Mark Zuckerberg has always displayed a messianic sense of his own destiny. He once predicted that enlightened governments, prodded by a populace empowered by his company’s social networking tools, would champion a connected future in which Facebook would play a central part.
“We believe that leaders will emerge across all countries who are pro-internet and fight for the rights of their people,” he declared in 2012, at the time of Facebook’s initial public offering. These would include “the right to share what they want and the right to access all information that people want to share with them”.
It was just the kind of self-referential fantasy a 27-year-old planning a $100bn IPO would indulge in. This week, a more mature Mr Zuckerberg — now 33, married with two children and fresh from a 30-state “listening tour” of the US — faced off against 98 elected representatives of the American people in Washington DC. They were not the Facebook-friendly army he had dreamt of. Rather than standing up for the right to share, they seemed animated more by fear: that his creation might have become a threat to the privacy of its 2.1bn users and, perhaps, to democracy itself.
Mr Zuckerberg has run headlong into a series of crises caused by the almost unimaginable success of his invention. It began with his resistance to owning up to the fake news epidemic that hit the social network during the 2016 US election, followed by his unwillingness to face up to Facebook’s role in Russian interference. That has now been followed by the Cambridge Analytica scandal — another crisis that he was too slow to address. It has raised fundamental questions about whether Facebook can be trusted with its users’ data.
To draw the political sting, a pale and studiously deferential Mr Zuckerberg, in sober suit and tie, bowed to 10 hours of public questioning by legislators on Capitol Hill. But his appearance before Congress failed to resolve the question of whether he had done enough to hit reset — not just for his company, but for the trajectory of his own life.
The huge wealth generated by Facebook’s success has led to suspicions that Mr Zuckerberg’s idealism has been drowned in self-interest. In reality, the Harvard dropout has never separated the two. While declaring his mission to “make the world more connected”, he made clear from the outset that profits would play an important part: as both the validation of his company’s success in achieving its higher purpose, and the fuel to further his vision.
The twin goals of improving the world and making as much money as possible created “an intrinsic contradiction” from the beginning, says David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect. “The money has been so prolific that it has truly confused everyone [at Facebook] as to their responsibilities.”
If Mr Zuckerberg himself has been part of the problem, that has inevitably raised questions about his future. One investor has already called on him to hand over his chairmanship, and there have even been calls for him to surrender management control entirely. Few are holding their breath.
Given his majority voting control, “this is an individual who can’t be removed from office,” says Scott Galloway, author of a book critical of big tech companies and an outspoken critic of Facebook. But even if shareholders could replace Mr Zuckerberg, it would be beside the point, he adds.
The Facebook co-founder is doing what all bosses do in maximising his company’s profits. The real challenge is for society to come up with restraints. “It’s not his responsibility, it’s ours,” says Mr Galloway. The huge wealth generated by Facebook’s success has led to suspicions that Zuckerberg’s idealism has been drowned in self-interest To his critics, Mr Zuckerberg’s outsized success has left him — along with his number two, Sheryl Sandberg — disconnected from the impact they are having on the world, and badly placed to fix the company.
“I look at Zuck and Sheryl and think, ‘Wow, you’ve succeeded beyond your wildest dreams, you’re billionaires,’” says Roger McNamee, a Silicon Valley investor who advised Mr Zuckerberg in Facebook’s early days. “I would think they would want to be heroes in their own movie, instead of presiding over a system that is undermining democracy and civil liberties. But, for whatever reason, something’s happened. Maybe they’ve lost the ability to relate to the problems.”
To his supporters, this is just one more challenge for an executive who has successfully rebooted Facebook each time it has faced a new threat. “I have seen Mark face adversity many times, and he has always been able to galvanise his team, and come out stronger as a leader and organisation,” says Jim Breyer, a venture capitalist who backed him when he was 20. “I would never bet against Mark Zuckerberg.”
Mr Zuckerberg’s attempt to project humility this week has met with mixed success. Not known for his empathy or emotional displays, his apologies for data leaks were late, and sounded pro-forma. A repeated vagueness fed suspicions that despite his claim to be willing to accept new regulations, he has not yielded ground on any important issues.
But some who have followed him for years say it would be wrong to see the Washington visit as nothing more than a cynical exercise in self-preservation. “He is now, in a way he definitely wasn’t a year and a half ago, trying to work out what it means to be a company with such a civic responsibility,” says Mr Kirkpatrick. Given the stakes, politicians and citizens in many countries will be desperately hoping he is right.