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Even Mark Zuckerberg can’t stop the meme that he is running for president

Facebook chief executive and Harvard dropout Mark Zuckerberg delivers the commencement address at Harvard University on May 25 in Cambridge, Mass. (Steven Senne/AP)

(This is part of an occasional series in which we explain what’s behind a popular meme. We like to call it memesplaining; you might call it meme-ruining. Regardless, if you just chanced upon a joke, tweet, image, app or GIF you don’t understand, we have the answers — insofar as answers can be had.)

What it is: Mark Zuckerberg is running for president.

Ever since, oh, last December, there’s been persistent speculation that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is running for president. The cited evidence is, basically, that Zuckerberg is doing a lot of things that a presidential candidate might do. He is on a year-long mission to make sure he’s visited each of the states in the nation by the year’s end. Out of that tour have come photographs of Zuckerberg touring factories, thanking cops and visiting cattle ranches. He went to Iowa.

There are some other things, too: He said in December that he no longer considers himself an atheist, and that “religion is very important.” His Facebook posts about his travels around the country often read a bit like speeches. And there are the small handful of political hires to the philanthropic foundation that he runs with his wife, Priscilla Chan, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative: David Plouffe, President Obama’s former campaign chair, for one. Just this week, Politico reported that the organization had hired Joel Benenson’s firm to consult on a project. Benenson is a Democratic pollster, former Obama adviser and a chief strategist for the former Clinton campaign.

We skeptically wrote about this meme, that Mark Zuckerberg was up to something and that said “something” was “running for president,” back in January. He has since denied that he is planning to run for office on the record, twice.

Previously: What is Mark Zuckerberg doing?

But those denials haven’t stopped the speculation: Every time Zuckerberg does one of these candidate-like things, the meme that he must be running for president fires right back up.

Where it started:

Perhaps it was Zuckerberg’s 2017 New Year’s resolution “to have visited and met people in every state in the U.S. by the end of the year.” Or the fact that Facebook has recently clarified that Zuckerberg could serve in government while still controlling Facebook. Or any of the other things Zuckerberg did that looked kind of like what a candidate might do.

In short, the meme began the way that any other round of political speculation begins: with a horoscope-like analysis of the possible subtext of what Zuckerberg is up to. Since politicians who run for president have a pesky habit of “not” running for president while essentially campaigning, before they officially announce their candidacy, some of those same assumptions have been applied to Zuckerberg.

Is it true?

Officially, Mark Zuckerberg is not running for president. And Zuckerberg has denied, twice, that he is even interested in running for public office in the future. Here was his most recent comment from May:

Some of you have asked if this challenge means I’m running for public office. I’m not. I’m doing it to get a broader perspective to make sure we’re best serving our community of almost 2 billion people at Facebook and doing the best work to promote equal opportunity at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

It’s also worth considering the fact that his candidate-like behavior could be explained in multiple ways, and not just with the “he’s running” meme that seems to never die.

Let’s start with the tour of America. Yes, Zuckerberg is inserting himself into many of the tableaus that political candidates seeking to appeal to voters in swing states also create for themselves. But Zuckerberg also runs a little company called Facebook. And Facebook needs public trust to work: If its users don’t trust Facebook enough to give the company information about their personal lives and interests, how can Facebook use that information to sell ads?

Over the past year, Facebook has faced a few crises on that front. First there were reports accusing Facebook of having a bias against conservative sources in its trending news bar. Then there was Facebook’s role in amplifying fake news and hoaxes in the lead-up to the election, a conversation that challenged Facebook’s reputation as a platform where many Americans consume their news, and its long-standing insistence that Facebook is a”neutral platform” that simply hosts the world’s conversations, as they are. After a reluctant start, Facebook has taken on the latter problem more aggressively over the past several months, announcing its most recent plan to minimize the impact of hoaxes on the platform just today.

Zuckerberg runs a company that needs its users to trust it. And in America, that trust has been on shaky ground lately. Zuckerberg’s tour of America could be a symptom, or a possible part of a solution, to improving that trust.

But Zuckerberg is hiring a bunch of politics experts!

It’s true that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has hired a handful of political types recently. But it seems like a stretch to read too much into it, given the fact that the organization is also hiring a bunch of science and education experts, and does not appear to be, say, staffing up to transform itself into a campaign. Instead, it looks like a philanthropic organization that wants to get involved in politics and policy.

Politico’s story on the organization’s hiring of Benenson seems pretty skeptical about Zuckerberg’s current political ambitions. The story notes that his consulting firm also works for plenty of other nonprofit groups that don’t have leaders who appear to be running for president. They include AARP, the American Civil Liberties Union and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation.

Still, we asked the organization if it would comment on those political hires. A spokesman for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative replied:

As a philanthropic organization focused on a number of substantive issues including science, education, housing and criminal justice reform, any efforts we undertake are to support that work.

In conclusion: Zuckerberg is not running for president. It is also true that he could, in the future, decide to run for president. Don’t @ me if he does.

A smart observation to make at your next nerdy dinner party:

Facebook already has more than 2 billion monthly users, and Zuckerberg doesn’t have to run for reelection to continue to control the company. Zuckerberg already wields an enormous amount of influence in the world, so why would he want to become president of just one country?

Because of its size and ambition, the company also has plenty of problems to solve on its own, ones that directly impact human lives. It is still struggling to enforce its own community guidelines and contend with what constitutes protected speech on the platform. The rapid expansion into live video came with an onslaught of live-streamed violence. And there are broader, philosophical questions about the role Facebook plays in the news and information its users consume.

If it looks like Zuckerberg is running for office, it might be because, like a politician, Zuckerberg needs to be trusted by the people who voluntarily give him the power he has.