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Mark Zuckerberg's probably nonexistent 2020 presidential campaign, explained

Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg Delivers Commencement Address At Harvard Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images

If you read media coverage of Mark Zuckerberg’s national tour, it’s easy to get the impression that the Facebook billionaire is running for president. Last week, Zuckerberg visited a truck stop in Iowa. He previously had dinner with an Ohio family and visited a Ford plant in Michigan.

Given the centrality of these three states to presidential politics, and the campaign-like nature of these activities, Zuckerberg’s trip has generated a lot of social media speculation about a possible presidential run. And some well-connected insiders say it’s completely plausible that Zuckerberg would seek the presidency.

“‘He wants to be emperor’ is a phrase that has become common among people who have known him over the years,” technology columnist Nick Bilton wrote in January.

“Most people who are running for president usually declare at this time of the campaign cycle that they’re not,” wrote Minnesota Public Radio’s Bob Collins after Zuckerberg made several stops in the Twin Cities. “And we dutifully report that they say they’re not, forcing you to choose between what they say and your lying eyes.”

But Zuckerberg says he’s not running for office. He says he simply wants to get to know Americans — most of whom are Facebook users — better.

And that’s entirely plausible. After all, the kind of outreach Zuckerberg would do in a presidential campaign isn’t that different from the kind of outreach he’d do if he were simply trying to understand Facebook users better and build public goodwill for his massive social media site.

Zuckerberg has visited 19 states so far

Mark Zuckerberg’s visits to swing states and early primary states — Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, North and South Carolina — have gotten most of the media attention. But if you look at the full map of where Zuckerberg has gone, the picture looks different:

Zuckerberg has visited deep blue states like Washington, Illinois, and Rhode Island and deep red states like Nebraska, Indiana, and Mississippi — none of which vote early in the primary process.

On the other hand, many of the events on his tour had — as the Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance puts it — “a campaign-esque vibe.”

“Today we drove down to Waco and stopped in smaller towns along the way,” Zuckerberg wrote about his time in Texas in January. “I had lunch with community leaders in Waxahachie who shared their pride in their home and their feelings on a divided country. I met young moms in West who moved back to their town because they want their kids to be raised with the same values they grew up with. And I met with ministers in Waco who are helping their congregations find deeper meaning in a changing world.”

The Texas swing was one small part of Zuckerberg’s overall trip:

A corporate goodwill tour looks a lot like a presidential campaign

A lot of people think Zuckerberg is preparing for a possible presidential run. Zuck himself denies it, insisting that he’s just trying to get to know the country — and, importantly, American Facebook users — better.

So who’s right? It’s hard to tell because the goals of a presidential campaign and a corporate goodwill tour are actually quite similar. A presidential candidate wants to meet a lot of ordinary voters so he can learn more about their thoughts and concerns. He also wants to be seen as meeting with a lot of ordinary voters. When a presidential candidate meets with a truck driver, assembly line worker, or teacher, he seems a little more relatable to every other truck driver, assembly line worker, and teacher in the country.

As the CEO of one of the world’s most influential companies, Zuckerberg has a lot of the same concerns. Most Americans are Facebook users, so almost every meeting Zuckerberg has helps him understand Facebook users better. And if he can make himself well-liked by the public, that public goodwill will make it easier for Facebook to weather future controversies.

And that’s important because it’s practically guaranteed that a company of Facebook’s size and influence will eventually come under public scrutiny. Already, the company has faced criticism (from Vox and others) for the proliferation of fake news on its platform, and people have blasted Facebook for doing too little to scrub violent videos from the site.

There’s no way a company of Facebook’s size and influence can completely forestall this kind of controversy. But having a CEO with an earnest, folksy public persona can serve as a valuable insurance policy when the inevitable controversies come up. People are far more likely to cut a company slack if they believe its CEO is someone who cares about ordinary people and tries to do the right thing.

And that’s why it’s hard to say if Zuckerberg’s travels this year are an unannounced presidential campaign or merely a corporate goodwill tour. The two projects have such similar goals that we should expect them to look similar in execution.

And in a recent tweetstorm, former Ticketmaster CEO Nathan Hubbard suggests another reason Zuckerberg may have undertaken his national tour.

“Zuck woke up on Nov 9th acutely aware that FB had facilitated a new shift he didn't foresee or understand,” Hubbard tweeted. “That's terrifying to a founder.”

Hubbard argues that Zuckerberg woke up after Donald Trump’s election and realized that he didn’t understand American Facebook users as well as he thought he did. Critics charged that Facebook had facilitated the spread of fake news that may have contributed to Trump’s victory.

So, Hubbard says, Zuckerberg has “ventured out into the world beyond his bubble to do field research.” He’s trying to meet as many Facebook users as possible — from as many backgrounds as possible — to help shape his thinking as he considers how to improve Facebook in the next few years.