By Deepa Seetharaman and Emily Glazer
For more than a decade as he built Facebook Inc. into a global
force, Mark Zuckerberg made it clear he didn't care for politics.
Early advisers strained to hold his attention in briefings about
D.C. lawmakers, people familiar with the matter say, and he
frequently said he would gladly leave the politics to others.
No longer. Mr. Zuckerberg is now an active political operator.
He has dined with President Trump, talks regularly with White House
senior adviser Jared Kushner, and has pressed lawmakers and
officials to scrutinize rivals including TikTok and Apple Inc.,
people involved in the discussions say.
Mr. Zuckerberg's new political moves are part of an effort to
protect his company from pressures that range from antitrust
scrutiny on both sides of the Atlantic to criticism of its privacy
practices and of its role in disseminating misinformation and
conspiracy theories. Facebook is also facing new competitive
threats from the likes of ByteDance Ltd.'s TikTok. Forging
relationships with political leaders, media personalities and
activists is now critical to Facebook's continued primacy in social
Mr. Zuckerberg, 36 years old, speaks with conservative thinkers
and civil rights groups, and -- after leaving most planning for the
2016 U.S. election to deputies -- he is now playing a hands-on role
in setting Facebook's policies for this year's race. Many of those
policies, especially those affecting political ads and user posts,
have been contentious, eliciting criticism from Republicans and
Democrats alike, including President Trump and Democratic
presidential nominee Joe Biden, as well as from within the
The political controversies haven't appeared to inhibit rapid
revenue growth for the company, to more than $70 billion last year,
up from less than $28 billion in 2016.
Nick Clegg, a former British deputy prime minister whom Mr.
Zuckerberg hired two years ago as global policy and communications
chief, said the CEO has been "intimately involved" in deciding to
bar new political ads the week before the election.
Mr. Zuckerberg declined to comment.
Just this month, Facebook said it would suspend all political
ads after polls close on Election Day and limit posts about
poll-watching operations that "use militarized language or suggest
that the goal is to intimidate, exert control, or display power."
Facebook this past week banned posts denying the Holocaust,
reversing its longstanding policy, and said it would block ads that
promoted antivaccine messages.
Then on Wednesday, Facebook and Twitter limited sharing of New
York Post articles containing allegations about Democratic
presidential nominee Joe Biden and his son Hunter that the Biden
campaign denied. The New York Post is owned by News Corp, which is
also the parent of The Wall Street Journal's publisher, Dow Jones
& Co. The Post responded with an editorial condemning the
Twitter and Facebook actions and saying that "no one is disputing
the veracity" of its reporting.
Mr. Zuckerberg's evolution in many ways tracks Facebook's
development from a college-based social network into a central
element in the American political system -- and a punching bag for
both parties. The intense scrutiny of the social-media giant's
influence from all sides during the past four years has made
increased political acumen a necessity for its CEO. Facebook's
massive reach and focus on free speech have at times made it a
super-spreader of falsehoods, hate speech, terrorist propaganda and
other posts it struggles to control.
Mr. Zuckerberg has lectured Facebook's broadly left-leaning
staff about the need to understand that their user base is more
conservative, and defended decisions not to remove posts from Mr.
Trump that some employees argue violated Facebook's rules. Mr.
Zuckerberg's stance has alienated prominent Democrats and
civil-rights activists and has frustrated many inside Facebook --
including, at times, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg,
people familiar with the dynamics say.
Ms. Sandberg declined to comment.
Mr. Biden's campaign manager last month sent the CEO a letter,
reviewed by the Journal, calling Facebook " the nation's foremost
propagator of disinformation about the voting process." The
Democratic nominee has said he has "never been a big fan of
"Any insinuation that Facebook accommodates any one political
party over another is simply false," a Facebook spokesman said,
adding that Mr. Zuckerberg was the "driving force" behind
Facebook's election-integrity and civic-engagement efforts.
"Mark Zuckerberg believes strongly that the company must have
rules in place to protect free expression, and that we continue to
apply them impartially," the spokesman added. "As CEO, part of his
job is to work on policy issues and engage with Democratic and
Republican policy makers, as well as other voices from across the
Both the Biden and Trump campaigns continue to advertise heavily
on Facebook. The Trump campaign considers Mr. Zuckerberg more of a
pragmatist than top executives at other major tech companies,
according to a person familiar with the matter. But the campaign
also has sharply criticized Facebook's policies. "Just like the
rest of the Silicon Valley Mafia, Facebook erroneously believes it
is the arbiter of truth and decider of elections," said Samantha
Zager, a Trump campaign spokeswoman, adding that tech companies
increasingly censor Mr. Trump and conservatives.
