Zuckerberg’s political mistakes, accused of complacency towards the Republicans, could put a severe strain on an already fragile company, says Nicolas Colin.
Uber’s descent into hell in 2017 was triggered by a hashtag. Shortly after coming to power, Donald Trump formed an advisory board composed of leaders of major corporations – including Travis Kalanick, who headed Uber at the time. Immediately, on Twitter, hundreds of thousands of users began broadcasting the #DeleteUber hashtag in protest.
In total, it is estimated that #DeleteUber has led 500,000 customers (!) to delete their accounts. Kalanick finally decided to withdraw from Trump’s board, but this initial tremor plunged Uber into turmoil. In this unfavourable context, several scandals put the company to the test throughout 2017, reviving its main competitor Lyft and eventually forcing Kalanick to resign.
Zuckerberg and the image problem
The same thing is happening to Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg recently had a group of conservative and close Trump personalities over for dinner, including Tucker Carlson, who once denounced the “filth” of immigrants in his Fox News program, and Ben Shapiro, who called for the rebirth of the “Judeo-Christian West” in the face of the combined attacks of the left, Muslims and homosexuals. It didn’t take much longer to launch a Twitter campaign around the #DeleteFacebook hashtag. Calls for the dismantling of Facebook are increasing. And Zuckerberg was strongly attacked by the Democratic elected representatives at a recent hearing in the House of Representatives.
It must be said that Facebook executives are accumulating clumsiness. Dinner with Carlson and Shapiro is the culmination of four years of campaigning by the conservative right, who suspect Facebook of wanting to muzzle her. To defend himself against these incessant attacks, Mark Zuckerberg saw fit to multiply gestures of goodwill, to the point of now dealing with the most detestable representatives of this faction which, under Trump, is constantly becoming more radical.
To make matters worse, the same week saw Zuckerberg received at the White House by Trump himself – a “constructive conversation,” he said. And in a recording of an internal Facebook meeting, he was heard attacking Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is currently leading the way in the primary to nominate the Democratic presidential candidate for 2020.
This sequence creates an image problem. Zuckerberg now appears to be benevolent towards the Republicans and defiant towards the Democrats. All his gestures and statements are now interpreted to this standard. When he proclaims his support for freedom of expression, his words are perceived as complacency towards the false campaigns already orchestrated on Facebook by Trump’s team for the 2020 campaign.
Facebook (even more) in turmoil
This problem of appearance plunges Facebook even more into turmoil. Things will not go as far as they did for Uber, of course. Facebook is a much larger company, listed on the stock exchange since 2012 and extraordinarily profitable, which for the time being keeps its executives safe. But the company is nevertheless weakened on three fronts.
The first is that of the public authorities. In the United States, the alliance between Silicon Valley and the Democrats has now been broken, and if the latter regain power in 2020, the confrontation is likely to be brutal. In Europe, it is even worse: the image of large digital companies is increasingly blurred with the detestable and hated image of Trump and the Republicans, giving ammunition to all those who want to contain their growth and influence.
In addition, there is a second front: that of employees. As the company’s leaders move closer to the right, Facebook employees move to the left. They multiply donations to the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. This creates extraordinary tensions within a company already on the verge of a breakthrough and makes it difficult to recruit new talent.
The third front, finally, is that of the users themselves. It is not yet clear whether the #DeleteFacebook campaign had an impact comparable to #DeleteUber. What is certain, however, is that Facebook is losing ground in the “attention market”. Internet users are increasingly escaping to Instagram, which belongs to Facebook, but also to Snapchat, Twitter, LinkedIn or TikTok.
That is the danger. Facebook could afford some political mistakes if it had the unwavering support of its employees and users. But as this support weakens, the addition of this new and unnatural alliance with Trump could prove to be salty.