Mr. Zuckerberg Goes to Washington

Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg in 2012 (Flickr creative commons)

As Silicon Valley companies have grown, with skyrocketing profits and public approbation, their executives have been startled recently to encounter an obstacle beyond their control: government regulation. Facebook now employs enough H1-B visa holders to trigger limits on its employment of high-tech immigrant workers. For a company that has built a global empire on “sharing,” or moving user data through Facebook’s system as freely as possible, the prospect of limits—whether on the distribution of data or human resources—is not welcome. Facebook’s slogan, “move fast and break things,” takes as a given that the company is firmly in the driver’s seat, choosing its speed and what limits it will surpass, without its pace regulated by outside forces. Accustomed to relative technical sovereignty, Facebook and its cohort see the prospect of federal immigration restrictions not as a divergence of their interests with that of the public, but as an outdated threat from Washington, the imposition of old values on an ecosystem that has transcended them. “Lobbyists for Silicon Valley say those provisions are unworkable,” wrote theNew York Timesin May regarding measures in the Senate immigration bill that prohibit tech companies from laying off American workers within three months of hiring guest workers.

So like any CEO reckoning with government regulation, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg founded a political lobby, FWD.us. The lobby represents not only Facebook but a range of Silicon Valley startup founders and investors who share FWD’s interest in advocating for the industry’s autonomy. FWD marks tech’s high-profile entry into politics. In working to protect its constituents’ ability to, as FWD’s slogan goes, “move the knowledge economy forward” rather than share power with others, FWD is much like any corporate lobby created to advocate and protect its founders’ interests. But unlike traditional corporate lobbies, and in keeping with Facebook’s tendency to represent its initiatives not as elite efforts but as “revolutionary movements,” FWD is described by its founders not as representing a narrow set of corporate interests but as a new post- or non-partisan American coalition. “Our voice carries a lot of weight because we are broadly popular with Americans,” the group claims in its prospectus, imagining that the popularity of its technical products is coterminous with the popularity of its leadership. For denizens of Silicon Valley, technical innovation is a sign of aptitude for all other types of innovation, and as a result FWD representatives speak with a general sense of authority; according to the Times, former Facebook executive and FWD backer Chamath Palihapitiya “argued that Fwd.us needs to be ‘disruptive’ in politics, as in commerce.” On FWD’s website, Zuckerberg pronounces current immigration policy “unfit for today’s world.”

Understanding the FWD vision for “today’s world” is important because the lobby is directing millions of dollars at revising how Americans judge the merit of other people. A close reading of the arguments that FWD presents indicates as much about their ambitions for the American workforce as did Henry Ford’s famous melting pot ceremony, wherein immigrant factory workers who had attended the Ford’s assimilationist night school would jump into a “melting pot” in garb from their home country and emerge in American suits. The image still lingers in popular discourse, shaping how we see ourselves as a nation. Ford sought a homogenous, disciplined set of low-skill workers. What does Silicon Valley want?


In FWD’s first advertisement, called “Emma,” the lobby rewrites the classic Emma Lazarus poem, “The New Colossus,” inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, which implores the world to “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me….” FWD converts these famous lines to: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free / And give me the influencers and the dreamers / Talent that is searching for purpose / Those dedicated to the doing / Send all these, the boundless borne to me….” The altered verse recasts immigration as a talent search for “influencers” and “dreamers” in a world imagined as a field of visionary tech industry candidates. The problem that FWD wants immigration to solve is not poverty or want or political persecution, but the problem of the technical person who is not yet fully exploited.

FWD’s ad defines the “right” kind of immigrant. The rhetoric of the “influencer” is directly derived from social media, referring to the person who creates trends, the person who stands out from the mass rather than belonging to it. Influencers have “impact,” in Facebook’s oft-used recruiting language (the word appears four times on Facebook’s Careers page); they have high scores on Klout, a website that ranks people’s social impact based on the ongoing sum of their social media interactions—how they engage the masses with their brand. The rhetoric of the influencer is part of a breathless tech recruiting jargon where everyone is a singular, self-directed “entrepreneur” even while they are being recruited to work on big teams in large corporations. FWD’s “influencer” thus becomes a new form of identity—the technical innovator who is always innovative regardless of what he or she is doing—that is privileged over others, not for insidious racial reasons but for deserving, meritocratic ones.

For denizens of Silicon Valley, technical innovation is a sign of aptitude for all other types of innovation, and as a result FWD representatives speak with a general sense of authority

FWD has defined the “wrong” kind of immigrant, too. Part of the lobby’s strategy has been to fund both liberal and conservative ads in support of comprehensive immigration reform. On the conservative side, the FWD-created group Americans for a Conservative Direction advocates, in an advertisement called “Strong,” for FWD’s plan to secure borders with drones, radar, fencing, and 20,000 new border agents, all while withholding green cards and benefits from immigrants in the process. The message, replete with ominous music and gunsight graphics, could not be more different from that in the Emma ad. Here, immigration policy needs to be reformed so that the wrong kind of immigrants—those who attempt to immigrate through the border rather than by applying for technical visas—are kept out.

FWD imagines the United States not as a country at all so much as a technical company. “Recruiting is the most important thing our company does. Immigration is recruiting for the country,” reads a quote from Airbnb founder Brian Chesky posted on FWD founder Joe Green’s Twitter feed. This logic echoes Zuckerberg’s oft-repeated belief in “companies over countries,” wherein “if you want to change the world, the best thing to do is start a company”; we can surmise that the best thing a country can do is to start functioning like a Silicon Valley company. In this, FWD reverses the power relationship that makes its founders’ companies subject to inefficient, innovation-crushing government rule. It is the nation’s government that needs to transform immigration into a process like company hiring, not companies that need to follow immigration law.

