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Trapped in the Dorm Room

Mark Zuckerberg has long been celebrated as a visionary. But now he’s struggling to see what's right in front of him.


That Mark Zuckerberg would one day be forced to sit and answer questions from lawmakers has been a safe bet for a long time, given Facebook’s role in a Russian misinformation campaign aimed at influencing the 2016 election and its propensity for circulating fake news. But it became unavoidable in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which revealed that the data of tens of millions of Facebook users had been used in digital campaigns aimed at helping Donald Trump get elected. Yet Zuckerberg has only reluctantly bowed to this inevitability. As of Thursday, moreover, Zuckerberg was still playing hide-and-seek with British lawmakers, who weren’t as lucky as their American counterparts—the 33-year-old CEO declined an invitation to testify before Parliament, announcing instead that he would be sending two deputies.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal has come to encompass nearly all of Facebook’s flaws. It reflects the ease with which the social media network can be gamed by bad actors and divisive negative appeals. It shows that Facebook is an immense, unregulated hub of political advertising that skirts campaign finance law. It has become a hook for every criticism that has been lobbed at the company over the past several years—that it makes its users feel bad about themselves; that instead of bringing people together it pulls them apart. Above all, it’s a data collection scandal, one that threatens Facebook’s core advertising business, which is the primary source of its profound economic power.

But it’s not just Facebook that’s come under attack—it’s Zuckerberg as well. While Facebook is no longer labeled “A Mark Zuckerberg Production,” as it was in its early days, Zuckerberg and his creation have become as interchangeable as Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. The Cambridge Analytica scandal doesn’t merely show Facebook’s flaws—it increasingly shows Zuckerberg’s as well.

In the lore surrounding Facebook’s genesis, Zuckerberg’s genius lay not in his technical prowess—though he certainly had more than a little of that—but in his ability to imagine what Facebook could be. In this sense, he was the latest in a long line of American entrepreneurs like Walt Disney and Steve Jobs: a guy who thought big, then made big things happen.

“Mark has the most long-term perspective I’ve ever seen. This guy is uber uber uber on the long-term view,” Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook vice president who has since become one of social media’s sharpest critics, told David Kirkpatrick in 2010. Kirkpatrick’s book The Facebook Effect—a Facebook-approved response to Ben Mezrich’s more salacious The Accidental Billionaires, which became the basis for David Fincher’s The Social Network—presents Zuckerberg as an eagle-eyed visionary guiding his ship past the wreckage of other social networks, like Friendster and MySpace. He did this by being hyper-attuned to the user experience. “What they were trying to do was very different from what Google did,” Kirkpatrick writes about the early days of Facebook. “Their site was about people; Google was about data.”

These two Zuckerberg qualities—his long-term perspective and his fixation on putting users first—have been credited for the company’s enviable market position, its large profits, and its incomprehensibly large base of more than one billion users. Facebook’s forward-thinking focus has given it control of four of the five most-downloaded apps in the world. Zuckerberg did all of this without succumbing to the kinds of pitfalls that have befallen other tech executives.

Above all, Zuckerberg and his acolytes are guided by an almost messianic spirit. He and others in the company’s inner circle have been convinced for years that Facebook was not a mere product, but a humanity-altering service that would tear down the political, social, and economic barriers that kept people apart. “The power of democracy in these systems is that when you give everyone a voice and give people power, the system usually ends up in a really good place, so what we view our role as is giving people that power,” Zuckerberg told ABC’s Diane Sawyer in 2010.

But in recent years, Facebook has been weaponized by nasty political operations, strongmen, and even genocidal campaigns. A wealth of research has emerged suggesting it makes people feel bad about themselves. It seems to be better suited for transmitting misinformation than factual information. It bears some level of responsibility for the ongoing decimation of national and local news media. A good argument could be made, in other words, that Facebook is making the world a much worse place.

The cognitive dissonance between Zuckerberg’s characterization of the company and the recent evidence was on display in the series of interviews he gave last week in an attempt at damage control. While Zuckerberg signaled that he was open to both regulation and testifying before Congress (without committing to either), he was clearly a bit lost. “If you had asked me, when I got started with Facebook, if one of the central things I’d need to work on now is preventing governments from interfering in each other’s elections, there’s no way I thought that’s what I’d be doing, if we talked in 2004 in my dorm room,” he told The New York Times.

This is the core of Zuckerberg’s problem. The long-term vision he displayed in Facebook’s early years has clearly departed him. That is, to some extent, understandable—no one could have predicted that Facebook would turn into the beast it has become. And yet Zuckerberg and Facebook have made a number of poor decisions—from aiding monsters like Rodrigo Duterte to heavily relying on an advertising-based system that turns its users into obsessively-monitored products—that have put them in the precarious position they find themselves in today.

The fact that Facebook is publicly traded limits Zuckerberg’s ability to freelance. But not as much as you might think. Between his reputation and the fact that he still controls most of the company, Zuckerberg could make radical changes to Facebook. But he hasn’t, in part because he appears blind to its effects.