The mainstream media is a fickle beast beholden to the direction of the prevailing political winds. Unfortunately for Facebook, Google and Twitter, those winds have turned about face in recent weeks as the political establishment thrashes about in its misguided efforts to prove that – aided by social media - Russia changed the course of the 2016 presidential election. While Facebook’s share price has suffered very little so far, the mainstream media is going to work on the reputations of Facebook and its billionaire founder. For example, according to Vanity Fair last month.
"…the tech giant is broadly focused on repairing its reputation following revelations that its platform was weaponized by Russia in the 2016 election."
“Weaponized” seemed a very strong word to use.
With the social media platform deemed “fair game” in the mainstream media, the Financial Times has lined up Mark Zuckerberg in its crosshairs. The FT journalist who penned the piece on Zuckerberg, Edward Luce, is cut from establishment cloth…and then some. Luce is the son of Richard Luce, now Baron Luce, the former MP, former Lord Chamberlain to the Queen and Knight of the Garter. Edward Luce read PPE at Oxford, took a sabbatical as a speech writer for Larry Summers and is the FT’s chief US commentator.
We are no fans of Zuckerberg and sympathise with some of it, but we recognise a hatchet job when we see it. In the article, Luce accuses Zuckerberg of...
Self-evident observation, or “stating the bleeding obvious”, to use the English vernacular:
Here is what Mark Zuckerberg learned from his 30-state tour of the US: polarisation is rife and the country is suffering from an opioid crisis. Forgive me if I have to lie down for a moment. Yet it would be facile to tease Mr Zuckerberg for his self-evident observations. Some people are geniuses at one thing and bad at others. Mr Zuckerberg is a digital superstar with poor human skills.
Political inadequacy and insincerity:
Facebook’s co-founder is not the first Silicon Valley figure to show signs of political inadequacy - nor will he be the last. But he may be the most influential. He personifies the myopia of America’s coastal elites: they wish to do well by doing good. When it comes to a choice, the “doing good” bit tends to be forgotten. There is nothing wrong with doing well, especially if you are changing the world. Innovators are rightly celebrated. But there is a problem with presenting your prime motive as philanthropic when it is not. Mr Zuckerberg is one of the most successful monetisers of our age. Yet he talks as though he were an Episcopalian pastor. “Protecting our community is more important than maximising our profits,” Mr Zuckerberg said this month after Facebook posted its first ever $10bn quarterly earnings result — an almost 50 per cent year-on-year jump.
Self-promotion, acting like a Soviet dictator and losing touch with ordinary people:
When a leader goes on a “listening tour” it means they are marketing something. In the case of Hillary Clinton, it was herself. In the case of Mr Zuckerberg, it is also himself. Making a surprise announcement that Mr Zuckerberg would be having dinner with an ordinary family is the kind of thing a Soviet dictator would do — down to the phalanx of personal aides he brought with him. This is not how scholars find out what ordinary families are thinking. Nor is it a good way to launch a political campaign. Ten months after Mr Zuckerberg began his tour, speculation of a presidential bid has been shelved. Say what you like about Donald Trump but he knows how to give the appearance of understanding ordinary people.
Helping Russia in its attempts to secure Trump’s election victory:
More to the point, Facebook has turned into a toxic commodity since Mr Trump was elected. Big Tech is the new big tobacco in Washington. It is not a question of whether the regulatory backlash will come, but when and how. Mr Zuckerberg bears responsibility for this. Having denied Facebook’s “filter bubble” played any role in Mr Trump’s victory — or Russia’s part in helping clinch it — Mr Zuckerberg is the primary target of the Democratic backlash. He is now asking America to believe that he can turn Facebook’s news feed from an echo chamber into a public square. Revenue growth is no longer the priority. “None of that matters if our services are used in a way that doesn’t bring people closer together,” he says.
Avoiding Tax (indirectly via Facebook) and masking self-interest:
How will Mr Zuckerberg arrange this Kumbaya conversion? By boosting the community ties that only Facebook can offer. Readers will forgive me if I take another lie down. Mr Zuckerberg suffers from two delusions common to America’s new economy elites. They think they are nice people — indeed, most of them are. Mr Zuckerberg seems to be, too. But they tend to cloak their self-interest in righteous language. Talking about values has the collateral benefit of avoiding talking about wealth. If the rich are giving their money away to good causes, such as inner city schools and research into diseases, we should not dwell on taxes. Mr Zuckerberg is not funding any private wars in Africa. He is a good person. The fact that his company pays barely any tax is therefore irrelevant.
Destroying communities and the noble profession of journalism:
The second liberal delusion is to believe they have a truer grasp of people’s interests than voters themselves. In some cases that might be true. It is hard to see how abolishing health subsidies will help people who live in “flyover” America. But here is the crux. It does not matter how many times Mr Zuckerberg invokes the magic of online communities. They cannot substitute for the real ones that have gone missing. Bowling online together is no cure for bowling offline alone. The next time Mr Zuckerberg wants to showcase Facebook, he should invest some of his money in an actual place. It should be far away from any of America’s booming cities — say Youngstown, Ohio. For the price of a couple of days’ Facebook revenues, he could train thousands of people. He might even fund a newspaper to make up for social media’s destruction of local journalism. The effect could be electrifying. Such an example would bring a couple more benefits. First, it would demonstrate that Mr Zuckerberg can listen, rather than pretending to. Second, people will want to drop round to his place for dinner.
Having dinner with Mark Zuckerberg was way down the list at ZH, with top choices including Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Margaret Thatcher (if she was still alive), David Bowie (if he was still alive), John Lennon (ditto) and John F. Kennedy (ditto).
While we are finding the FT’s attempts at ridiculing Zuckerberg and his company entertaining, we are questioning whether it merely reflects the shifting political winds. Maybe there is more to it. When Pearson sold the Financial Times in 2015 after being the “proud proprietor” for almost 60 years, it cited the “inflection point in media, driven by the explosive growth of mobile and social”.