November 10, 2016; CNBC
In what might be considered an extreme leap of faith given the Zuckerbergs’ history with Donald Trump, the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), with Chan as its public face, has embarked on a crusade to convince President-Elect Donald Trump to partner with the CZI to eradicate disease around the world.
Priscilla Chan, pediatrician and, since her marriage to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, philanthropist, has up until now focused their joint philanthropic spending on public education (specifically San Francisco’s public school), health through a donation to San Francisco General Hospital, and investment in community by giving to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. On the occasion of their daughter’s birth they formalized this giving, like Carnegie, Rockefeller and captains of industry before them, by establishing the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, a new for-profit limited liability corporation with a social purpose focused on “advancing human potential and promoting equality in areas such as health, education, scientific research and energy.” CZI’s intent is to spend $3 billion over the next decade. It is always a good thing to have the leader of the free world on board for any initiative that could result in positive worldwide change, but why now, and why this leader of the free world?
The Zuckerbergs’ political leanings have always generated interest but no one knows for sure where they lie. When asked about their affiliation, their responses are guarded and general, with comments like, “I support a knowledge economy.” They wisely donate across the political spectrum and fund issues and ideas, not politicians or parties. After working on education reform in New Jersey, they sponsored a fundraiser for Chris Christie and made multiple donations to Cory Booker campaigns. They also supported Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes’s husband Sean Eldridge in his bid for Congress.
Though many in Silicon Valley are staunch Democrats, with the glaring exception of Trump supporter and convention delegate Peter Thiel, the Zuckerbergs remain mum on their position. Zuckerberg cofounded with Bill Gates and other tech luminaries an immigration reform–focused lobbying group, Fwd.us, in 2013 with a “campaign war chest” of $50 million. Trump loudly criticized this effort as a closeted attempt to increase H-1B visas, take advantage of unemployed American workers, and manipulate wages. After a major donation to Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) presidential campaign based on Rubio’s support of immigration issues, Donald Trump’s reaction was to call Rubio Zuckerberg’s “personal senator.”
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All the Valley tech companies, including Facebook, have a heavy and growing lobbying presence on K Street in Washington. Although it appears that each supports a pet policy or project, given the appearance of so many of them on each other’s boards, you can be sure it is a coordinated effort to make sure all tech bases are covered. Facebook’s particular lobbying focus has been research and development tax credits along with immigration issues. All of this small-“p” political activity is relatively recent, taking place over the last five years. The Zuckerbergs recognize the value of saying the right words to and financially supporting the right people, exploring and apparently exploiting opportunities, and striking while the iron is hot—and the Trump iron is red-hot today.
Many news organizations suggest that Facebook’s ubiquitous presence that feeds news directly into its patrons lives has unduly influenced the thinking and beliefs of its everyday users, causing a Facebook-generated “filter bubble.” Facebook met with conservative pundits and leaders to address concerns about Facebook’s news feeds having a liberal bias. The spreading of false information during the election cycle was so bad that President Barack Obama called Facebook a “dust cloud of nonsense.” Mark Zuckerberg denies any such doings, stating on Thursday night, “Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea.”
Have the Zuckerbergs found a kindred spirit in Donald Trump? Both have struggled with the issue of immigrant workers. They have experienced government regulations that impact their business functions—and now, one will be the leader of the free world. Both understand instinctively, as businesspeople do, that past conflicts are nothing personal; it’s “just business”—and, as detractors will add, “as usual.” But facing the future, neither one is wasting their time making small plans. One can almost hear Trump saying, “Go big, or go home.”
“We’re trying to figure out where the Trump administration policies are going to be and how we can work together,” Chan said. “Right now, we are waiting anxiously to see what Trump will do.” So is the world.—Mary Frances Mitchner