Have we really reached the point where a gazillionaire can’t ride a $12,000 electric surfboard along the coastline of a state he owns a largish chunk of in peace without being held up to ridicule?
The gazillionaire in question is Facebook C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg. The coastline is that of Kauai, the Hawaiian island where the family Zuckerberg has been self-isolating. In photographs that appeared in the New York Post and quickly became a meme, Zuck is comfortably upright on the board, remote control in hand, his face a copiously sunscreened mask. It is, admittedly, a peculiar look, more than a little Marcel Marceau–ish, though given the setting you don’t actually expect him to break into that always-good-for-a-laugh picnic-ants routine. No, it’s more like a scene from a BBC nature special, in which David Attenborough has just startled a previously undiscovered species of shorebird: the blue-hoodied booby.
The Kabuki’d coder’s Hawaiian ride hasn’t been as smooth as the water he was skimming. In 2014, he spent $100 million on 700 acres of rural Kauai beachfront. A few years later, the Honolulu Civil Beat reported that Zuckerberg was building a complex with a main house “the size of an aircraft hanger [sic],” requiring workers on the property to sign NDAs, and banning the entry of individuals “who have made critical comments about him.” There would soon be plenty of those.
In 2016 he tried to further secure his property, which is partly surrounded by a six-foot-high stone wall, by initiating a series of lawsuits to force parcels of land around the property—parcels belonging to kamaaina, native-Hawaiian families descended from farmers who’d been granted the land in the Kuleana Act of 1850 and who had since then enjoyed access to the beaches—to be offered for sale at public auction. (Hmm, what’s Hawaiian for “likely highest bidder”?) He later dropped the lawsuits to find “a better approach,” after assuring the public that “no one will be forced off the land”—certainly not him. Last year, when three parcels were sold at auction to a retired professor for a total of around $2 million, many speculated that Zuckerberg had bankrolled the purchases. And there the matter stood until last month, when a petition to stop him from “colonizing” the island was drawn up. It has more than 900,000 signatures at this writing.
Meanwhile, a donation of $1 million—that’s 0.00001 percent of his net worth—to Kauai’s coronavirus-relief efforts from Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, seems to have paid few P.R. dividends. A new “Dear Mark” video produced by Stop Hate for Profit alluded to the “sinister side of Facebook” and noted, “Your business model rewards division.... Are you willing to stop profiting from hate? Can we trust you at all?”
Zuckerberg was building a complex with a main house “the size of an aircraft hanger [sic],” requiring workers on the property to sign NDAs, and banning the entry of individuals “who have made critical comments about him.”
Yes, thanks to an advertising boycott of 1,000-plus companies, relentless complaints from civil-rights groups, and a growing sense that the speech whose freedom Facebook is most protective of is Donald Trump’s, the company is experiencing something of a rough patch. As Kara Swisher recently wrote in The New York Times, “Every week, it seems that the giant social network makes news, typically of the kind that makes the company look bad, and typically by declining to get out of the way of the history that is being made.”
This week was no exception. On Wednesday, Zuckerberg wore a coat and tie for his remote congressional anti-trust grilling-by-videoconference, which clearly was no day at the beach, Hawaiian or otherwise, particularly when he had to defend Facebook’s 2012 purchase of Instagram—a deal the Federal Trade Commission evidently had concerns about—and his company’s alleged “copy, acquire, and kill” strategy toward its rivals.
And now a Forbes poll shows Zuckerberg to be even more unpopular than Trump: both register “unfavorable” ratings of 56 percent, but while Trump’s “favorable” number is 39 percent, Zuckerberg’s is 20 percent, a drop of 28 percent since 2016—and, unlike Trump, Zuckerberg has no MAGA-cap-wearing base. (If he did, there would presumably be more people walking around looking like mimes.) Additionally, 73 percent think he has too much power. (Note: the survey was conducted before the Masked Surfer episode; maybe that would have earned him some sympathy points?)
But as the planet’s fourth-richest person he probably isn’t too concerned. In fact, halfway through this annus horribilis, he’s already added more than $30 billion to his personal fortune. That should be enough, anyway, to keep him in sunscreen.
George Kalogerakis is a Writer at Large for Air Mail