But just as companies cannot function on technical employees alone, nor can a country consist solely of “influencers.” Meritocracy requires a group of the undeserving in order to promote the deserving, and the influencer requires that there be a mass of the influenced: a group who follows or participates rather than leads. Thus FWD’s rhetoric of a nation of “influencers” is as paradoxical as Silicon Valley’s recruiting rhetoric, in which companies are said to be composed fully of entrepreneurs: if everyone is leading, who or what is being led?

We can find one answer in the modern-day technology company, where technical workers are promoted as flagship employees while other types of employees often go underpaid and unacknowledged (contracting and hourly pay often distinguishes non-technical staff from the boldface entrepreneurial employees). That is, despite bombastic recruiting rhetoric, not everyone is imagined as an “influencer” at these companies, and those who aren’t are rendered invisible. And because “influence” is defined from the top as a technical quality, rather than one that applies to other types of work like customer relations, content production, or administrative support, the marginalization of those who are “not technical” can be justified as the worker’s failure to practice a valuable, influential skill. The privilege accorded to technical workers (and to their visa issues) is continuously reaffirmed by technical ideology while the working issues of others can go unrecognized.


What does politics look like in a nation dominated by influencers? That world is imagined in Facebook’s 2012 ad, “The Things that Connect Us.” The ad begins with an image of a floating chair and, in the course of explaining how chairs are like Facebook because they are where people sit and share, ends up arguing for the way that nations are like Facebook. The ad performs a transmutation of the country into a corporate entity by positing a contrast between the universe, which is “dark” and “makes us wonder if we are alone,” and Facebook, which is a “great nation” that “makes us feel like we are not.” Nationhood for Facebook users, of course, is not membership in a country but membership in a social network, and the video begins by depicting scenes of people sharing social moments with one another. It then builds to a climax by depicting various masses of people gathered together. But these crowds are gathered not for political but for social purposes, like weddings and athletic events, in which everyone celebrates in sync. In the final scene a massive crowd is assembled in the nation’s capital, but the scene is entirely without conflict, more like a celebratory presidential inauguration than a political protest. The role of the mass, it appears, is to share, and when the mass acts it is to support, not challenge or dispute, its leadership.

The forms of action FWD proposes its supporters perform recapitulate this model of mass-choreographed political participation. FWD asks Facebook users to support FWD’s immigration reforms by calling their senators through an application developed by FWD for Facebook. In this mode of nearly automatic activism we see that the frictionless sharing Facebook enables is at its most frictionless when it is working in support of Facebook’s leadership. By virtue of their influential position, these leaders are able to program both their desired political content and the means by which the content is shared. The job of the user is to share the memes that they create—to sit in the symbolic chairs they have built for their users and connect socially.

The frictionlessness of sharing on Facebook is also what makes it attractive to people whose goal is to challenge Facebook’s or other institutions’ power, as, for example, the startup Upworthy intends to do. The company, founded by MoveOn.org founder Eli Pariser, creates political memes through social media. But as groups like Women, Action, and the Media (WAM!) have recently discovered when they attempted to lead protests against Facebook on Facebook (WAM! created the hashtag #fbrape and encouraged people to use it online to protest Facebook’s lack of action to remove violent, misogynistic content), no amount of sharing on Facebook is enough to make Facebook’s leadership cede its power to users and respond to their demands. WAM! has been understandably dismayed at Facebook’s response to the #fbrape campaign, which has allowed violent content to remain on Facebook while allowing advertisers to remove their ads from reported pages. But demanding that the tool you use to circulate your message also submit to your message misunderstands the power dynamics of the platform. Just as in another Facebook ad, “Home,” where a disruptive employee resists Zuckerberg’s instructions by using Facebook, all that matters to the technology’s leadership is that people use it. Insofar as people continue to use it, even in protest and replete with angry hashtags, the tool’s dominance remains unthreatened.

As was the case in the #fbrape protest, technical platforms seeking massive scale frequently opt for system-wide efficiency over individual users’ demands. In the case of FWD’s advocacy for the H1-B visa expansion, the concerns of individual H1-B visa applicants happily align with the system’s scalability—more visas are good for both the visa applicant and the company seeking to hire them. This coincidence of FWD’s interests and H1-B visa applicants’ interests, however, is not evidence that FWD is concerned with the specific immigrant issues represented by groups like the National Guestworker Alliance, just as tech’s recent interest in leading in other areas like feminism and school reform does not mean that its leadership is concerned with issues that everyday women or teachers face. The target of FWD’s reforms is efficient corporate recruiting, not improving the lives of all immigrants. This is why, once these innovator-specific reforms have passed, we should not be surprised if broader advocacy for immigration and worker issues fails to follow.

In his Washington Post op-ed announcing FWD, Zuckerberg wrote, “This can change everything. In a knowledge economy, the most important resources are the talented people we educate and attract to our country.” FWD, like all of Facebook’s initiatives that conflate the leadership of the powerful with transformation for all, is pushing the interests of the tech industry forward in the name of all immigrant workers. But like Facebook’s other top-down “revolutions,” it will primarily be advocating for the interests of its privileged, influential few.


Kate Losse writes about the culture of technology and is the author of the 2012 memoir The Boy Kings, a book about her time working at Facebook.