Jan 9, 2020

Zuck's 2020 campaign

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Mark Zuckerberg said Thursday he's giving up setting annual challenges for himself and trying to take a longer view. But 2020 has already thrown down a challenge for him: threading a needle between business demands and political landmines.

The big picture: Zuckerberg has to grow revenue and users, yet not get blamed for tipping another election — and not buckle on what he views as the core value of free speech. Despite an onslaught of bad press, he seems to be succeeding ... for now.

The reality: Facebook's revenue and user base has shown consistent growth over the past year, proving that users and advertisers aren't too spooked by the drama around data privacy and misinformation. And unlike key rivals Google and Amazon, Facebook hasn’t really found itself in President Trump's crosshairs.

  • Despite outrage from Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill, there doesn't seem to be any meaningful regulation coming toward Facebook anytime soon.
  • And as the FTC's $5 billion Cambridge Analytica fine and $170 million YouTube child privacy fine last year show, big regulatory investigations into massive tech companies can deliver record penalties yet still not change the game.

Zuckerberg’s plan is coming into focus:

  1. Don't compromise on big, essential issues: On Thursday, Facebook said it wouldn’t follow rival Google and limit micro-targeting on political ads, nor would it follow rival Snapchat and begin fact-checking them.
  2. Make some cosmetic gestures: Facebook has made some small tweaks to its policy, like allowing users to opt out of political ads or certain micro-targeting options.
  3. Engage with Trump and his campaign: To minimize White House backlash, Facebook has increased engagement with the Trump administration, including through a private dinner with the president last fall.
  4. Better explain their logic: Zuckerberg has engaged in a lot more earned media these days, sitting down with the press in the U.S. and overseas frequently. In December, he did a rare joint interview with his wife Priscilla Chan for CBS News. A memo that was leaked to the New York Times yesterday lays out a trusted lieutenant's perspective on the 2020 election. It contained some awkward passages — but also helped the company explain itself.
  5. Buy favor: Facebook has jacked up its corporate ad spending significantly in the past year, especially in expensive messages targeted toward opinion leaders and policymakers. Facebook, along with its rivals, has used record lobbying dollars to try to purchase a Washington halo.

The bottom line: Facebook's public relations nightmare is far from over, but Zuckerberg is well on his way to meeting his 2020 challenge: compromise around the edges, don't buckle on things he cares about, and keep Wall Street happy.

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