Mark Zuckerberg, the principal founder of social networking service Facebook, has of late been interested in influencing US politics. Zuckerberg was one of 100 tech executives who signed a letter urging the US Congress and White House to pass significant immigration reforms. His ambitions in the political arena seem to be bigger, consonant with Facebook’s lofty motto of making the world more open and connected.
Evelyn Rusli reported in the Wall Street Journal in the article Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg Starting Political Group (March 26) that a planned political group by Zuckerberg would focus (initially) on comprehensive immigration reform. According to the WSJ:
The group, which so far doesn’t have a name, is aiming to raise roughly $50 million and has already secured commitments in the tens of millions of dollars from Mr. Zuckerberg and more than a dozen other tech executives including LinkedIn Corp. founder Reid Hoffman, said these people.
Mr. Zuckerberg has told confidantes that the new group will initially be focused on comprehensive immigration reform and making the pathway to U.S. citizenship less complicated for all immigrants, said people familiar with the CEO’s thinking. The group also plans to focus on issues including education reform and funding for scientific research.
The new group has also enlisted several consultants well versed in Beltway politics. Rob Jesmer, the former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is especially active on a day-to-day basis, said one person with knowledge of the matter.
Joe Lockhart, Facebook’s former vice president of global communications and a former press secretary under president Bill Clinton’s administration, and Jon Lerner, a Republican strategist are also involved, another person familiar with the matter said.
More recently, Politico claims to have obtained an internal prospectus (it’s multiple pages, so you may prefer reading the printable version) for the immigration reform group. The prospectus was drafted by Joe Green, a close friend of Zuckerberg’s who seems to be doing much of the legwork for the group. Here’s Politico describing and quoting the prospectus:
Under a section called “our tactical assets,” the prospectus lists three reasons why “people in tech” can be organized into “one of the most powerful political forces.”
“1: We control massive distribution channels, both as companies and individuals. We saw the tip of the iceberg with SOPA/PIPA.
“2: “Our voice carries a lot of weight because we are broadly popular with Americans.
“3. We have individuals with a lot of money. If deployed properly this can have huge influence in the current campaign finance environment.”
Joe Green has already backtracked from some of the assertions made in the prospectus. According to Politico:
“Several prominent leaders in the tech community, operating solely as individuals, continue to work on forming an issues advocacy organization that would seek to promote issues such as comprehensive immigration reform and education reform,” Green said. “However, some of the information contained in this email is outdated and not representative of the kind of work this organization will perform. Moreover, I regret some of the language in the email was poorly-chosen and could give a misimpression of the views and aspirations of this organization and those associated with it.”
The leaked prospectus confirms the bipartisan nature of the group highlighted in the WSJ article:
Signed on to be the Zuckerberg group’s campaign manager is Rob Jesmer, a former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Serving as political advisers are two Bush White House veterans: Dan Senor, who also served as Paul Ryan’s chief adviser during his vice presidential run, and Facebook executive Joel Kaplan.
The prospectus describes the group as a unique entity in the immigration fight. Listed among qualities that “we uniquely bring to this fight,” the prospectus says the Zuckerberg’s group is the “only well-funded bipartisan pro-reform group.”
“We have assembled the best people and most funding on this issue, and will win by focusing our activity in the districts of key members of Congress and senators,” the prospectus reads.
They also appear to intend to use standard political influence tactics of the same sort that restrictionists have successfully employed in the past:
Under a “tactics” section, the Zuckerberg group details plans for “grassroots and grasstops” organizing in targeted congressional districts, online advocacy campaigns, paid online and television advertising that will be “critical to creating the political infrastructure we need” and “earned media.”
“Given the status of our funders and quality of our team, we will drive national and local narratives to properly frame our agenda,” the prospectus states. The prospectus says the group’s support will provide cover for the “many congressmen and senators who want to vote for this but need the political space at home,”
The group’s listed “immediate” goal is to pass comprehensive immigration reform, which it calls “a unique opportunity to launch our organization. It is an issue that is critical to our community, that we can win, but where our help can be the difference maker.”
Elsewhere in the prospectus the group says its qualities include a “pragmatic focus on what moves votes, not talking about ourselves.”
On the apparent direction of the group
It’s too early to clearly say what direction the group will take, though “open borders” is probably not a phrase the group would associate itself with. I think it’s quite likely that it will be focused primarily on what is sometimes called “high-skilled immigration” and will advocate proposals similar to the startup visa. There is likely to be considerable overlap in goals and tactics with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group Partnership for a New American Economy and with the March for Innovation.
Zuckerberg’s group’s suggested focus (per the WSJ piece) on a path to citizenship suggests a somewhat different focus from that of hardcore open borders advocates, but more context would be needed for evaluation. From what I’ve gathered based on talking to some Silicon Valley people, most people in Silicon Valley are focused on free movement and the ability to work and found companies, and they do not place much value of the path to citizenship (though they are presumably not opposed to it). In this respect, Mark Zuckerberg’s focus on a path to citizenship (if the WSJ article is indeed correct about this) differs somewhat both from the focus of open borders advocates and that of Silicon Valley migration evangelists.
I doubt that tactics similar to those used to protest against SOPA and PIPA will be successful in a pro-immigration direction. In the case of SOPA and PIPA, the public was mostly indifferent, with no strong sentiment in either direction, and given that many people have probably violated copyright law intentionally or unintentionally, likely to be somewhat sympathetic to the anti-SOPA cause after hearing what it’s about. With the issue of immigration, a sizable minority of the population is deeply restrictionist, and a majority is moderately restrictionist. The use of tactics such as those used against SOPA and PIPA may well drive a nativist backlash similar to the backlash that accompanied Bush’s attempted version of immigration reform, and Obama’s original version of healthcare reform.
I’m not a political expert at all, so there may be many ways to pull off political activism of the sort that Green suggests without engendering a backlash — I just find it hard to think of them. It’s also possible that Green and the group at large may have already decided not to use SOPA-style tactics in their push for their version of immigration reform.
On the size and influence of the group
Given the importance of migration as an issue, it’s heartening to see a person as rich and influential as Zuckerberg devoting his attention to the matter.
$50 million sounds like a lot of money, but it’s not clear what fraction of it will be devoted to immigration advocacy, consider that the group also plans to focus on education and research issues. The timetable of how the money is to be spent is also unclear. It seems highly unlikely that a lot of money will be spent in the near future in order to bring about any significant change in policy direction. The bipartisan nature of the group suggests a potential for long-term influence.
Zuckerberg’s donation history
Zuckerberg, who turns 29 in a month, already has a fairly impressive donation history quantitatively speaking, but the cost-effectiveness and social importance of some of his past donations could be questioned. It’s not clear what impact his $100 million donation to the Newark public school system has had, and skeptics might question his $500 million donation to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (which, amazingly, does not appear to have a Wikipedia page at the time of writing of this article). Hopefully, Zuckerberg has learned from previous giving experiences and his efforts to kickstart the immigration reform group signifies his switch towards giving opportunities with greater potential upside.
UPDATE: The group launched three days after the publication of the post under the name FWD.us. More information is available in this follow-up post.