Since 2014, we all have seen how Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg constantly talks about changing the world. Will his billionaire philanthropy actually save the world? His estimated wealth to date is $111 billion USD. It makes him the fifth richest man on the planet. In 2017, while Zuck was nabbing an honorary degree from Harvard College, Harvard’s 28th President Drew Faust immortalized the famous dropout with the following statement: “Mark Zuckerberg’s leadership has profoundly altered the nature of social engagement worldwide. Few inventions in modern times can rival Facebook in its far- reaching impact on how people around the globe interact with one another…And few individuals can rival Mark Zuckerberg in his drive to change our world through the innovative use of technology, as well as his commitment to advance science, enhance education, and expand opportunity through the pursuit of philanthropy.” Wow! I never thought that I will live to see such abundant praises and weighty endorsement from none other than an elite university president (a historian of the Civil War and the American South) for a dropout.

After dropping out from Harvard, Zuck promised his mother that one day he will go back and get that degree. Sure enough he made good on his promise or rather Harvard gave that honorary degree to him on a silver platter in 2017. It gets better. Zuck was also the featured commencement speaker for the graduating class of 2017. He was very happy that no one will now call him a “college dropout.” Such a generous gesture was not forgotten by the new graduate. Later in the year, in November, he had rewarded his now beloved alma mater with the following announcement: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan want to use their wealth to increase opportunities for the next generation. According to the Boston Globe,Zuckerberg and Chan are granting Harvard University $12.1 million to encourage low-income undergraduate students to pursue jobs in public service.”

Essentially this exchange between Harvard and Facebook’s “golden boy” CEO sheds light on centuries-old adage, “Money talks,” and reaffirms wealth is powerful. Twelve years after dropping out, he got that Harvard degree because he created Facebook which at the time was worth $400 billion. He simply got that diploma without doing the hard work. His graduating batch mates of the class of 2006 all had worked their butts off to get that diploma from the prestigious university. Now are we supposed to be impressed by wealthy Zuck because his recent mantra is: He wants to change the world?

When one becomes a billionaire at age twenty-six, one can possibly be arrogant, and say money can be a substitute for real education. Very early into their philanthropic gestures, I came away feeling that they are also two-faced, and mostly out there to help themselves into millions more. After professing their love for the disadvantaged, and the needy, people like Zuckerberg and Chan turn to social projects to feel a sense of accomplishment. Charity possibly gives them a way out to absolve them of the moral dilemma and psychological pressure of having an insane amount of money. It probably eases their conscience due to ethical conflict.

Back in 2014, Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla made their debut as philanthropy’s cutest couple, the younger version of Bill and Melinda Gates. The new philanthropist couple of Silicon Valley is believed to be at the top of the nation’s highest income bracket. Giving to charity improves the couple’s self-image, and further signals their elevated social status. At the beginning of their philanthropic work, they were being boastful and made a big announcement that they were donating $120 million to San Francisco’s Bay Area schools. I recall seeing Priscilla in her first television interview (since she wed the billionaire). She told NBC television’s Savannah Guthrie why as a couple they felt compelled to give. To live a life well also means to give to the community, she noted. According to her, they live in an affluent neighborhood in the Bay area, and few miles down the road there is extreme poverty and people struggling to survive. Knowing that, how can she sleep well at night? She feels “giving back” is a social obligation to her and Mark.

In 2014, Zuckerberg was considered a self-made billionaire and his own estimated fortune was $6.9 billion. Donating $120 million every four years to a suffering school district is a small drop in the bucket. It’s true that to the suffering students, Zuckerberg’s motives don’t matter. They are just happy to be in a freshly painted classroom, decked with new tabletop computers, and new text books. When the wealthy people donate millions, the public view gets clouded and it prevents them from seeing that Zuckerberg is mostly driven by profit-making motives.

The “dynamic” Zuckerberg duos giving $120 million in improving the suffering school districts was not necessarily a great move. It may have solved the immediate problems, but surely had distracted the educators and the school system to rethink a policy that has long term answers. With donated money, one cannot go very far where education system is concerned. In situations like this, a much larger scale government initiative to change the conditions of the school system would have been the better solution. The government might be more likely to focus on the education projects if they weren’t being helped by charities with their millions.

For Mark and Priscilla, it was the beginning of a great public relations move to improve their image as “nice people.” Starting early on with philanthropy perhaps had released the emotional pressure they were under for having billions. The couple did not come from old money families. Though it appears Mark’s family had money as his parents had sent him to the Phillips Exeter Academy (a co-ed boarding school in New Hampshire). On the other hand, Priscilla’s hard working immigrant parents were only able to send her to Harvard because in the financial aid package she was offered a full scholarship.

