After a brief pause in his travel schedule to bond with Bill Gates over being rich college dropouts and announce that he and Priscilla were having another baby girl, Zuckerberg’s excellent public relations adventure is back! This time he’s bopping around the Carolinas for what appears to be a week dedicated to diversity.
On Sunday, the Facebook CEO sat in on a service at Mother Emanuel AME church, where two years ago a white supremacist opened fire at a Bible study and murdered nine of its black members. In a subsequent Facebook post that included professional photos from the visit, he praised the institution for all the work it had done to maintain a calm and compassionate environment, rather than “erupt with racial tension.” On the surface, Zuckerberg’s appearance (and ultra-public journaling) is an admirable attempt to highlight the ways that a community in pain can work together to heal. But when you’re a famous CEO with corporate (and possibly political) interests at heart, nothing is so innocent. Just a month ago, a coalition of more than 70 civil rights groups sent a letter to Zuckerberg accusing his platform of censoring Black Lives Matters posts while allowing white supremacists to spread violent threats. Zuckerberg’s visit isn’t as shamelessly political as, say, Trump touring the National Museum of African American History and Culture with his one black friend. But nothing is a coincidence when you’ve got a team of public relations professionals whose job it is to improve your image.
Photo-ops aside, if any moment of Zuckerberg’s latest road trip hinted at an audition for public office, it was the town hall he was a featured speaker for at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University on Monday. For years now, Zuckerberg has been lobbed softball after softball at his own town halls, livestreamed for all to see from his company’s Menlo Park mothership. But Monday he graduated to a new, challenging tier: taking questions in front of a mostly black audience of college students just a few months after Donald Trump was elected president. On top of all of that, the event was Facebook Live’d to an audience of over 3.1 million people.
How’d he do? Eh. Even if Zuckerberg has improved the way he communicates about Facebook, he still has a long way to go before the world actually sees him as a person who knows about other regular life things. His introduction was visibly self-conscious — both in the content of his remarks, and his general Axolotl lizard–like expression as he stood fidgeting at the center the room. After opening with a bland remark about the quality of North Carolina’s brass bands (“I was told that was a thing”), he implored the crowd to cheer for “Aggie pride” and admitted after doing so that he had pronounced the phrase with “the worst accent that anyone who has ever said that.”
In answering the students’ questions — which ranged from addressing fake news to the necessity of a bachelor’s degree — it was clear that he’d at least mastered the art of redirection. When the discussion steered toward improving the quality of conversation on Facebook, he often fell back on phrases like “We need to do better” and “That’s something we’re working on,” without offering many specifics. His one attempt at charming the audience was going on about how his daughter, Max, had recently pooped on him during a bath.
Even when the content of an answer was on point, his tone was often just a tad overexcited. When one student asked how he felt about people using Facebook Live to document interactions with the police, he replied, “I feel great!” Seeming to realize the implication of violence, he pulled back and clarified: “If we’re not going to give them body cameras, we’ll give everyone a live camera.” (A line that earned him a real round of applause at the event.) Perhaps the most ill-advised movement was when he voluntarily brought up Facebook board member and prominent Trump supporter Peter Thiel as an example of “ideological diversity.”
No matter his stumblings, the event itself was an impressive demonstration of good will. Not to mention excellent practice for a potentially larger national stage. Let’s hope he gets in a couple more of them before he heads to prime time. If he ended this summit by admitting his audience “had some pretty hard questions,” just wait until Jake Tapper gets to him.