An Unelected Monarch Is Shaping Our Public Life. His Name Is Mark Zuckerberg.
If it’s not the single most powerful individual position in the world, it only has a few rivals. Think general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. Or the Pope. Or chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve. Or maybe the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.
It’s a position that’s been embroiled in a contentious conversation for years now about the scope, and possibly criminal misuse, of the current incumbent’s power: the ability to encourage wars between nuclear powers. To rally or slow down global markets. To end, or initiate, horrifying human rights crises around the world.
The conversation has reached a fever pitch this year — just in time for election season.
But I’m not talking about the presidency. We get to elect the president. (Sort of.) I’m talking about the CEO of Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg.
The most recent Forbes list of the world’s most powerful people had him slated at lucky number 13. (With the CEOs of Amazon, Google, and Apple at 5, 10, and 24, respectively.) Based on revenue alone, the tech giants are well into G20 territory — but we all know that Mark Zuckerberg’s power is not fully conveyed by looking at Facebook’s earnings sheet.
The U.S. presidential election in which we’re currently enmeshed is quite likely to break the previous spending record from 2016, $2.4 billion. Three different billionaires have joined the race thus far. The election is taking every minute of news coverage left after covering the simultaneous emergencies of a pandemic of similar scope to 1918, an economic crisis of similar scope to 1929, and civil unrest of similar scope to 1968.
That scale of money and news coverage at least has an ostensible aim: to let people know what their options are for deciding who occupies the role. There is no similar conversation about the election we’re not having, the one meant to determine who gets a comparable amount of power over American lives as the U.S. commander in chief: the CEO of Facebook.
One Thing to Pay Attention to in Tech’s Big Antitrust Hearing: Power
Is tech “breaking our democracy”? It’s beside the point.
The staggering unelected public power of Mark Zuckerberg
My point isn’t that we need to directly elect the next heads of the Big Tech companies. It’s that it’s simply not sustainable in a democratic system for Mark Zuckerberg — or Jeff Bezos, or Tim Cook — to have so much unchecked, unelected power. It makes no sense that we can vote for a president, but have no say about the person who determines what news everyone sees, effectively determining what “truth” is.
Mark Zuckerberg’s $30 billion wealth increase in the two months following the shelter-in-place order for the Bay Area catapulted him to the third position in the Bloomberg Billionaires Index for May, where he remains as of this writing. His personal fortune is at least $100 billion, lagging behind only those of fellow tech titans Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates. But it would be a mistake to consider Zuckerberg’s power just in financial terms. Mark Zuckerberg wields a different, more dangerous, less obvious kind of power — a power that is wider reaching and far more insidious than what money can buy.
Mark Zuckerberg’s power doesn’t come from his billions, or whom he gets access to, or whose favor he can curry — Mark Zuckerberg is powerful because he is, singlehandedly, reshaping society: by redefining privacy, by changing our relationships with one another and with ourselves, by experimenting with our mental health, by stoking hatred, by owning the singular platform to host exchanges that would normally take place over thousands of various media. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t powerful because he’s rich, he’s powerful because he’s neck-deep in social engineering, the art of manipulating people at scale. To say that Zuckerberg is able to wield the same power as the U.S. president is to undersell the matter. Trump’s reelection might well be going better if he had the ability to quietly change the news feed that a plurality of Americans depend on to get their vision of the world.
Mark Zuckerberg isn’t powerful because he’s rich, he’s powerful because he’s neck-deep in social engineering, the art of manipulating people at scale.
Separation of powers, or a new kind of monarch
Even when heads of government have the imprimatur of legitimacy granted them by a popular election, they typically are subject to various institutional hurdles and separation of powers that keep them from exercising absolute control. In a corporate model, the analogous constraint would be a board, which could vote a CEO out or in. But Zuckerberg has no such constraint placed on him.
Currently, Mark Zuckerberg personally controls around 60% of the voting shares at Facebook — he literally cannot be voted out. He could unilaterally decide overnight to turn Facebook, a website whose membership is meaningfully larger than the population of China, into a propaganda arm for a religious cult, or a GeoCities-style Golden Girls fan site, or whatever he damn well pleased, and there’d be no above-board avenue I see to quickly displace him from his position.
In any professionalized field like law, medicine, or engineering, this would not be the case, to put it mildly: The U.S. surgeon general can’t simply decide to become a faith healer without consequences. The idea of, say, Anthony Fauci, MD, individually and singularly dictating patient-doctor interactions would be absurd: There’s a whole extant infrastructure that ensures patient safety is based on best practices, not a single individual’s whims, no matter how brilliant or wise.
That’s because the multiple-stakeholder model of separation of powers is somewhat mirrored in what happens in law, medicine, and engineering: established professions with norms, and certification, laid out explicitly and institutionally. (I see this as a baseline minimum for fixing the social costs that Silicon Valley has inflicted upon its users.) Much like how our constitutional system in the United States, at least theoretically, is designed to constrain the power of the presidency so as to avoid appearing like a monarchy.
Monarchy might be the best term for the system run by tech CEO founders like Zuckerberg: holding immense powers of life and death for untold millions, and never subject to meaningful democratic restraints.
What might a real 2020 election look like?
A worthwhile thought experiment might be to ask what would happen if we elected the heads of the Big Tech companies. Imagine the user bases of Facebook, Apple, Google, and Amazon having a say in the holder of a position that affects their lives at a scale roughly equal to that of the U.S. president: What campaign promises might the CEOs run on?
We can imagine debates where candidates try to outdo each other on pledges of data protection, guarantee that they’ll step down if a single genocide is encouraged by Facebook policies during their tenure, or lay out how their First 100 Days will ensure their tools buttress societal mental health rather than imperil it.
As it stands, we can’t elect them — and while a more democratic economy is a goal I share, it’s a long-term project, and we have to live and use social tech tools in the interim. If we can’t elect them, then at the very least we should be able to hold them accountable. Professionalization is how we can get there — not just for Zuck but also for the others.
Because, as easy a target as he is, it’s not just Zuckerberg. Covid-19 has only accelerated the speed at which Amazon is effectively becoming our consumer economy, giving Jeff Bezos a power of central planning that might’ve made Khrushchev himself blush. The power over A.I. that Google has now would make any totalitarian autocrat jealous.
And Apple? Apple’s market capitalization of $1 trillion, far greater than U.S. Steel, or Exxon Mobil, made it the world’s most valuable public company until Aramco, the Saudi-owned oil giant that qualifies as the world’s greatest daily oil producer, went public last December.
In a professionalized field, you can still end up with power imbalances, but nothing so outrageous as a single individual setting the terms for entire industries. Professionalization means advisory and certification boards that ensure you stay within your ethical mandates. It means you can be expelled from the field for abuse of power. And it means that there are systems in place that give entry-level workers a meaningful forum to express concerns and to blow the whistle when necessary without having to risk their careers.
CEOs at the Big Four have to know that professionalization is their best protection against a public that won’t stand for their excesses forever. This summer has already seen all four of them brought before Congress, all playacting forms of obstinacy — with Bezos in particular, having never spoken to Congress before, unable to admit he hadn’t engaged in the anticompetitive behavior that the House Judiciary Committee is looking to mediate against.
We came extremely close this election cycle to having a major-party nominee with a Break Up Big Tech platform. Who’s to say that won’t happen by the next election cycle? Given the recent performance by the Big Four before Congress, none of them should be feeling particularly reassured.
The smart bet would be on buying insurance against the reckoning that’s coming. We’ll see if the insulation of supreme wealth and power is so thorough as to prevent basic instincts for self-protection.