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Mark Zuckerberg’s Cynical, Necessary Washington Strategy is playing a familiar game to get immigration reform passed

Getty/Justin Sullivan

For championing a cause most techies and liberals agree with—reforming America's immigration system—Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sure has taken a lot of flak.

In March, he launched, a political action committee promoting "policies to keep the United States and its citizens competitive in a global economy." Leading lights of Silicon Valley signed on, from Google's Eric Schmidt to Yahoo!'s Marissa Mayer, putting undisclosed sums of money behind the passage of the Gang of Eight's immigration reform bill (the group had raised $25 million by early April). These are people whose technological platforms have been propelling political campaigns for years now. So a campaign run by tech executives themselves must operate on the very cutting edge of online organizing, right?

So far, not so much. Staffed largely by Republican operatives and bolstered by a fleet of lobbyists, created two separate entities that sound like caricatures of corporate front groups: Americans for a Conservative Direction and Council for American Job Growth. Instead of uplifting messages about welcoming new American citizens, they've cut boilerplate ads praising senators in states where immigration isn't popular for their conservative stances on non-immigration issues, like Alaska Senator Mark Begich's support for opening the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge to more drilling and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham’s backing of the Keystone XL pipeline. The ruthlessly pragmatic calculation: By getting their backs on issues FWD doesn't care about or can't affect, it buys the senators political cover to take a potentially unpopular vote on a bill that right-wing talk radio hosts deride as "amnesty."

But this stated support for environmentally destructive policies, however disingenuous, has cued righteous outrage. The Sierra Club launched a Facebook page and CREDO Action hosted a petition, now up to 19,000 signatures, complaining about FWD's fossil fuel–boosting ad strategy. Gawker’s Adrian Chen called the two shell groups "as craven as Washington gets." The head of Netroots Nation said FWD wouldn't be welcome at the lefty conference this year. "They're not in it for the cause like the rest of the activists who have been in this for years," executive director Raven Brooks told TechPresident.  

It's also touched a nerve in tech circles, where issues like gun control and gay marriage—both opposed by the senators FWD praises—are sacrosanct. "Zuckerberg's PAC backs @SenatorBegich, who's against gun background checks," tweeted New York-based blogger and venture capitalist Anil Dash. "I will not trade more dead kids for H1Bs." To people who pride themselves on finding technological ways to do things better, the Beltway tactics seem distasteful and crude, a betrayal of their above-the-fray idealism. "Technology companies live and die by how innovative their products are," wrote Josh Miller, CEO of the conversation platform Branch. "Our organizing and lobbying tactics should be no different."

That’s a nice ambition. The rules of politics, however, don't magically change just because techies have decided to play the game. Legislators still make decisions according to their narrowly defined self-interest, outcomes are affected by a few key votes, and with the best chance in a generation to pass meaningful immigration reform currently on the floor of the Senate, now's not the time to be field testing new organizing techniques. Zuckerberg is no angel. But a little bit of deep-pocketed cynicism might be just what the movement needs to finally get something done.

If you've been watching Washington politics for a while, will look familiar. Twenty-four years ago, the heads of first-generation computing companies like Dell, Intel, Xerox, and HP formed the Technology CEO Council, which is "dedicated to advancing policies that promote innovation and U.S. competitiveness through technology leadership." In 1997, left-leaning venture capital icon John Doerr and staunch Republican John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems, formed TechNet "to actively promote policies that strengthen the nation’s innovation-driven global competitiveness." That's alongside a host of other industry associations that count their companies as members—America respects titans of industry, and groups of executives acting in their individual capacities have a kind of sway that company lackeys can't match, even if they're pushing for the same goals., which includes founders of Web 3.0 companies like Dropbox and Netflix, is simply the next-generation tech CEO lobby group. And it's parachuting in at a time when most of the hard work on high-skilled immigration reform has been done by its predecessors, in a way that's irked some of those who've been working on the issue for a long time.

"They're taking an issue where a win was already in sight, and basically they were going to try to get credit," says one such tech lobbyist. "There seemed to be almost a hubris. 'All the people who'd been lobbying on this for years, they're incompetent, it's only when we, Zuckerberg's group, gets involved in it, that we can turn the tide.'"

That's about right: The new guard wants this to be about more than today’s campaign. FWD people figure that piggybacking on immigration reform is a good way to raise their profile in Washington for whatever might come next, reversing the trend of non-engagement that allowed legislators to propose bills that would do harm to the Internet economy, like last year's SOPA and PIPA. The two philosophies—Silicon Valley's traditional libertarian streak and an emerging school that figures Washington can't be ignored—came into stark relief at last week's TechCrunch conference in New York.