Mr. Zuckerberg, who is worth more than $90 billion, has
contributed to a handful of Democratic and Republican causes and
candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But
some people close to Mr. Zuckerberg say the only party he belongs
to is the party of Facebook. The one constant for him over the
years has been his broad belief that free expression should be
paramount and that Facebook is, on balance, good for the world,
according to his public comments and people familiar with his
Mr. Zuckerberg's growing political awareness also has shaped his
Mr. Zuckerberg and his wife have donated $400 million in
personal funds to nonprofits that help fund local governments'
election costs such as hiring poll workers, providing personal
protective equipment and sharing accurate Election Day information.
Conservatives are trying to block those private funds from being
used for public costs, and many liberals have criticized the effort
as hypocritical given what they view as Facebook's record of
allowing users to post disinformation about elections and
People who knew Mr. Zuckerberg at Harvard College, where he
co-founded Facebook as a student in 2004, say he could best be
described as center-left. In the run-up to the presidential
election that year, he worried about the prospect that George W.
Bush would be re-elected and closely tracked the race in the final
weeks, one of those people said.
But he wasn't particularly political. A few years after Facebook
was created, political advisers met with him to understand how his
views might shape company policy, according to a person familiar
with the matter. The advisers explained the differences among the
American political groups, including Democrats and Republicans, and
the meeting ended when Mr. Zuckerberg agreed that he was best
described as a libertarian, rather than closely aligned with either
major American party.
"He was completely apolitical," said Tim Sparapani, a technology
lawyer who was Facebook's first public-policy director until 2011
and has been critical of the company. "His political views had to
be coaxed out of him."
Facebook's policy team -- headed by Ms. Sandberg, a one-time
Clinton administration official who joined Facebook in 2008 --
handled most outreach and relationships with lawmakers in the U.S.
and globally. Mr. Zuckerberg started to focus on immigration reform
and in 2013 he co-founded a nonprofit, Fwd.US, to pursue that
The hands-off approach changed after Mr. Trump's 2016 election.
Mr. Zuckerberg was jolted by criticism that Facebook had failed to
stem misleading pseudo-news articles and other disinformation that
many of its critics said sharpened divisions among Americans and
made the race's rhetoric more toxic than in years past.
"What happened in 2016 casts a long shadow four years later,"
said Mr. Clegg. "Facebook was accused of being asleep at the
wheel," he said, and Mr. Zuckerberg determined that it had to
Mr. Zuckerberg publicly presented himself as a work in progress,
open to self-reflection and eager to understand other perspectives.
In 2017, he completed a listening tour of 30 states, an extended
road trip that had the trappings of a political campaign. In April
2018, he testified before Congress for the first time to answer
questions about Facebook's data-privacy controls. In 2019, he
hosted a series of discussions with academics and other executives
about the role of technology in society.
Behind the scenes, Mr. Zuckerberg intensified his focus on
making sure Facebook wouldn't be seen as partisan, in part by
emphasizing Facebook's support for free speech. Some Democratic
officials, concerned about misinformation undermining political
discourse, perceived him as growing overly deferential to
conservatives, who have generally argued against limits on
expression on social media. He started asking more policy-related
questions and grew more involved in decisions about controversial
content on the platform, including the 2018 decision to remove
far-right talk show host Alex Jones's properties from the platform,
people familiar with the company say. Mr. Zuckerberg tends to get
involved in situations where Facebook's policies aren't clear, Mr.
Clegg said, but leaves enforcement to his deputies.
He also recently cultivated relationships with prominent
conservatives with the help of longtime board member Peter Thiel, a
prominent Trump backer, and his global head of policy, Joel Kaplan,
a former deputy chief of staff to George W. Bush.
Mr. Zuckerberg maintains an open line with Mr. Kushner, the
president's son-in-law and senior adviser. The two sometimes
discuss Facebook policies over WhatsApp. The CEO spoke this year
with Mr. Kushner and separately with Treasury Secretary Steven
Mnuchin about TikTok's U.S. presence, people familiar with the
"Any insinuation that [Mr. Zuckerberg] encouraged the
Administration to ban TikTok is false," a Facebook spokesman
Mr. Zuckerberg has also told government officials Apple doesn't
receive as much scrutiny as Facebook even though it owns an
operating system used by a large percentage of Americans, people
familiar with the discussions said.
As tech platforms announced new political-content policies over
the past year, Mr. Kushner has argued to Mr. Zuckerberg that some
of those moves could hurt Republican and Democratic campaigns
alike, people familiar with the matter said.
Mr. Zuckerberg also has forged ties with right-leaning
publishers that drive engagement on the platform, including Ben
Shapiro, co-founder of the Daily Wire and a Trump supporter, people
familiar with the matter say. The conservative news site has been
flagged repeatedly by Facebook's fact-checkers for sharing
falsehoods and distortions. But it is frequently among the most
popular on the platform based on user interactions, according to
CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned analytics tool.
