The Real Winner in the Facebook Leak Is Elizabeth Warren
A public beef with the social network helped Trump in 2016. Here’s how it will help her, too.
We now know what it’s like to sit in on a Facebook meeting led by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, thanks to segments of a leaked recording published by the Verge on Tuesday. Turns out it’s only marginally more interesting than sitting in on any other large company meeting. But it did put Facebook publicly at odds with a major presidential candidate — and helped her campaign in the process.
In a pair of meetings with employees held in late July, the Facebook chief addressed the rise of rival TikTok, acknowledged and downplayed a couple of then-recent controversies, made a few self-deprecating jokes, and took questions about the company’s corporate structure and his own role in testifying before various national governments.
As leaked audio goes, this is about as tame as it gets. Which makes sense: A meeting open to thousands of Facebook employees is hardly a place for executive candor, even if Zuckerberg didn’t expect to see the transcript pop up on a tech site two months later. The company found it so un-embarrassing that Zuckerberg went ahead and published a link to the Verge story on his own Facebook page. (The Verge says it will publish more in the days to come.)
There was, however, one tidbit juicy enough that it’s hard to imagine the company intentionally putting it on the record. Zuckerberg took a question from an employee about the threat of “regulators coming in and breaking up Facebook.” Picking up on the employee’s mention of Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, who has called for just that, Zuckerberg implied that he disapproves of her plan (surprise), and said he anticipates a legal battle if she wins. From the Verge’s transcript:
I mean, if she gets elected president, then I would bet that we will have a legal challenge, and I would bet that we will win the legal challenge. And does that still suck for us? Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to have a major lawsuit against our own government. I mean, that’s not the position that you want to be in when you’re, you know, I mean… it’s like, we care about our country and want to work with our government and do good things. But look, at the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight.
That Zuckerberg feels this way isn’t, in itself, surprising or damning. We already knew Facebook opposes plans to break it up. Of course Zuckerberg was annoyed that Warren was using his company as a punching bag in her primary campaign, and if she becomes president and tries to break up Facebook, he plans to push back. He would almost certainly say the same if asked about a different candidate’s plans to regulate Facebook.
Still, the question was about one candidate in particular who happens to be emerging as a serious contender for the presidency. (Warren has risen in the polls since Zuckerberg’s July remarks.) And you can detect just enough exasperation in Zuckerberg’s words and tone to make it clear that he is definitely not a Warren fan.
What matters is not so much that Facebook’s leaders don’t want a Warren presidency. It’s that the world now has definitive evidence that Facebook’s leaders don’t want a Warren presidency.
There is some evidence that Facebook’s antipathy to Warren extends beyond Zuckerberg. A Recode report in late July looked at how much the employees of each big tech company had donated to the various Democratic primary candidates. While Google employees gave more money to Warren than any other candidate, she was a distant third among Facebook employees, who favored moderates Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris.
What matters is not so much that Facebook’s leaders don’t want a Warren presidency. It’s that the world now has definitive evidence that Facebook’s leaders don’t want a Warren presidency, and in fact, view the Massachusetts senator as an existential threat.
Zuckerberg has company. Wall Street has grown increasingly worried as Warren’s star has risen, to the point where some Democratic donors in finance are threatening to sit out the election or even back President Donald Trump should she be the nominee.
You’re not likely to see Zuckerberg or almost any Silicon Valley CEO take that route — companies like Facebook lean far more left, especially at the rank-and-file level, than any Wall Street bank. Nonetheless, to be on the bad side of a company that controls so much of the online distribution of news and memes might seem like a hindrance to a presidential hopeful. But in this case, it might be a boon — and we know that because a similar situation helped Trump in 2016.
During the last presidential campaign, reports surfaced that some Facebook employees had asked privately what the company could do to prevent Trump’s election. While there’s no evidence that Facebook’s leaders condoned this desire, let alone acted on it, it played into a narrative of anti-conservative bias at Facebook that has hardened into conventional wisdom on the right.
The claims of bias may be trumped-up, but Facebook has had no choice but to take them seriously: They’ve been the subject of multiple Congressional hearings and an internal investigation, and they’ve spurred Republican support for more aggressive regulation. Reports suggest that this pressure has, in fact, influenced Facebook’s actions at key junctures, such as when the company dragged its feet on disclosing and taking action against Russian interference in the 2016 election, or when it decided to allow a 2015 Trump post attacking Muslims.
In other words, the perception that Facebook opposes Trump has had just the opposite effect. It has forced Facebook to bend over backward to appease him and those who support him, and it may have even helped him get elected in 2016. A similar dynamic in 2020 would play into his hands again.
Now that we know Facebook opposes a Warren presidency, some of her more fervent supporters might fear that it will somehow try to injure her campaign. Perhaps, the conspiracy thinking goes, it could tweak its algorithms or ad policies or skew its fact-checking to thwart her — if not as official policy, then perhaps subtly and informally, as Facebook’s trending news editors were accused of doing in 2016. The insinuations were already flying on Tuesday.
Facebook intentionally sabotaging Warren is probably no more realistic than the conservative fear that the company would do the same to Trump. Facebook is smart enough to know that turning its core products into partisan tools would be far more harmful in the long run than any president’s policies.
What it does mean, however, is that the company will begin to face some of the same kind of scrutiny and pressure from her supporters as it does from Trump’s. Now that Zuckerberg’s beef with Warren is out in the open, any whiff of improper tilting of the scales will immediately raise progressives’ hackles, if perhaps not to the same degree of single-minded derangement as their right-wing counterparts. If nothing else, the conservative talking point that the company has it in for Trump can be more easily countered.
Meanwhile, Warren’s campaign is having a field day with the reports. The senator devoted a tweetstorm Monday to her plan to break up big tech, which probably scored her both political points and donations. For a progressive candidate locked in a battle for the left flank with Bernie Sanders, being disliked by Facebook is almost as valuable as being disliked by Wall Street.
Facebook is hard for anyone to trust at this point, but if Warren wins the Democratic nomination, at least this time the mistrust will be coming from both sides. Maybe that will free Facebook to stop worrying so much about which side of the aisle it’s offending, and focus on securing its platform against coordinated misinformation and foreign interference in 2020 — regardless of who benefits.