BUSI­NESS OR POL­I­TICS?

Face­book founder trav­els pres­i­den­tial ‘lis­ten­ing tour’

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY SETH MCLAUGH­LIN

Face­book founder Mark Zucker­berg has stood in the pews at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina, where in 2015 a de­ranged teenager with an affin­ity for white na­tion­al­ism killed nine peo­ple, spark­ing a na­tional de­bate over gun con­trol and Con­fed­er­ate sym­bols.

He vis­ited a truck stop in Iowa, where he asked driv­ers for their thoughts on how driver­less ve­hi­cles might im­pact their in­dus­try.

In Ne­braska, he went to a gay pride fes­ti­val and vis­ited a rail­road, and in Ohio he mulled over the prob­lems of opi­oid ad­dic­tion with ad­dicts and so­cial work­ers.

Mr. Zucker­berg calls it a na­tional lis­ten­ing tour — a fact-find­ing mis­sion to look into the lives of his cus­tomers — but politi­cos say the vis­its, es­pe­cially to Iowa and South Carolina, look like the sort of ac­tiv­ity of some­one pre­par­ing for a pres­i­den­tial run.

“He has been here, and he has been ev­ery­where. So it is fas­ci­nat­ing,” said Jes­sica Van­den Berg, an Iowa Demo­cratic strate­gist. “I think it is in­trigu­ing. If you look at his Face­book page, it couldn’t be more per­fect for his cam­paign.”

Jaime Har­ri­son, as­so­ciate chair­man of the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee and former chair­man of the South Carolina Demo­cratic Party, said Mr. Zucker­berg’s Charleston visit has tongues wag­ging.

“I think it is an open door,” Mr. Har­ri­son said. “If he wants to come in, the wa­ter is fine. Come on in.”

Face­book did not re­spond to an in­quiry about Mr. Zucker­berg’s po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions, but the 33-year-old will be old enough to run for pres­i­dent in four years. The Con­sti­tu­tion re­quires the chief ex­ec­u­tive to be at least 35.

Mr. Zucker­berg main­tains that the tour is one of the an­nual per­sonal chal­lenges he sets for him­self, and he has shot down the spec­u­la­tion that vis­its to key pri­mary states has sparked. In pre­vi­ous years, he has sought to learn Man­darin, run 365 miles and read 25 books. This year, it’s to visit all 50 states.

“Go­ing into this chal­lenge, it seems we are at a turn­ing point in his­tory,” he posted on his Face­book page. “For decades, tech­nol­ogy and glob­al­iza­tion have made us more pro­duc­tive and con­nected. This has cre­ated many ben­e­fits, but for a lot of peo­ple it has also made life more chal­leng­ing. This has con­trib­uted to a greater sense of di­vi­sion than I have felt in my life­time. We need to find a way to change the game so it works for every­one.”

But even some who say they aren’t in­ter­ested in pres­i­den­tial bids make the trips and later de­cide to run.

That was the case for former Rep. Tom Tan­credo, who in 2005 made trips to Iowa to try to get vot­ers there talk­ing about im­mi­gra­tion. Mr. Tan­credo said his goal was to force the even­tual can­di­dates to deal with the is­sue, but when the time came, Mr. Tan­credo de­cided to run him­self.

Im­mi­gra­tion could also be a piv­otal is­sue for Mr. Zucker­berg, who in 2013 spear­headed the launch of FWD.us, which has pushed for legalization of il­le­gal im­mi­grants and a more open im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy.

The group in­vested tens of mil­lions of dol­lars to try to boost the Se­nate im­mi­gra­tion bill that year that would have pro­vided a quick path to cit­i­zen­ship for most il­le­gal im­mi­grants. The pro­posal passed the Se­nate but was never sent to the House.

Dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial race last year, the group sought to counter Don­ald Trump’s rhetoric on im­mi­gra­tion as well as his vows to crack down on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion.

