The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A year ago, you probably thought Mark Zuckerberg was running for president

One hundred cut-outs of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg stand on the southeast lawn of the Capitol, put up by Avaaz, a global civic movement that is asking Facebook to ban bots and disinformation before the midterm elections in November. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

The big meme about Mark Zuckerberg in 2017 was that he was running for president. It wasn’t true, Zuckerberg said twice, but the meme didn’t die.

When he visited cattle ranches and factories — part of his New Year’s resolution to visit all the U.S. states he hadn’t been to yet — people saw campaign stops. When the charity that Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, run together hired a Democratic pollster to consult on a project, Politico wrote that the news came “amid speculation about Zuckerberg’s political ambitions.”

There was another reason Zuckerberg might have done things that looked like a campaign in early-to-mid 2017: He was, in a way, on one for Facebook. “My work is about connecting the world and giving everyone a voice. I want to personally hear more of those voices this year,” Zuckerberg wrote in his explanation of why he was traveling around the country.

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

Zuckerberg’s decision to become more visible followed months of increasing scrutiny. There were accusations of bias against conservative news sources on Facebook’s trending module, and speculation about Facebook’s role in spreading misinformation about the 2016 elections. Facebook depends on trust from its users. Zuckerberg is in charge of Facebook. It follows that reaching outside Silicon Valley to learn about how other Americans think and see Facebook is part of his job in a crisis.

What is Mark Zuckerberg doing?

That was 2017. A lot has happened since then.

In 2018, this once unstoppable meme about Mark Zuckerberg, that he’s running, is almost forgotten. Another new Zuckerberg meme has emerged to replace it: that Mark Zuckerberg is an awkward boy who is going to have a hard time defending his company in front of Congress during the biggest crisis in Facebook’s existence. He’s even getting credit for, of all things, an adult decision to wear a suit while testifying and, on Monday, meeting members of Congress.

Here is a photo of what that looked like, one of a handful that circulated as evidence that Zuck, who runs Facebook, was out of his depth in D.C.

The more general “Zuck collapses under pressure” meme is an old one that started with an interview the Facebook founder did in 2010, where he became so sweaty facing questions about user privacy that he had to pause to take off his hoodie:

One of the people questioning him on that stage several years ago has done a pretty good job laying out why that Zuckerberg, despite the resurgence of the meme, isn’t the one whom Congress is interviewing today. On Recode, Kara Swisher wrote:

Mark is now an adult man with two children and a longtime partner who took his company public and runs what is now one of the most powerful companies in tech. He is one of the richest people on the planet. He has met kings and queens, world leaders and potentates across the globe (as well as a whole lot of livestock on his odd trip across the U.S. in the last year). He has started a massive foundation, he has made a clutch of major acquisitions and he has rewarded his shareholders many times over.

There is, of course, an opposite meme about Zuckerberg, which is that he is a robot. That meme is responsible for “Saturday Night Live’s” particularly biting parody of him last weekend:

Zuckerberg is so memeable because, when he appears outside of the loyal and familiar world of Facebook, he has a tendency to give the impression that he would prefer to be somewhere else. As my colleague Elizabeth Dwoskin reported, Zuckerberg has largely left dealing with Washington to people at Facebook who are experts at it.

Whatever happens  — if he sweats, if he’s polished, if he’s awkward  —  over the next two days will feed or starve the memes that define Zuckerberg’s public image. Maybe try not to forget that he’s not a presidential candidate, a robot or a little boy.

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