Zuckerberg’s talk was about the company’s commitment to “voice and free expression.” He elaborated on Facebook’s recent decision not to vet political ads for lies, before outlining the difference between Facebook’s policies and those of one of its main rivals, the Chinese company TikTok, which has been criticized repeatedly for censorship.
All the while, comments streamed down the side of the video, often so many at once it was hard to read them. They were nearly universally positive. Many were gushing. Almost all of them seemed to be about Mark Zuckerberg as a person—a great person!—and virtually none were even remotely related to the content of the speech. Not only had these people tuned in by the tens of thousands on a Thursday to watch a software company’s CEO discuss corporate policy, but they were blessing him with prayer-hand emoji and hearts, thanking him for his genius and his generous spirit, and occasionally, it seemed, trying to flirt with him.
“You’re looking very handsome and dashing …” one read, with a kissy-face emoji. “Looking very sweet and cute … Lots of love for you.” It ended with a fire emoji and a peace sign. “This man left an indelible footprint in the sands of time. Thanks a lot for this wonderful platform called FACEBOOK,” went another.
The replies to Collins’s tweet were full of suspicion. These had to be spam, or bots gravitating toward any video with sufficient engagement, or an astroturfing campaign organized by Facebook’s PR team. There could not possibly be this many people who love Mark Zuckerberg this much. Fast Company quickly published a piece that said the comments “sure look censored”; minutes later, Facebook was on the record with several outlets denying any interference. When a post or video has an extraordinarily high volume of comments, Facebook automatically sifts through them using “ranking signals” to filter out inauthentic or “low-quality” posts, a spokesperson told The Washington Post, but nothing was different for this particular stream.
Once the stream ended, it was easy to go back and find negative comments (“LIZARD,” “Liar,” “Oppressor of free will, free speech, and the king of manipulation of the weak-minded!”), as well as a fair amount of total gibberish, but it was also fairly obvious that the thousands-upon-thousands of super-positive comments were not from bots. They were too specific and strange not to be real.
The idea that some people might love Mark Zuckerberg should not have been entirely surprising—Ashley Feinberg reported more than three years ago on “the bizarre world of unsolicited Mark Zuckerberg fan art,” which is exactly what it sounds like (my favorite is the one where Zuckerberg is cast among the Avengers). There are quite a few Mark Zuckerberg fan clubs on Facebook, several of which have more than 1,000 members.
Clicking on 50 of the most enthusiastic live-stream comments at random led me to entirely authentic-looking profiles, and messaging people who posted them led me to a dozen entirely authentic conversations with avowed Mark Zuckerberg fans.
“I love my Facebook. I’ve learned more about life than any school or college could teach me, thank you so much for creating Facebook, Mark, God bless,” Zen Shabbar, a Jordanian man who now lives in California wrote on the side of the live-stream, appending four hearts and four prayer-hand emoji.
When I wrote to him on Facebook Messenger, he said he “absolutely” considers himself a fan of Zuckerberg’s, as does his 23-year-old son. He typically makes a point of watching Zuckerberg’s speeches, he told me, and the only other CEO he has ever felt similarly about was Steve Jobs. Though the past few years of privacy scandals have bothered him, he still feels that Zuckerberg is a “remarkable young man” who deserves his affection. “I think he created something wonderful and brought people closer to each other,” he added.
Almost everyone I spoke with agreed that they would use the word fan to describe their relationship to Zuckerberg, and many mentioned that they were endeared to him by the way his “humble” appearance contrasted with his otherworldly technological feats.
“I love Facebook. I can’t imagine life without it,” Jared Guynes, from Texas, told me. Guynes said he uses the platform for six to eight hours a day and has seen Zuckerberg in person twice, at Facebook headquarters. “I loved that he wore jeans, a simple plain shirt, and some $60 sneakers. He was approachable, humble, and relatable in his appearance and demeanor.”
Mark Zuckerberg is extremely rich, and this isn’t unrelated to the admiration. Like several of the other fans, Guynes noted that Zuckerberg could choose to retire whenever he wants to, and attributed the fact that Zuckerberg remains CEO to a feeling that Facebook is his “calling in life.” Guynes added that he tries to thank him for his public service whenever he has the opportunity.
“I like Zuckerberg and I refer to him as the father of social media,” Chris Dumbar, who lives in Nairobi, Kenya, told me. “Zuckerberg is a great hero who has enabled the world to be a global village where people interact without limits. I love Mark.” He said he watches all of Zuckerberg’s speeches, and cited the commencement address Zuckerberg gave at Harvard in 2017 as one of his favorites. “I liked the idea of developing a generation where everyone has a sense of purpose to create a better world,” he explained. Fair enough.
What makes the comments hard to process is not the idea that someone, somewhere might be grateful in some ways for Facebook. (In many parts of the world, Facebook isn’t just an internet platform, but the whole internet: The company says that 100 million people used the internet for the first time through its Free Basics service or because of its infrastructure projects.) What’s uncanny about them is that they make perfect sense. Even if you find the existence of billionaires morally repugnant, you’re probably still awed by them. We get excited by bumping into famous people we don’t even think we care about.
Mark Zuckerberg isn’t only a public figure at the head of a gargantuan corporation—he’s a celebrity in his own right. Fans draw him shirtless. Strangers want to kiss him. Much like Kim Kardashian, he’s a purveyor of images who has amassed wealth and clout in a way that is impossible for most of us to describe with any kind of precise language, let alone map out and mimic. And fandom is the primary organizing principle of the social web at this point (The New York Times’ Amanda Hess recently argued that democracy itself has been reimagined in fandom’s image.) Every famous person on Earth has an online fan club; why should Zuckerberg be any different?
Collins’s tweet thread characterized the comments as “dictator-at-a-mandatory-parade-level congratulatory,” and though we have no evidence that any of the falsity of fascism was involved in their production, it’s reasonable to point out that Facebook has spent the past several years morphing into what looks more and more like a proto–world government run by an unelected man who, in the collective imagination, is still a boy in a hoodie. To some, this might sound utopian rather than chilling—it’s not my personal fantasy, but I don’t expect everybody to understand each of my devotions either.
We are pretty obsessed with tossing tiny digital Valentines at people who don’t need them—favoriting photos posted by bikini models, tweeting at pop stars to wish them a happy birthday, reacting with heart eyes when a politician says something funny to a baby. It’s all irrational, but it feels good anyway, to like something you have no real choice but to like. What makes the hearts and smiley faces and over-the-top words of praise look fake is Zuckerberg’s unfathomable power, but that’s also the best evidence they are real.