Mr. Zuckerberg invited Mr. Shapiro to dinner at his house last
year, the people said. While the two aren't friends, they sometimes
discuss broader political and philosophical themes, the people
added, many of which they disagree on.
Mr. Shapiro said in a statement that he doesn't comment on
people he speaks with because many in the media try to "stigmatize
open communications between conservatives and anyone who differs
In late 2017, when Facebook tweaked its newsfeed algorithm to
minimize the presence of political news, policy executives were
concerned about the outsize impact of the changes on the right,
including the Daily Wire, people familiar with the matter said.
Engineers redesigned their intended changes so that left-leaning
sites like Mother Jones were affected more than previously planned,
the people said. Mr. Zuckerberg approved the plans. "We did not
make changes with the intent of impacting individual publishers," a
Facebook spokesman said.
"I have not found any relationship at Facebook to be
particularly beneficial to our business," said Jeremy Boreing,
co-founder and co-CEO at the Daily Wire. He also said Facebook's
fact-checking program, announced in December of 2016, has caused
"serious losses" for the Daily Wire, which depends on Facebook for
traffic, and thus ad revenue, adding that the fact checks are
sometimes "wholly inaccurate."
Some on the left believe Mr. Zuckerberg has been less
accommodating to news sites that promote a progressive agenda.
After the launch last year of Courier Newsroom, a network of
eight progressive local-news sites that is part-owned by a
left-leaning nonprofit with close ties to Democratic donors, Mr.
Zuckerberg argued that Courier wasn't a real news outlet, given its
political connections, according to people familiar with his
The discussion sparked a new Facebook policy in August that
limits the reach of partisan-backed sites by blocking their pages
from inclusion in Facebook News, restricting their access to the
Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp platforms and curtailing their
The nonprofit behind Courier Newsroom, called Acronym,
criticized the policy, saying it favors conservative news
Mr. Zuckerberg has also begun meeting with progressive groups,
whose leaders argued that if he was developing personal
relationships with conservatives like Mr. Shapiro, he should hear
from the other side, too. The conversations haven't always gone
Rashad Robinson, president of the civil-rights group Color of
Change, said that Mr. Zuckerberg appeared to lack an understanding
of the ways Facebook could be contributing to voter
"I was talking to someone with such tremendous power but was not
serious or educated about the issues," Mr. Robinson said, "and was
deeply ill-equipped and unqualified for the task at hand."
Mr. Zuckerberg also has been trying to steer a safe political
course at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the for-profit charitable
and investment organization he oversees with his wife, Priscilla
In recent years, officials at the nonpartisan organization,
known as CZI, have increasingly grown wary of projects that might
be seen as overtly political, according to people familiar with the
"We fund a lot of really progressive groups on the left, and
also groups in the center and on the right, and in between," the
One casualty was a plan to aggressively pursue immigration
reform with the Trump administration, according to a person with
direct knowledge of the work. In 2018, during the family-separation
crisis, employees at CZI discussed absorbing Fwd.US, the
immigration and criminal-justice reform nonprofit Mr. Zuckerberg
co-founded in 2013, and other ways to tackle reform.
A few months later, Mr. Zuckerberg told employees that the
immigration issue was "too hot," the person said. CZI decided
against taking over Fwd.US., though it still funds the group while
focusing on its own work on more bipartisan issues like affordable
housing and criminal-justice reform.
David Plouffe, a former Obama administration adviser who was a
top CZI official until 2019, said CZI opted not to pursue the
additional immigration work because Fwd.US had already devoted
considerable resources to the issue. A CZI spokeswoman said its
broader immigration-reform program is in its early stages and it
funds groups focused on family separation.
At Facebook, Mr. Zuckerberg's greater involvement in politics
shifted the dynamic between him and Ms. Sandberg, his longtime
second in command, who endorsed former Democratic presidential
nominee Hillary Clinton's 2016 bid.
Ms. Sandberg has told some colleagues and associates that she
disagrees with certain Facebook decisions about political content,
including the move last spring not to take down a video of House
Speaker Nancy Pelosi that had been manipulated in a way that made
her appear to be drunk, according to people familiar with the
Ms. Sandberg argued for the video's removal but Mr. Zuckerberg
believed making the video less visible across the platform was a
better route, the people said. At a Facebook-sponsored event last
year, Ms. Sandberg said she and Mr. Zuckerberg "disagree all the
time but we tell each other and support each other," according to a
video of the event viewed by the Journal.
Some of Ms. Sandberg's colleagues have heard her use an
expression that underscores the shifting balance of power between
the two executives, who were long regarded inside and outside the
company as nearly equals. Now, according to these people, she
sometimes says: "I serve at the pleasure of Mark and the
Write to Deepa Seetharaman at Deepa.Seetharaman@wsj.com and
Emily Glazer at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 16, 2020 09:14 ET (13:14 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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