Zuckerberg Calls Warren's Plan an 'Existential' Threat to Facebook. But Is It Really?

On Tuesday, The Verge published text and audio from internal meetings between Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and employees concerned about the company's future. In the meetings, Zuckerberg warned that the plan to break up Big Tech companies proposed by 2020 Democrat Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is an "existential" threat to the company. Yet Robert Epstein, a Ph.D. psychologist who studies the search engine manipulation effect (SEME), argued that Warren's plan does nothing to curb the power of companies like Facebook.

When asked, among other things, about Warren's plan, Zuckerberg predicted a legal battle and described it as an "existential" threat. He noted that Warren "thinks that the right answer is to break up the companies," adding, "if she gets elected president, then I would bet that we will have a legal challenge, and I would bet that we will win the legal challenge. And does that still suck for us? Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to have a major lawsuit against our own government."

"We care about our country and want to work with our government and do good things. But look, at the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight," Zuckerberg added.

Warren's plan for Big Tech would turn any large tech company into a "platform utility" that would be "prohibited from owning ... any participants on that platform." The senator has also proposed appointing "regulators committed to reversing illegal and anti-competitive tech mergers." But America already has this kind of regulator — antitrust officials at both the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice.

Warren would target Big Tech mergers like Facebook owning Instagram. This would decrease the size of companies like Facebook, but Epstein warned that this would not actually weaken the power of Facebook and Google.

"When you spin the companies off, you don’t give them away. You sell them," Epstein told PJ Media. "Your power is not diminished even slightly. Your power, if you’re Google, comes through the search engine. If you're Facebook, it comes through the social network."

Breaking up the companies would cause the owners to divest from smaller companies. "They all get richer and their power is not diminished."

In a USA Today article explaining the weaknesses of Warren's plan, Epstein noted that Google and Facebook are different from Amazon, Walmart, Microsoft and Apple. These other companies sell products, but Google and Facebook make money by selling advertisers access to their users.

"They sell you, me and our kids to advertisers, while pretending to be benign providers of an endless array of 'free' services — services that we pay for with our data and our freedom. Google, Facebook and the growing phalanx of companies that are emulating them rely on a surveillance business model that Apple’s Tim Cook has called 'creepy.'"

Epstein laid out three "grave threats to democracy and human freedom: fine-grained surveillance of billions of people around the world, the ability to determine what information those people see and don’t see (the censorship problem), and the ability to manipulate people’s thinking, behavior and votes without them knowing they’re being influenced," which he refers to as SEME.

Epstein has long studied this search engine manipulation effect, and he argued that Warren's plan does nothing to undermine the real threat of companies like Facebook.

"You can’t disempower Google’s core monopoly because you can’t dismember its search engine. If you did, each of the remnants of that search engine would give you inferior results. And you also can’t disempower Facebook’s core monopoly because you can’t dismember Facebook’s social network platform. Doing so would be like erecting an über version of the Berlin Wall, splitting millions of families apart irreparably," he argued.

"Even if Gmail, Chrome, and Android were spun off from Google, and even if Instagram and WhatsApp were spun off from Facebook, the ravenous bellies of the beasts — Google’s search engine and Facebook’s social network platform — would continue to give these companies unchecked power the likes of which no dictator on earth has ever had."

Researching SEME, Epstein found that Google's bias in favor of Hillary Clinton could explain the Democrat's 2016 victory in the popular vote. He revealed Clinton's ties to Google. In his interview with PJ Media, he said, "Google has a lot riding on a Democratic victory, I'm sure much more than we know." He noted that former Google executives took top positions at federal agencies under the Obama administration.

As for Warren, it makes sense that she would pretend to threaten Big Tech companies while steering clear of reforms that would truly weaken their power. Epstein has noted that Google is one of Warren's biggest donors, while employees of Amazon, Facebook, and Google have contributed more than $90,000 (from each company) to her campaigns from 2011 to 2018.

Zuckerberg clearly wants to avoid a public legal battle with the U.S. government, which would damage Facebook's public image. But if Epstein is right, Warren's plan is nothing like an "existential threat" to the company.

Follow Tyler O'Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.