Saturday 21 April 2018

President Mark Zuckerberg? It sounds a little crazy - but could it happen?

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

President Zuckerberg? It sounds a little crazy. Almost as crazy, in fact, as President Trump.

But could it happen?

This week, Facebook founder Zuckerberg, pictured, was forced to deny that he is planning to run for president of the US.

But he didn't rule out a future run, or some other kind of political initiative.

Some of the stuff he has been doing recently gives oxygen to the thought that he is readying himself for public office in some form.

He just announced a 30-state US tour to meet "communities". He has softened his stance on his atheism, pronouncing religious beliefs to be "important". He is starting to show up to events in suits and ties. He has a team of 11 people, including speechwriters and war photographers, to post carefully-choreographed featurettes showing him engaging with people at strategically significant events.

He also recently amended Facebook's corporate rules to allow executives run for office.

This is what the company's amended clause says: "Mr Zuckerberg's leave of absence or resignation would not constitute a voluntary resignation if it were in connection with his serving in a government position or office."

Then there are his public pronouncements. Zuckerberg has increased the frequency in which he says he wants to change people's lives. His language is become more studied and semi-political. This is what he wrote in a Facebook post earlier this month.

"For decades, technology and globalisation 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."

Or how about this one, posted last weekend?

"Heading back home after a great few days in Texas. Today we drove down to Waco and stopped in smaller towns along the way. I had lunch with community leaders in Waxahachie who shared their pride in their home and their feelings on a divided country. I met young moms in the West who moved back to their town because they want their kids to be raised with the same values they grew up with. And I met with ministers in Waco who are helping their congregations find deeper meaning in a changing world ... We may come from different backgrounds, but we all want to find purpose and authenticity in something bigger than ourselves."

This is the stuff of soft stump speeches.

Zuckerberg certainly does not lack name recognition. He is arguably better known than Apple's Tim Cook and is up there with Bill Gates.

But is he likeable enough to get elected?

A poll last year put his net popularity at 22pc, which is considered high for a company chief executive. Stated positions such as his pledge to give away 99pc of his fortune (estimated at €50.4bn) over his lifetime play pretty well.

Nevertheless, there is far more to getting elected than simply being passively amiable. Charisma, in particular, is usually the determining factor in US presidential elections. With the exception of George Bush Senior, every single contest since 1960 has gone to the candidate with the greater charisma. Policies appear to come second in today's TV-led contests.

In this context, how would Mark Zuckerberg fare when placed against a skilful populist, such as Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders? Probably not too well.

It's notable that he hasn't had any opposition research done on him yet, either. There are skeletons in most candidates' closets. Even small ones can wreck a campaign. Thick-skinned candidates - like Bill Clinton or Donald Trump - can ride controversies out and still win. How sensitive is Zuckerberg to scurrilous rumours spread about him?

There are other practical matters to consider. Would he run within the existing US party system? He is certainly rich enough to go it alone. The most recent estimate of his net worth, based on his Facebook stock, is €50.4bn. It takes around €1bn to run a full-term campaign for president. So money isn't a problem.

Even if he decided not to spend as much on TV adverts, he owns the biggest media platform in the US, with some 200 million US users.

This latter ownership issue is the reason why Zuckerberg, even if he is intending to run at some point, cannot stoke such expectations at present. For all its dominance, Facebook is vulnerable to perceptions that it is biased or serves some purpose other than connecting friends and families. If it is seen as a mouthpiece for a presidential candidate, it could substantially hurt the business.

That Zuckerberg seems interested in public service is surely a noble thing. But it seems hard to believe he will make the run in 2020. 2024, when he is 40, seems a much more likely option.

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