Mr. Zucker­berg also has fo­cused on the sub­ject on his Face­book page, high­light­ing how he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, are help­ing pro­vide 400 col­lege schol­ar­ships to Dream­ers in part­ner­ship with TheDream.US, which aims to help those who were brought into the U.S. il­le­gally as chil­dren.

“We need a gov­ern­ment that pro­tects Dream­ers,” he said.

Mr. Zucker­berg has steered clear of be­ing af­fil­i­ated as a Demo­crat or a Repub­li­can.

But he has pro­vided some in­sight into his ar­eas of in­ter­est — in­clud­ing in a Har­vard com­mence­ment speech this year when he em­braced crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form, on­line vot­ing and the idea of ex­plor­ing “uni­ver­sal ba­sic in­come.”

In the first-ever Face­book Com­mu­ni­ties Sum­mit in Illi­nois, he an­nounced a new mis­sion for the com­pany: “Give peo­ple the power to build com­mu­nity and bring the world closer to­gether.”

“We have to build a world where ev­ery sin­gle per­son has a sense of pur­pose and com­mu­nity,” he said. “We need to build a world where we care just as much as any­one — a per­son in In­dia or China or in Mex­ico or in Nige­ria — as we care about a per­son right here in Chicago,” Mr. Zucker­berg said. That’s when we are go­ing to achieve our great­est op­por­tu­ni­ties and build the world that we all want for gen­er­a­tions to come.”

Steven Ca­marota, di­rec­tor of re­search for the Cen­ter for Im­mi­gra­tion Stud­ies, said Mr. Zucker­berg has had an in­flu­ence on the im­mi­gra­tion de­bate but the pub­lic is on the other side.

“There is no short­age of bil­lion­aires or rich and pow­er­ful peo­ple ar­gu­ing for amnesty and in­creas­ing the le­gal im­mi­gra­tion num­bers,” he said. “The bot­tom line is all of these peo­ple have found it very dif­fi­cult to get what they want on im­mi­gra­tion be­cause such a large frac­tion of the coun­try dis­agrees with them.”

Pub­lic polling reg­u­larly shows the vast ma­jor­ity of vot­ers ei­ther want le­gal im­mi­gra­tion to stay the same or be cut — not in­crease as many ma­jor busi­ness lead­ers are ad­vo­cat­ing.

Mr. Zucker­berg last year also faced com­plaints that Face­book was cen­sor­ing con­ser­va­tives in its news feed fea­ture. A com­pany re­view con­cluded that rogue em­ploy­ees may have shown bias but there was no sys­tem­atic ef­fort to short­change the right.

Dur­ing the flap, Mr. Zucker­berg met with con­ser­va­tive lead­ers to hear their com­plaints and make his own case to them.

Mr. Zucker­berg also may face a chal­lenge from ma­jor news­pa­pers, which an­nounced this week that they will try to band to­gether to fight the dom­i­nance of Face­book and Google in the dig­i­tal ad mar­ket.

Forbes rates Mr. Zucker­berg’s per­sonal for­tune at $64 bil­lion and said he has vowed to give away most of his wealth over his life­time.

Mr. Ca­marota said Mr. Trump’s elec­tion — on which he spent half of what the Clin­ton cam­paign in­vested — was a re­minder that money isn’t ev­ery­thing in pol­i­tics.

“On the idea of a lis­ten­ing tour, maybe he should try and get an al­ter­na­tive per­spec­tive on im­mi­gra­tion,” Mr. Ca­marota said. “I would guess that he doesn’t hear much from peo­ple who dis­agree with him on an is­sue like im­mi­gra­tion. If I were to give him any ad­vice, I’d say maybe he should talk to some of them.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Face­book founder Mark Zucker­berg in­sists he is on a fact-find­ing mis­sion to look into the lives of his cus­tomers, but politi­cos say the vis­its, es­pe­cially to key states, look like the sort of ac­tiv­ity of some­one pre­par­ing for a pres­i­den­tial run.

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