Zuckerberg's big step into politics is pushing tech friends away

Bloomberg NewsMay 30, 2013 

In this Jan. 15, 2013 file photo, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.

JEFF CHIU — AP

WASHINGTON -- Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's bipartisan political organization is losing friends.

The group backed by technology millionaires and billionaires, called FWD.us, began advocating in April for changes to U.S. immigration law. Within weeks, FWD.us surprised some of its members by setting up partisan offshoots and airing ads promoting Democratic Sen. Mark Begich's support for oil drilling and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham's backing of the Keystone XL pipeline.

It's a strategy intended to give political cover to some senators who may support an immigration bill by reminding uneasy voters of the lawmakers' other policy priorities. Yet the tactic angered some pro-environment donors and sparked a social-media campaign against Zuckerberg.

"The right way to accomplish political objectives is to argue issues on the merits," Elon Musk said in a telephone interview. The billionaire co-founder of PayPal and chairman of electric carmaker Tesla Motors stopped participating with FWD.us earlier this month. "We want a political system that is less cynical over time, not more," Musk said.

Technology entrepreneur Anil Dash, who declined to join the group, was more blunt, writing on his blog, "If we're finally moving past our innocent, naive and idealistic lack of engagement with the actual dirty dealings of legislation, then let's try to figure out how to do it without losing our souls."

With the Senate planning to begin debate on immigration the week of June 10, the feuding with FWD.us risks diluting the strength of and sapping energy from organizations seeking to promote the bill's passage.

The stakes are high, as the technology industry for a decade has sought more temporary visas for skilled employees, saying there aren't enough qualified Americans to do such jobs as software engineering. Labor unions dispute that, arguing that Silicon Valley companies want to deflate wages by importing cheaper workers.

Introducing FWD.us in an April 11 essay in the Washington Post, Zuckerberg wrote that FWD.us would focus on immigration and also help on issues such as improving science, technology, engineering and math teaching in schools and increasing funding for scientific research.

As a social-welfare group, FWD.us isn't required to reveal its donors and is limited in the amount of political work it can do. FWD.us lists 36 founders and major contributors on its website, without disclosing how much money they've given or the group's total budget.

The backers are a who's who of the digital age. Among them: Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, LinkedIn executive chairman Reid Hoffman, Netflix chief executive officer Reed Hastings, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt.

Some of them are seasoned political contributors. Schmidt, for example, is a top donor to President Barack Obama and Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican and tech advocate.

Zuckerberg, 29, is newer to politics, having never written a check to Obama or any other federal candidate, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, based in Washington.

In April, the FWD.us offshoots spent more than $1 million on a trio of TV commercials which aired for about a week in home states of senators.

In one TV spot, Graham, a South Carolina Republican, says he wants to build the Keystone pipeline to transport tar-sands oil from Canada. In another, a narrator reminds viewers that Begich, an Alaska Democrat, wants to drill for oil in a wildlife refuge. Neither commercial mentions immigration.

The Graham ad reflects a time-tested political strategy, said Haley Barbour, an adviser to FWD.us's Republican group and Mississippi's former governor.

"It's very appropriate to remind people of his judgment so that, as voters learn about immigration, they listen to him," Barbour said in an interview. "It's a proven concept, used in all kinds of advertising. And for good reason -- it's logical."

Musk and another former FWD.us donor, David Sacks, who founded business networking site Yammer, concluded otherwise and quit Zuckerberg's group. Sacks declined to comment through Yammer spokeswoman Belinda Wong.

At the time those ads were airing, FWD.us's Silicon Valley- based president Joe Green, was pitching other tech entrepreneurs for support. After having lunch with Green, Dash and Josh Miller, a founder of startup company Branch, both wrote online essays expressing their reservations.

The group's approach, "though pitched as 'pragmatic' and 'smart' by Beltway insiders, is typically only practiced by large pharmaceutical companies, gun manufacturers, and the like," Miller wrote in an essay posted to the website Buzzfeed.com.

Venture capitalist Vinod Khosla has more sharply criticized Fwd.us, asking May 5 in a Twitter message why the the group was willing to "prostitute climate destruction & other values to get a few engineers hired & get immigration reform?"

Keith Rabois, a partner at Khosla Ventures, is a contributor to Fwd.us. The company didn't respond to requests for comment.

In addition to the Graham and Begich ads, Zuckerberg's group is running radio and TV spots that emphasize the "tough" aspects of the immigration plan.

A minute-long ad airing now on the national talk-radio shows of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity begins: "Our immigration system is a joke, and the whole world knows it."

It goes on to say that Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, and Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, "are working on plans to change that. It all starts with real border security, more fencing, more manpower and high- tech surveillance."

Of those ads, Rob Jesmer, the FWD.us campaign manager, said, "There's a lot of conversation about immigration happening on talk radio. We'd be foolish not to get our message out over that medium."

Opponents of FWD.us's tactics recently started using some of the same social-media sites that made the group's backers wealthy.

Some environmental and Democratic-leaning groups, including the Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters, CREDO and MoveOn.org have banded together to criticize FWD.us through a Facebook page and Twitter account.

The coalition created a Tumblr last week to take aim at Mayer -- whose company just purchased that micro-publishing outlet for $1.1 billion.

"We'd like this Yahoo gif better, and do this dance, if Marissa Mayer dropped FWD.us," the Tumblr concludes, showing a dancing animation.

"These are the people who should be helping us figure out how to have a better democracy, and yet they're just using old, broken D.C. strategies," said Becky Bond, political director of CREDO, a super-political action committee started by a mobile phone company. "They have built their careers on communities of millions of users. We just want to make sure those users know what they're doing."

 

With assistance from Alan Ohnsman in Los Angeles.

 

 

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