Before the Cambridge Analytica story had broken. Before Facebook’s acknowledgement that its platform had been used to help incite ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Before the WhatsApp lynchings in India. Before QAnon and the Proud Boys – Mark Zuckerberg had the world at his feet.
So much so in fact, that at the start of 2017 he decided to tour America.
In a Facebook post, he said he wished to “talk to more people about how they’re living, working and thinking about the future”.
His goal was to speak to people in all 50 states – to get out and engage with real Americans.
It was seen by some as the start of a possible 2020 presidential bid – something he always denied.
His potential candidacy was seriously debated in the press – he had money, drive, and power.
This week, Joe Biden took the job that many believe Mark Zuckerberg secretly craves, or at least craved. And in doing so, he completed a reverse metamorphosis for Zuckerberg. A butterfly no longer, he finds himself alienated politically.
“He’s not a welcome figure at the cocktail party any more. And I don’t think he has been for a long time,” says Sarah Miller, director of the American Economic Liberties Project. She also happens to be on Joe Biden’s transition team.
“There is not a lot of love lost there,” she told me. “Facebook is broadly seen as the most prominent villain, among all the tech monopolists.”
Obama’s administration was considered to be close to Silicon Valley and to Facebook. If Biden was ever a friend, he’s not now.
In fact, the president often uses Facebook as a byword for the ills of a free internet gone wrong.
Talking to the New York Times a year ago he said:
“I’ve never been a fan of Facebook, as you probably know. I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan. I think he’s a real problem.”
It’s not just Biden. In the days after Biden’s election victory, his deputy head of communications, Bill Russo, tweeted:
“If you thought disinformation on Facebook was a problem during our election, just wait until you see how it is shredding the fabric of our democracy in the days after.”
Democrats blame Facebook for what happened in 2016. The Republicans’ use of Cambridge Analytica to micro-target voters was seen as a crucial component in Trump’s victory. Some of the angst is about settling old scores.
But if that was the turning point, relations are even worse now. Since then, Democrats – Joe Biden included – have been appalled by what Facebook has allowed on its platform.
Talking to a CNN anchor in late 2019 Joe Biden said:
“You can’t do what they can do on Facebook, and say anything at all, and not acknowledge when you know something is fundamentally not true. I just think it’s all out of hand.”
Devastating for Facebook
When you’re a billionaire, perhaps it doesn’t matter that the president doesn’t like you much.
But what President Biden has a chance to do now is restructure Big Tech and reformulate the relationship that social media companies have with their users.
That could be devastating for Facebook.
Its most obvious problem is the potential repealing of Section 230.
This is a small but crucial piece of legislation that prevents companies like Facebook from being sued for the things people post.
Joe Biden has said he wants it removed. In fact, in that same New York Times interview from a year ago he said he wanted it “revoked immediately”.
That could spell disaster for Zuckerberg. Suddenly all the things people post, all of the defamatory and fraudulent things people say – would be the responsibility of Facebook. It’s hard to see how Facebook functions in its current form without Section 230.
And that’s before we get into Facebook’s anti-trust problems. It’s currently being sued by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and 46 states for “illegally maintaining its monopoly position” by buying up the competition.
The FTC has also said it’s looking at “unwinding Facebook’s prior acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp” – ie breaking the firm up.
Facebook will, of course, fight that. But Biden seems a pretty willing ally to those who want to split up Big Tech.
In 2019, he said that breaking up companies such as Facebook was “something we should take a really hard look at”.
Jameel Jaffer, a media legal expert at Columbia University, told me: “I would expect the Biden administration to be pretty aggressive in enforcing the anti-trust laws. And to have the whole spectrum of harms in mind, not just the democratic harms, but harms relating to user privacy and consumer welfare.”
President Biden is even reportedly thinking of creating an anti-trust tsar, designed specifically to restore competition in areas like Big Tech.
Donald Trump and other Republicans always claimed that Facebook was too liberal, that it was biased against conservatives. But Trump did very well out of the platform. Both Trump and his high profile supporters regularly featured in the top 10 most shared Facebook posts of the day.
Trump’s indefinite suspension from both Instagram and Facebook of course changes that dynamic again. But would he have been suspended if he’d had a year to go of his presidency rather than a week?
Trump’s suspension has to be seen through that lens. Facebook is now scrambling to show it can moderate itself – that it agrees with Joe Biden’s view that a free internet isn’t necessarily a great and glorious thing.
And what better way to show you’re serious than banning the president?
Joe Biden though, doesn’t like Facebook. That die is cast.
What he now decides to do to Big Tech may well be framed around his dislike of the social network, and its emperor, Mark Zuckerberg.