Pictures coming out of Williston, N.D., and Homer, Alaska, are beginning to make me worry.

No, my anxiety is not because of destructive legislation coming from the Oval Office. Nor is it because I fear that the Harvey, Irma and Jose family might want an addition to their motley crew.

My anxiety lies with a certain gray-shirted, blue-jeaned, Williston- and Homer-visiting billionaire: Mark Zuckerberg.

Early this year, Zuckerberg announced his goal to visit every state in the country in the hopes of understanding his 2 billion users better by “listening and learning about how more people are living, working and thinking about the future.”He has since visited places ranging from the attention-starved pockets of middle America to the more ethnically diverse communities on the coasts.

Zuckerberg’s exploits in these areas have been well documented. Pictures from the tour depicting an attentive and beaming Zuckerberg candidly injecting himself into the daily lives of Nebraskan locomotive engineers or Iowan cafe-goers have been continually shared to his nearly 100 million Facebook followers.

To the casual eye scrolling through Facebook, Zuckerberg’s tour seems to be typical procedure for the CEO of one of the most prominent companies on Earth. CEOs will often reach out to the diverse members of their base, learn from them and then, ideally, act on behalf of them. But Facebook is not a typical company, Zuckerberg is not a typical CEO and politicking today is far from typical. 

What differentiates Facebook from other companies is its gradually materializing monopoly on political change and persuasion. With Facebook’s 2 billion users and the revelation of fake news, Zuckerberg currently presides over an apparatus unrivaled in its power to discreetely sway public opinion.

Zuckerberg’s recent actions suggest that not only has he started to recognize these unique powers but that he is keen on using them to rework his own image. His announcement proclaiming that, in the face of his long-held atheist identification, he now views “religion as very important”; his hiring of Joel Benenson, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chief strategist; and, yes, his heavily advertised 50-state tour conducted under the guise of brand building rather than cross-country campaigning suggest a push to align himself with more mainstream beliefs held by the general U.S. populace.

The upshot of all this is starting to become abundantly clear: Zuckerberg acts and projects like a man positioning himself for a public office run in the near future.

Irrespective of policy, this is a terrifying prospect.

First, let’s not forget Facebook and Zuckerberg’s outsized influence in enabling the vitriol and disinformation of the 2016 presidential election cycle. In late August, the company replaced all the human editors in its Trending section with an algorithm. Within 72 hours, a bogus story from endingthefed.com about how Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly was fired for surreptitiously supporting Clinton made its way to the top of the section, where it stayed for a few hours.

A joint team of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers further implicated Facebook in a study of media failure in 2016. The team researched more than 1.25 million stories published between April 1, 2015, and Election Day and found that “a media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world.”

Nevertheless, Zuckerberg has not shied away from defending Facebook’s innocence. In January, Zuckerberg professed, “I’m actually quite proud of the impact that we were able to have on civic discourse over all.”

The naivete of Zuckerberg’s response is concerning as more and more people find their news on Facebook. He is in the midst of opening himself up to showcase his all-Americanness and humanitarianism, yet he cowers and deflects when faced with one of the greatest weapons to democracy in recent memory. Fake news and disinformation, often originating from foreign actors as in the case of last year’s election cycle, ironically enough, legitimately influence the distortion of public opinion.

Look no further than the most recent round of troubling news to directly find Facebook’s role in the aforementioned nexus. Last Wednesday, Facebook disclosed to congressional investigators that between June 2015 and May 2017 it sold $100,000 worth of advertisements to a Kremlin-linked Russian company that sought to target voters through “troll” accounts. Most of the purchased ads focused on divisive issues ranging “from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights,” according to a note published by Alex Stamos, the company’s chief security officer.

Facebook’s enabling of its own subversion should give Zuckerberg no reason to be proud. The company ruefully failed to combat fake news and sinister foreign influence, and, in the process, helped to elect the most unqualified candidate to the highest office in the land.

Perhaps that surprising result has helped Zuckerberg realize the political gold mine he has on his hands. Perhaps he is leveraging that influence to build a foundation for loftier goals. After all, he supervises the data of nearly 2 billion users, and it seems that this data has told him to project a carefully orchestrated veneer of corn husking, religion embracing and aggressive Facebook gloating.

But Zuckerberg needs to read between the lines. As Facebook reached the frontier of media influence during the presidential election, he propagated and enabled nefarious doings. Zuckerberg’s shortcomings in addressing the fake news, his compliance in foreign subversion, his cavalier attitude and, most importantly, his unilateral control and mishandling on a media tool powerful enough to swing elections should render null any of his public office ambitions.

But that does not mean he will at least give it a shot. Zuckerberg is smart enough to see that, with a little magic from Facebook, inexperienced billionaires are one for one in winning.

Lucas Maiman can be reached at lmaiman@umich.edu.

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