It won’t be too far-fetched to think that Mark and Priscilla are actually modeling after Bill and Melinda Gates. Zuckerberg had made similar donations in 2010, when he gave $100 million to refurbish the run down public schools of the city of Newark, New Jersey. At the time, it was seen by many as an attempt to deflect the negative attention from the movie that came out in 2010, the Social Network based on his life.  Facebook’s rather sketchy origin story was famously sanctified by Aaron Sorkin in the 2010 movie. Mark’s publicist knew that donating large sums of money was good press for him.

It is ironic that Zuckerberg gave money to schools, whereas he himself was a dropout. However, adopting the U.S. education system was a gallant move that was undoubtedly orchestrated by his publicist. Publicists make a key strategy to focus on communities where the donors live. That way the donation makes a positive impression of them to the public. The school system is in dire need for cash, and they must upgrade everything to give the deprived kids a decent education. These schools are far behind in the national average in terms of test scores in standardized testing. As a daughter of struggling immigrants, Priscilla claims to have understood their plight, and wanted to support the community with a huge donation. Outwardly, she made a strong case to support her views. Their donated $120 M went towards different innovative classroom projects to update age old systems from Kindergarten through 8th grade classes. Such philanthropic act was welcomed by the area’s neglected schools. There is nothing ominous about giving back to one’s community. Then why so many people are skeptical about their motives?

Zuckerberg constantly talks about changing the world. How does he plan on changing it other than the obvious i.e. 2.8 billion people use at least one of his services — Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp or Instagram? Initially, it was to revamp the faulty education system that was producing unintelligent kids. Then he wanted to do something entirely different with his money. According to a recent report by Vice News, Zuckerberg and wife wanted to “throw their money where it counts.” “The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative(CZI) — a limited-liability company founded by Zuck and his wife Priscilla Chan back in 2015 that’s dedicated to “charitable efforts” — has publicly committed $45 million “into groups aligned with two political causes: ending the era of mass incarceration and fixing the affordable housing crisis in American cities.”

Chan with husband Mark Zuckerberg in Prague, Czech Republic, 2013. Chan married Zuckerberg on May 19, 2012, the day after Facebook’s stock market launch.

CZI wanting to focus on something different is not entirely based on altruistic motives. “The announcement is also significant for what it tells us about the role Zuckerberg wants to play in the political process. It seems clear, based on how the money is being spent, that Zuckerberg isn’t particularly interested in being a leading-light hobbyist philanthropist seeking to raise awareness — he wants to leverage his wealth in the political arena to change laws and fix problems. The groups funded by CZI are chosen according to their track records on the introduction and passing of referendums, successfully lobbying for legislation, and swaying the minds of city officials on key issues. And looking at some of the most recent recipients of CZI funds — which includes a number of bona fide superstars (in the world of lobbying, at least), such as Families Against Mandatory MinimumsAlliance for Safety and Justice, and the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform — you can tell success is a prerequisite.” Go figure.

“Even by our current dismal standards, however, Zuck is full of crap.” “Point one: the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is not a charity. It’s a limited liability corporation (LLC) that, like any other company, can donate to actual charities but can also invest in for-profit companies. Point two: this is all about control.”— Counterpunch.org

It is alleged that Zuckerberg started Facebook in his Harvard College dorm room to get Non-Jewish girls. Of course, Zuck denies it. In 2018, he had to testify before Congress to clarify whether Facebook was invented to rank hot girls on campus. He said it was his “other” website Hotmash that was developed to do it. After facing backlash from students, he shut down the sexist site saying, “He doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings” by making fun of their looks, and by comparing their photos with farm animals. But the allegations never went away. Another accusation that he does not accept is that Facebook was not originally his brainchild. In the movie, the Social Network, Zuckerberg was portrayed as a greedy corporate type who stole the idea of Facebook from his fellow Harvard students. It has been suspected that the original Facebook idea came from fellow Harvard students Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, identical twins, and their partner Divya Narendra. Zuckerberg sidestepped them, and created the early version of Facebook and made it his own. In 2008, Facebook settled their case with the Winklevoss brothers for $65 million dollars. Therefore, in the mind of the public, Zuckerberg still remains a “geek” who is “intellectually corrupt.”

