President Zuckerberg? Here's why privacy advocates fear the Facebook CEO's political rise

Source: Alexis Kleinman/Mic

The bar for what's required to hold one of the most powerful positions in the world has sunk so low it may even be subterranean — but that doesn't mean a tech titan trying to resuscitate his public image is fit for the role. 

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in January that his personal challenge for the year was to travel and meet people in every U.S. state. The endeavor has resulted in a series of (stereotypical) photo ops fit for, well, someone running for public office. And this hasn't gone unnoticed. 

An article hinting at Mark Zuckerberg's potential presidential bid
Source: Town and Country/Town and Country
An article hinting at Mark Zuckerberg's potential presidential bid
Source: Boston Globe/Boston Globe
An article hinting at Mark Zuckerberg's potential presidential bid
Source: Salon/Salon
An article hinting at Mark Zuckerberg's potential presidential bid
Source: Observer/Observer
An article hinting at Mark Zuckerberg's potential presidential bid
Source: Guardian/Guardian
An article hinting at Mark Zuckerberg's potential presidential bid
Source: Fox News/Fox News
An article hinting at Mark Zuckerberg's potential presidential bid
Source: Los Angeles Times/Los Angeles Times

Zuckerberg has denied the rumors, but the "Zuckerberg 2020" narrative rages on. For privacy advocates, technologists involved in politics and anyone who's tracked the CEO's misadventures in the political space, the idea of one of the most powerful tech titans in the world running for president is an unnerving one.

Facebook's fake news scandal is the first cause for alarm

"To me, the first red flag that goes off is, you look at the role that fake news took in getting Trump elected and that was just Facebook sitting on its hands," game developer Brianna Wu, who is running for Congress on a platform of privacy rights and inclusive technology, said. "Someone running for office with that level of control over what people say, over what we think, over what stories can spread — it's fairly dystopian."

Facebook has undeniable influence and monopoly over the news we consume. As of the end of 2016, the social network had 1.86 billion monthly active users, and according to a report from Pew Research Center and the Knight Foundation, more than 40% of adults in the U.S. get their news from Facebook. 

Wu said that if Zuckerberg were to run for office, he would need to divest all of his shares in Facebook to earn public trust. 

If Zuckerberg were to run for office, he would need to divest all of his shares in Facebook to earn public trust. 

The social network has a troubling relationship with user privacy and consent

Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, said in an email that people worried about government surveillance should first worry about private companies, seeing as anything they collect can be sold or subject to lawful requests from the government.

"Facebook as a company has one product, selling people to advertisers by collecting as much information about everybody as possible, and they argue they have your 'consent' because you 'agreed' to a series of incomprehensible terms of service (that can change without notice)," Weaver said.

Facebook has experimented on users using their locations and manipulated some News Feeds in a psychological experiment. It also collects a lot of data about us, then sells it to third parties. 

Facebook boasted to advertisers about its ability to sway elections

Zuckerberg once said that it was a "crazy idea" that fake news could influence an election — but the company has actually advertised its ability to "influence voters."

A snapshot of Facebook's pitch to buy ads on its site
Source: Facebook/Facebook

"This campaign used a made-for-Facebook, audience-specific content strategy to significantly shift voter intent and increase favorability for a U.S. Senate candidate from Pennsylvania, contributing to his re-election," Facebook wrote on its pitch site.

"I can tell you as somebody running for Congress, of course we are out there talking to Facebook about getting on our district," Wu said. "And I have to tell you, it is rather shocking just how much information I am able to get about the people that I need to vote for me."

Why some experts say we shouldn't worry

"Across the board, the economics are stacked against privacy, and almost every tech company gets it incredibly wrong before they get it right," Jessy Irwin, a privacy consultant focused on human-centric technology and security, told Mic in an email. "After making very visible and very public mistakes, both Zuckerberg and Facebook have course corrected well and have taken on a more nuanced point of view. While I might not personally agree with him on every tenant of privacy, I would have more confidence in him than the average tech-illiterate politician in politics." 

It is in the best interest of the public to have a greater presence of the tech-literate in politics, but these figures should value privacy, net neutrality and encryption, to name a few. It remains to be seen whether Zuckerberg would prioritize privacy over cashing in on user data. So far, he has chosen the latter. Irwin said,

While there are things that could be dangerous or that could go incredibly wrong — there's potential for all of the usual data mining sins to happen, of course there might be tighter cooperation with law enforcement cooperation on issues like criminal activity and terrorism — Zuckerberg would have to break precedent and behave like our current president in pursuing his personal interests while in office. Given that this is damaging our current president's business interests, it's unlikely that Zuckerberg would follow the same course of action.

But Trump has also pushed the boundaries in terms of both corruption and nepotism in the White House. 

"It's one thing if you're talking about ultimately a construction company, it's quite another to talk about a company that has a near monopoly on who sees what news," Wu said. 

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Melanie Ehrenkranz

Melanie is a writer covering technology and the future. She can be reached at melanie@mic.com.

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