For years before she ran for president, Hillary Clinton's candidacy was inevitably described as "inevitable." Now, that mantle has been passed. Like the global march of the company he started, there's something inexorable-seeming about Mark Zuckerberg's ambitions to be Commander-in-Chief of the United States of America, whether or not those ambitions exist.
With every more-or-less straightforward denial of an intention to run for high office, the idea of Zuck 2020 somehow becomes more real. There's now even a Super PAC, "Disrupt For America," actively raising money for a campaign -- not for Zuckerberg's presidential campaign, mind you, but a campaign to persuade him to run.
You can't say Zuckerberg hasn't encouraged the speculation. Since January, Zuckerberg has been swanning across America visiting Joe Everyman, reportedly seeking out Democrats who voted for Trump, and posting each carefully documented encounter on his Facebook page.
He publicly espouses principles like openness, tolerance and free trade. Parts of Zuckerberg's Harvard commencement address could have been lifted straight from a Hillary Clinton stump speech. These antics come at a time when much anxious attention has been devoted to Facebook's influence on polarized political discourse during 2016 and 2017.
Context is important here. At another time, the idea of a CEO with zero political experience stepping straight into the White House would be absurd. But if building skyscrapers and yelling on TV can prepare you to ascend to the highest office in the land, why not running a global communications company? And Zuckerberg could be part of a wave of tech executives seeking office in 2020: Y Combinator head Sam Altman is considering a gubernatorial bid in 2020 and Mark Cuban has flirted with the idea of running for president.
To his critics, however, Zuckerberg raises unique issues because of his extraordinary amount of highly concentrated power. Billions of people worldwide use his service to communicate with each other. On top of that, direct access to Facebook would be an unparalleled source of demographic intel. Techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci pointed out that Facebook's website pushes users to follow Zuckerberg's profile page.
"In recent campaigns around the world -- from India and Indonesia across Europe to the United States -- we've seen the candidate with the largest and most engaged following on Facebook usually wins," Zuckerberg himself wrote earlier this year, starkly underscoring his company's electoral clout.
Zuckerberg has said repeatedly he intends to limit his power to Facebook and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (a charitable endeavor that he started with his wife), although it's debatable whether that constitutes limited power at all. One of the default arguments why he wouldn't want to enter government is that it might feel like a step down, given Facebook's global reach and quasi-monopoly on the distribution of information.
If there's one thing that has kept speculation at a boil, even more than the carve-out in Facebook's bylaws allowing him to retain control of Facebook while serving in government, it's his 50-state listening tour. Since the New Year, Zuckerberg has been crisscrossing the country, part of his stated goal to learn more about the people who use Facebook. Zuckerberg's handlers reportedly tell the families he visits to emphasize that he doesn't want to run for office, if asked by the press.
Tech reporter Mike Isaac wrote in The New York Times:
To his critics, Mr. Zuckerberg's road trip is a stunt and has taken on the trappings of a political campaign. His every pit stop -- eating with a farming family in Ohio; feeding a baby calf at a farm in Wisconsin -- has been artfully photographed and managed, and then posted to Mr. Zuckerberg's Facebook page.
The thing about a listening tour is it gets the listener out of having to speak much. For those curious not just about whether Zuckerberg might run for office or might be able to win but about what kinds of policies he would pursue once inaugurated, the last few months haven't been much more enlightening than the preceding 10 years.
Zuckerberg styles himself an idealist, constantly emphasizing that he wants Facebook to connect people for the good of mankind. "Community" is one of his favorite words, and he likes it even better when that community spans continents. Zuckerberg wrote in his February manifesto, "In times like these, the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us."
He added, "Our job at Facebook is to help people make the greatest positive impact while mitigating areas where technology and social media can contribute to divisiveness and isolation."
The best guide to what kind of president Zuckerberg would make may well be how he has run his company. For all his talk about principles like openness and free speech, his leadership is better viewed as a balancing of constituencies, a reality familiar to any politician.
For example, Facebook must walk a fine line between creating conditions that are conducive to advertising, and not restricting users' speech so much that they leave the platform. When it comes to what types of speech will actually improve the world, Facebook has never seemed especially opinionated. Hence the CEO can decry authoritarianism in a speech for Ivy League students, despite leading a company that has shut down Russian dissidents and toyed with building censorship tools for China's government. Facebook global head of policy management Monika Bickert claimed in an op-ed that "we respect local laws" while the company she works for only censors Holocaust denial in four of 14 countries where it is illegal.
The point is not to dictate what Facebook's policies should be when it faces requests from authoritarian governments, or grapples with laws restricting Holocaust denial. The point, rather, is how Facebook handles painful controversies like these: generally, with as little public discussion as possible.
As Tufekci lamented in response to Zuckerberg's Harvard commencement speech: "I mean, there are SO SO many problems right up Facebook's wheelhouse -- real problems; big problems. Facebook never to rarely talks about them."
Zuckerberg's youth, success, intelligence, and obvious sincerity make him a figure of broad appeal. The prospect of him running for president is exciting in large part because he's not just another politician. But perhaps the project seems as viable as it does because, for so long, Zuckerberg has avoided stances that would anger or offend a significant fraction of the world. And that's exactly the kind of thing we've come to expect from politicians.