom in 2004 as a social networking site for elite Ivy League students, has evolved into one of the world’s largest platforms for the distribution of news, with over 2 billion monthly users.
In a now widely circulated report from respected non-partisan think tank Pew Research Centre, Facebook was listed as a top source of political news for Americans, particularly among millennials. Whilst commentators continue to marvel at Trump’s ability to manipulate traditional mainstream media outlets, such as cable news channels CNN and FOX, a campaign run by the founder and CEO of one of the world’s largest online news sources would only draw further attention to the need for an unbiased and accountable news media.
Aside from the obvious questions of if and how Zuckerberg would step down during a run for office, there remains questions surrounding the management of the social media site. Will Facebook continue to be run as a profit driven tech company, deriving revenue from advertising and the sale big data? Or will it embrace the social responsibility that comes with being one of the world’s largest platforms for news distribution?
The precedent on the issue is not flattering for the social media giant. In 2016, Facebook fired its staff working on the Trending Topics team in favour of an algorithm. After operating for a mere two days, the automated system was circulating a fabricated story about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly that stated “Breaking: Fox News Exposes Traitor Megyn Kelly, Kicks Her Out for Backing Hillary”. Anxiety surrounding the dissemination of fake news on the site continues to damage Facebook’s reputation as a credible news platform.
Facebook’s recent testimony, that up to 126 million users were influenced by Russian-backed advertisements targeting Trump supporters during 2016 election, is another significant case that highlights the lack of regulation on the social media platform. Regardless of one’s opinion on Russian influence in the 2016 election, the number is startling because the material was unregulated, and therefore easily able to spread on the platform through manipulation of Facebook’s business metrics.
Given the ongoing debate surrounding fake news and post-truth politics, there are growing calls for the hyper-sophisticated tech world, spearheaded by Facebook and Google, to bring a more humanist approach to their business models. At the very least, there seems to be a recognition that Facebook must to accept responsibility for the new media environment that it has created, and to comply with regulators to ensure the trust and integrity of the news disseminated from the site. If the growing comparisons between Silicon Valley and Wall Street are any indicator, the public reputation of the social media giants may be in the balance.
If Zuckerberg were to make a play for office, he will face tough competition. The current default frontrunners for the nomination include former Vice President Joe Biden, Independent Senator and well-known Democratic-Socialist Bernie Sanders, and perhaps more interestingly, first term Senator Kamala Harris from California. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is also considered by many to be a strong progressive candidate, and appears to be considering a run. There is even the possibility that Trump himself will be challenged in a Republican primary in 2020, as there has been growing dissent within the GOP at his inability to pass conservative legislation, despite having control over both chambers of Congress.
Many perceive the presence of potential private sector candidates, such as Zuckerberg and Oprah Winfrey, to be symptomatic of the continued deterioration of civic standards in an American society. Dismissing such candidates after the media slip-up of 2016 does not appear to be advisable however, regardless of how unlikely such candidacies may appear initially.