OPN 191025 Zuckerberg-1572002984245
Washington: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives for a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019, on Facebook's impact on the financial services and housing sectors. AP/PTI(AP10_24_2019_000001B) Image Credit: AP

If I were Mark Zuckerberg — defender-to-the-death of liberal free expression even if it includes outright lying, a would-be curer of all the world’s disease, side-gig education reformer, immigration crusader, fifth wealthiest person in the world, hobnobber to pundits and politicians and all-around, who is also now vying to run the world’s money supply, I mean, Mark, where does all this end? — I’d be packing a go bag right about now.

Instead of dealing with annual congressional grillings, I’d retreat to a nice island out of the limelight somewhere deep in the Pacific, like my other house. I would take a page from Bill Gates, who pulled back from Microsoft and transformed from the corporate villain of a generation into the philanthropic patron saint of billionaires, the billionaire who made billionairedom so lovable and blameless in the first place.

Or I’d pull a Larry Page and Sergey Brin and just ghost society. Page and Brin are co-founders of Google, the biggest advertising company in the world, keepers and miners of all our data. Perhaps you can admire Zuckerberg for his commitment to publicly taking on the biggest issues of the day. Yet, as a symbol and messenger for his own ideas, Zuckerberg draws more heat than light. He is constantly muddled about the complexities of the problems Facebook faces, tries to please all sides and persistently fails to read a room. He makes frequent unforced errors — in a speech last week about free expression, he floated the canard that Facebook’s early use was as a hotbed of opposition to the Iraq War, which isn’t the case.

No wonder, Zuckerberg has become the Democratic Party’s newest political villain. Elizabeth Warren has made him her go-to billionaire punching bag. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez name-checked him in her endorsement of Bernie Sanders. When Bloomberg reported that Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign took Zuckerberg’s staffing advice — playing very neatly into the storyline that Mayor Pete will play nice with the Ivy League billionaire class — his campaign rushed to point out that it has also taken staffing advice from lots of other people, including one of Mayor Pete’s high schoolteachers.

It pays to hate Zuckerberg. Politically, he is such a juicy target, I am almost surprised he doesn’t see the trap he’s in.

Not an evil mastermind

There is something slightly unfair about this, in a very tiny-violin sort of way. Zuckerberg is not an evil business mastermind. He doesn’t run private prisons, his product doesn’t kill hundreds of thousands of people a year, and he isn’t destroying the environment. In many ways he epitomises the American dream: He turned a privileged upbringing into a life of super-extra-Bond-villain power and privilege by building a better, more capable version of a thing that many other people had thought of before he did. Then he bought up every competitor he could and copied the ones he couldn’t.

He played the game very well, ruthlessly and with frequent flashes of genius, and even if he failed to anticipate nearly every problem with his technology, he managed to deliver fabulous results to shareholders. Now he possesses more power to shape commerce, democracy and the human psyche than anyone ever thought possible — at least according to his sometimes hyperbolic critics in media and politics, who, let’s not forget, also have a lot to lose in his rise.

But it is Zuckerberg’s very wealth and power that are now becoming a cross to bear. Recently, he found it very hard to defend the existence of billionaires. And when critics point out his power, his instinct is to disclaim it.

This has been Facebook’s whole message recently: Look, we’re trying! We never asked to be this powerful! It just sort of happened! In speech after speech Zuckerberg now warns lawmakers that getting him to stringently police his network will only reward him with more power than he has somehow already lucked into.

For which I’ll give him points: That’s a correct position. No one can defend your wealth and power, Mark Zuckerberg, not even you.

But this is exactly why Zuckerberg makes a perfect political target for this moment. It’s why Warren set him in her sights early and fires upon him so often. As a leader of what Zuckerberg recently called a “Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society,” he possesses a new and unusual kind of leverage in the world, and none of us — not lawmakers, not the traditional media, not academics or technology companies — have figured out the best way to curb his role in society.

There’s only one thing everyone seems to agree on, Zuckerberg included: That he is the epitome of having too much. To quote Kanye West, no one man should have all that power.

— New York Times News Service

Farhad Manjoo is a noted American columnist and author.