Facebook CEO and Mark Zuckerberg has spent a considerable chunk of 2017 taking a surreal tour 50 states. In an effort to “get out and talk to more people about how they’re living, working, and thinking about the future,” Zuck has, among other things, people struggling with opioid addiction and on a factory assembly line.
Naturally, Zuckerberg’s whistle-stop tour has prompted nearly major media outlet to question whether this is a thinly veiled attempt to lay the groundwork for a 2020 presidential run. Zuckerberg, of course, he has no intention to run for public office. Whether Zuckerberg will eventually get into politics doesn’t really matter when he’s already running the most extensive public relations circus in the history of social media.
After all, his road trip isn’t about learning about our country—it’s about convincing us he’s benevolent enough to be accepted as our unelected leader, a platform that fits into the lives of more than one billion people every single day.
Zuckerberg’s choice of locations to visit, and who he chooses to meet when he’s there, reveals a lot about how he wants to be perceived — and, perhaps more importantly, how he perceives the country. As someone whose company possesses what is likely the most extensive dataset about the American public to ever exist, Zuckerberg sure does rely on cliché notions to dictate the stops on his road trip.
Frankly, it feels like his entire tour is a state-by-state exercise in stereotypes.
Let’s start with Ohio, which Zuckerberg visited in April. It’s not exactly surprising that he chose the state as the place to meet people struggling with opioid addiction. It’s repeatedly been as ground zero for the opioid crisis, despite the fact that other states like Maine and Massachusetts similar or even higher increases in opioid-related overdoses over the last several years. But Ohio is the media poster child for the problem, so that’s where Zuck’s going to go.
He went to a fucking rodeo
Similarly, Zuckerberg chose to visit a car factory in Detroit, a struggling city best known for being home to the automotive industry. But more people in Detroit are employed in education and health services than in manufacturing, to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Plus, automotive assembly plants are now scattered across the entire country. So why did Zuckerberg decide to visit a Ford plant instead of say, meeting with a teacher? Because making decisions is easier if you stick to deeply rooted clichés.
But Zuckerberg’s time in Texas that really takes the cake. There, he went for the lowest-hanging fruit: He went to a fucking rodeo. He took photos will real-life cowboys, and of course, stroked a baby calf in a straw-filled barn. Scrolling through the will make all your antiquated Texas fantasies come true.
Zuckerberg’s reliance on stereotypes extends not just to the places he visits and his choice of activities, but also to the individuals he meets — most of whom seem cherry-picked by his team for maximum photo ops and minimal controversy. It’s not hard to imagine that a Facebook employee made a laundry list of issues commonly associated with each state, then searched around for people who embody those concerns.
In Alabama for example, where key events of the Civil Rights Movement took place, Zuckerberg someone whose story is the of racial injustice. Anthony Ray Hinton, a black man, served 30 years for a crime he didn’t commit. He was finally exonerated in 2014.
Since then, he’s been the subject of fairly media coverage. A simple online search will quickly surface a deluge of articles detailing Hinton’s story. He even appeared on 60 Minutes. No doubt it took very little effort (if any at all) for Zuck’s aides to contact Hinton and schedule a meet-‘n-greet.
The same goes for Zuckerberg’s February visit to Louisiana. What do you think of when you think of serious issues in Louisiana? Surely Hurricane Katrina is near the top of the list. So Zuckerberg Burnell Colton, who has been instrumental in the recovery of the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, which was hit the worst by Hurricane Katrina.
Like Hinton, Colton is an easy-go to for The Issue. His important efforts landed him an appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’ daytime . He was also featured on NPR, The Washington Post, MSNBC, and numerous other outlets. It wouldn’t take more than a Google search to surface his story.
Even the fourth-generation shrimper Zuckerberg Louisiana is already familiar with the limelight. Dominick Ficarino starred in ‘, a reality television series that premiered in 2011 on the History channel.
Zuckerberg is spending time talking to important community leaders, and he should be commended for that. At the same time, choosing to meet with people whose stories have already been told by major media organizations creates a missed opportunity to highlight other individuals and worthy causes that have yet to gain national attention.
The human interest stories he fixates on will present no big revelations
But Zuckerberg is playing it safe. The human interest stories he fixates on will present no big revelations; the general public is already familiar with the issues and individuals involved. It is practically guaranteed that Zuckerberg’s tour won’t yield any unique insights or interesting discussions, and so he’s shielded from potential criticism. These individuals have been vetted. They are familiar territory. They are risk-free.
Why play it so safe? Instead of relying on and perpetuating outdated stereotypes about America’s cities, Zuckerberg could use his tour to spend time with people whose lives are representative of this country as it actually exists in 2017.
If Zuckerberg met with a fast food worker fighting to raise the minimum wage in her state, it wouldn’t be the flashiest Facebook post. It would, however, give Zuckerberg a clearer picture of what the U.S. is really like. (It would also give him valuable insight into his own users: The Fight for $15, a movement to raise the national minimum wage for workers, has over 320,000 likes on )
Or Zuckerberg could meet with a home health worker, an occupation the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects to grow rapidly over the next ten years. Nearly a million Americans already have these jobs and an additional 1.1 million workers are to be needed by 2024.
Or he could meet with a wind turbine service technician, a career which the BLS will grow by over 100 percent over the next decade, leading the bureau to label it the most rapidly developing profession in the country.
He won’t meet with these people though, because their professions present problems for Zuckerberg that he is unwilling to address.
Their professions present problems for Zuckerberg that he is unwilling to address
If Zuckerberg met with a fast food cashier that participated in Fight for $15 protests, he’d probably piss off McDonald’s, potentially damaging a business relationship. It would place him squarely on one side of the debate about how workers should be treated in this country. Neutrality, however, is better for the social platform business.
Similarly, engaging in a serious conversation with an in-home health worker could very well lead to a discussion of , which could irritate conservative state lawmakers who want to make those cuts happen. This opens would the door for conservatives to call his platform biased, Facebook has already had to deal with. So let’s scratch that one off the list.
The wind turbine technician would arguably create the most problems. It’s hard to visit a clean energy plant without touching on climate change. While the Facebook CEO has the issue before, he’s refused to publicly acknowledge the dangers of a warming planet on his public relations tour. That’s likely because he doesn’t want to start a battle between his company and fossil fuel giants.
In short: Zuckerberg’s tour relies on stereotypes because it has to. To avoid seeming on either side of the aisle, the Facebook CEO has to meet with people who fit narratives that have already been accepted by the American public.
With familiarity comes safety, and that means Zuckerberg isn’t teaching his considerable audience anything new about America.