Mark Zuckerberg’s Persistent Power in Silicon Valley

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Written By Pinang Driod

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Over the past few years, Mark Zuckerberg has been somewhat overshadowed by more antic-prone CEOs and flashier technology. But his appearance before the Senate yesterday is a reminder that he’s still very much a power broker of Silicon Valley.

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In the Hot Seat

I remember where I was in 2018 when Mark Zuckerberg looked up at Orrin Hatch, suppressed a smile, and said, “Senator, we run ads.” The moment, which captured the utter confusion of geriatric lawmakers about how the internet works (Hatch had asked Zuckerberg how Facebook manages to operate without user payments), almost instantly became a meme; it was a rare moment of levity in an otherwise grim hearing about Facebook’s mishandling of user data.

Watching Zuckerberg back on the Hill yesterday, answering questions about what his company is doing to protect children on its platforms, I was struck by how much has changed over the years. In 2018, Facebook was soaking up most of the attention of lawmakers concerned about the dangers of Big Tech. Now other major platforms are also under intense scrutiny: Zuckerberg testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday alongside Evan Spiegel of Snap, Linda Yaccarino of X, Shou Zi Chew of TikTok, and Jason Citron of Discord.

Perhaps in part because Zuckerberg is the most publicly recognizable of these CEOs, he was a target of particularly harsh grilling from lawmakers—Senator Josh Hawley told him that his product was killing people. At one point, Hawley prompted the executive to turn toward the crowd and apologize to the parents of child-exploitation victims in the room (though Zuckerberg did not concede Meta’s responsibility for the tragedies). But lawmakers had tough words for the others too: While Zuckerberg was on the stand, Senator Lindsey Graham said that all of the companies present had blood on their hands.

Zuckerberg has made extensive efforts lately to rebrand the company, most notably by changing Facebook’s name to Meta. Reeling from scandals, zealous about the metaverse, and apparently eager for his company to be known as more than a social-media site, he announced the new name in October 2021. This change came the month after reports first emerged about a leaked trove of Facebook internal documents showing that the company had heard—and apparently dismissed, at times—repeated concerns from staff about some of the deleterious effects of its technologies, such as the amplification of extremism and misinformation and harm done to teen girls. The name change may have been an attempt to distance the company from the misinformation and user-data fiascos of years past, but it seemed to be a Hail Mary of image rehabilitation that critics likened to the tobacco company Philip Morris rebranding itself as Altria. The name is different, but much about the company—including Zuckerberg’s control over its mission—remains the same.

Zuckerberg’s own persona has also gone through ebbs and flows, as he went from wunderkind to immensely powerful CEO at the white-hot center of turmoil in the industry. “Zuckerberg’s public reputation has, more than most, reflected changing public sentiment about tech,” Margaret O’Mara, a historian at the University of Washington who studies Silicon Valley, told me in an email. “In the last two decades, tech founders have gone from entrepreneurial hackers who are building the future, to greedy surveillance capitalists stomping on our privacy, to extraordinarily rich and powerful business barons with quirky hobbies.” If, in 2018, Zuckerberg was well on his way to becoming a symbol of the “greedy surveillance capitalist,” he now seems to be chasing the “quirky business baron” image, complete with new hobbies such as Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Calls for Zuckerberg’s resignation have dimmed, and he is no longer the preeminent symbol of the techlash. But as Adrienne LaFrance, the executive editor of The Atlantic, reminded readers in an article this week, the tech world’s embrace of Zuckerberg, and his leadership methods, is in many ways Silicon Valley’s original sin. “To a remarkable degree, Facebook’s way of doing business remains the norm for the tech industry as a whole, even as other social platforms (TikTok) and technological developments (artificial intelligence) eclipse Facebook in cultural relevance,” she notes. The “Shakespearean drama” at OpenAI last year, Adrienne adds, “underscores the extent to which the worst of Facebook’s ‘move fast and break things’ mentality has been internalized and celebrated in Silicon Valley.”

It’s easy to look away from Zuckerberg amidst wilder tech scandals, such as FTX’s crimes and Elon Musk’s many dramas. But he is not just an avatar of Silicon Valley’s messy and remunerative early days (though he is certainly that). As we saw at this week’s hearings, Zuckerberg remains enormously influential, both to the scaffolding undergirding Silicon Valley and to the culture currently shaping it. For one thing, although Facebook is passé among many young people, the platform hit 2 billion active daily users last year (compared with the hundreds of millions on Musk’s X), and Meta’s Instagram and WhatsApp are juggernauts. Perhaps more important, Facebook normalized a landscape that prioritized building fast over tending to deeper ethical concerns, and lawmakers are just now attempting to catch up and rein in a range of players. (A spokesperson for Meta told me in an email that the company has invested heavily in issues related to protecting kids online, adding, “We support clear, consistent legislation that makes it simpler for parents to help manage their teens’ online experiences, and that holds all apps teens use to the same standard.”)

Zuckerberg is no longer the only tech CEO in the hot seat. But in the hot seat he is. His turn on the Hill served as a reminder of just how central he remains, no matter how many times he or his company attempt to rebrand.

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Evening Read

Dominic Ebenbichler / Reuters

Risking Their Lives to Ski While They Can

By Talia Barrington

There’s something fundamentally excessive about winter sports. Instead of curling up with a book or Netflix when the weather turns cold, winter athletes wrestle with inordinate layers and high-tech gear just to make it through the day without frostbite. They sprint across ice with knives strapped to their feet and hurtle down mountains at speeds generally reserved for interstate highways. They fall off ski lifts—or are trapped overnight in them. Show me an experienced winter recreationalist, and I’ll show you someone who has slipped, skidded, and crashed their way to a broken tailbone or torqued knee, and more likely than not a concussion or two.

But over the past few years, climate change, social media, and a pandemic-era obsession with the outdoors have combined to make these already intense sports even more extreme.

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P.S.

Something especially interesting to me about this week’s hearings was the way that several of the executives tried to downplay how popular their services are among young people. As Will Oremus noted in The Washington Post, “Historically, a social media platform’s popularity with teens was seen as a bellwether for its long-term viability. But during the Senate hearing Wednesday, at least two tech companies have gone out of their way to portray themselves as primarily a place for adults.” Yaccarino claimed that fewer than 1 percent of X’s U.S. users are ages 13 to 17, and Chew said that the average age of TikTok users is over 30. (Pew Research data gathered last year found that some 20 percent of teens said they used X, and 63 percent said they were on TikTok.)

Also, the promised cage match between Musk and Zuckerberg has failed to actually happen thus far. But Musk faced challenges of his own this week: A judge in Delaware ruled, essentially, that he is overpaid. She called his nearly $56 billion pay package “unfathomable” and said it was unfair to shareholders.

— Lora

Stephanie Bai contributed to this newsletter.

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Lora Kelley is an associate editor at The Atlantic and an author of the Atlantic Daily newsletter.

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