Zuckerberg is not shy about saying that he wants to control the Internet. Facebook investors currently estimate the net worth of FB as of September 11, 2020 is $763.74B. In 2014, it was about $80 billion, and Zuckerberg’s share was about 25%. “Zuckerberg still owns over 375 million Facebook shares with a current value of over $98 billion, making him the fifth-richest person in the world, behind Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Bernard Arnault and Warren Buffett.” He recently dropped to number five after selling 2.9 million shares (worth more than $526 million).

It is very likely that the money that Zuck and his wife will donate to charities will come from corporate funds designated for philanthropy. It will not make a dent into their personal fortune. Philanthropy of most corporate magnates is often hyped, as they usually do not disclose where the funds are coming from, nor are they obligated to. Last year, Zuckerberg’s personal wealth rose by a mind-boggling $27.3 billion, says a report.

After having made billions, the wealthy like the Zuckerbergs set out to do philanthropic work in the name of social justice. Their savvy lawyers set up tax evading trusts for the ultra-wealthy families in the form of a foundation. They hire professional staff with great vision who allocates the benefactor’s wealth to worthy causes. Zuckerberg’s lawyers set up Silicon Valley Community Foundation to do his charitable work. At the end of the day, “it is all about generating positive press for charitable giving,” for the world’s richest people such as Mark and Priscilla Zuckerberg. Such publicity has lots of positive benefits. For example, while passing legislation, the US Congress most likely will take all his charitable initiatives into account, and will reward him through various tax breaks. That will add millions more for them in the bank.

So how much does Mark Zuckerberg really make per year? It depends on how much Facebook declares as its dividend. For example, if in the year 2020 Facebook declares a dividend of $500 million, he will earn $125 million. Again, the dividend will depend on how Facebook is faring in the market place at that time. It is interesting that since 2013, Zuckerberg had started to pay himself a low salary of only $1 per year to increase the company profit. Facebook spent more than $23 million on security and private air travel for CEO Mark Zuckerberg in 2019, according to a financial filing published on April 10, 2020. That’s up from about $20 million spent in 2018 and $9.1 million Facebook spent in 2017. Zuckerberg’s annual salary remains $1.

Every few years, Zuck gets bored with the charities that he and his wife are supporting. Like a little boy, he needs something new to play with. It seems he is in a constant battle to seek validation from other wealthy billionaires. The process perhaps helps him to cultivate “internal stimulus” to make him more creative. After all, we are talking about a quirky millennial dad who in 2016 announced after the birth of his child that he will build an A.I. to run his home and to help him with his work. Now that he is bored in changing the education system, ending the era of mass incarceration, and the housing crisis etc., he has come up with a new agenda. His latest interest is to preserve the “integrity” of the upcoming November election. Zuckerberg has announced that he and his wife will donate $300m “to preserve [the] integrity of our elections” by funding voting access initiatives.” He said, “he was committed to expanding voting access and providing “local and state officials across the country with the resources, training and infrastructure necessary to ensure that every voter who intends to cast a ballot is able to…His announcement comes as Facebook — the most popular social media platform in the world — faced increasing criticism over its handling of political misinformation, as well as repeated failures to prevent fake news and dangerous conspiracy theories from spreading online.” This sudden shift is different from his all other prior initiatives and was met with fierce criticisms. “Mark Zuckerberg has raked in $40,800,000,000 since the pandemic began,” former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich wrote in a tweet. “That’s 136 times the $300 million donation he hopes will distract us from all the ways he’s allowed fascism and misinformation to erode our democracy.” “Billionaire philanthropy won’t save us,” he continued, adding: “Tax the rich.”

Is former Labor Secretary too eager to predict doom and gloom? Or some people are being naïve if they think that Zuck will be able to live up to his mission statement by bringing the world closer together? Will spending billions change the world from all its problems? If God put Mark Zuckerberg on this earth to change the fate of the millions of people who are suffering, and to bring major transformations to global society, then he should change himself first. He must stop acting like a modern day messiah, and change the unethical practices by his corporation. When people no longer will consider Facebook is unscrupulous by design, it is free of scandals, and its business practices are not being questioned, and Mark Zuckerberg has no wish to dominate the global market like other tech billionaires, only then he can set out to do good around the world.

Zeenat Khan’s columns as a social justice seeker usually focus on the pursuit of justice and ways to combat racial and social injustice. Her writings also emphasize on how to defend human rights issues, gender equality, current social problems, and concerns relating to South Asia and beyond. She had majored in English and American Literature and minored in History during her undergraduate studies at the University of Rhode Island, USA. She lives in Maryland suburbs, outside of Washington, DC.


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