"You're actually creating a political machine, it seems to me," remarked TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington to San Francisco venture capitalist and political kingmaker Ron Conway, one of FWD's founding members, during an on-stage interview.

"Whatever it takes to get the job done," Conway said.

"I just see government as this thing that stops us from doing things," said Arrington, who counts himself among a klatch of Silicon Valley libertarians that also includes PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel (neither have lent their names to the effort).

"I think the tech community has to stop doing that," Conway shot back. "If we get immigration reform, we can point to something that the tech community accomplished, with all the other advocacy groups. I think it's good for tech to be present and really help influence what's going to be a great outcome.

Success now—or at least the appearance of it—breeds success in the future, FWD's backers figure. This fight is just a foot in the door. And at the moment, the tech people involved aren't pretending to know how their campaign ought to be waged. Washington is still a mystery to them, so they've entrusted it to professionals.

"I have literally no idea," says Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook exec turned venture capitalist who receives a report every week on what FWD is up to. "The folks that are actually people that run that day to day are sophisticated and understand the nuances of how to affect it… It's a really gnarly, gnarly thing having to deal with Washington. And to be honest with you, my perspective was, it's a really good investment because it's a good way to pay it forward, and I'm really glad there are other people other than me who are dealing with it who have the patience and resolve to figure it out."

For a tech-backed campaign that so far hasn't delivered results, look no further than recent activism around gun control legislation, which fell through despite a high-profile push by New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Huffington Post co-founder and venture capitalist Ken Lerer, Conway, and other prominent Valley types. Promising a viral campaign like the one that had stopped the Internet-threatening SOPA and PIPA bills in early 2012, they ran TV spots and a full-page New York Times ad, set up a petition, and changed their Twitter avatars to feature the hashtag #IDemandAPlan. “The NRA has four million members and if you add up all the petitions signed in various gun safety groups, I bet you we are kissing up to four mission people now,” Lerer boasted then.

None of that helped when North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp received thousands of calls asking her to vote no on a bill expanding background checks. SOPA and PIPA it wasn’t: That broad and strange coalition of Internet companies, netizens, and conservatives, was an unprecedented set of circumstances that likely won't arise again soon.

Running through much of the FWD criticism is the plaintive question: Does Mark Zuckerberg care about immigration as a way of propelling the economy of the future, as his spokespeople so often insist? Can the tech community trust that his motivations are pure? He's not given progressive techies much reason to think so, having first dipped a toe in the political arena with a fundraiser for Republican Governor Chris Christie. And now, he seems willing to throw other liberal causes under the bus in the service of a bill that will simply allow him to hire more engineers from abroad.

The answer, for the purposes of a person who cares about things like a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, is that it doesn't matter. Future campaigns might be a different story, but at the moment, Zuckerberg's financial incentives align with the public interest: He knows that more high-skilled visas will pass only as part of a comprehensive package, which means he's got to pave the way for the rest of it as well. And if advertising things that make senators Begich and Graham popular in order to help them take an unpopular step does the trick, then so be it: It's unlikely that pro-drilling ads will make one whit of difference in places like Alaska and South Carolina anyway.

Even Dash, who'd tweeted irritably about FWD's support for Begich, understands that successful campaigns need to respond to a politician's self interest. Last week, FWD founder and president Joe Green visited a collection of New York tech players convened by CEO Scott Heiferman, and tried to win over the skeptics with his realpolitik rationale: You go to war with the army you have, Green told the room.

"It's kind of sweet how non-cynical they are," says Dash, referring to the tech community. "Some of this is geeks being shocked about what the process looks like."

Catherine Bracy, who ran tech outreach for the Obama campaign, doesn't think Zuckerberg's doing anything more than what's good for Facebook either. But she's also learned that the tech community's involvement in politics isn't some mystical new force, and social media wizardry only goes so far: They have to use the same tactics as everyone else.

"Whoever's making decisions behind the scenes at FWD clearly knows how the political game is played. It's not pretty. But if we want to win some battles, don't bring knives to a gunfight," Bracy says. "Even though this is a really cynical approach, at least it's a sign that Silicon Valley is starting to get it."

A little corporate pragmatism, in other words, might be just what the immigration campaign needs.

"We all would like to see high-minded unicorns and rainbows, snap our fingers and Washington would change," Bracy sighs. "That's unrealistic. I hate that we have to approach it this way, but if it makes change, then maybe we should evaluate it based on the outcome."

Disclosure: The New Republic's Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Chris Hughes was a co-founder of Facebook and worked at the company through 2007. He remains a shareholder.