Wired: The Infinite Reach of Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s Man in Washington

March 10, 2022


EVEN BY THE standards of the Trump White House, the crisis that unfolded on the morning of May 29, 2020, was a memorable one. That Friday, a handful of staffers found themselves crammed into a West Wing office around a phone, some listening in guarded disbelief. Mark Zuckerberg was on the line, asking for a word with the president.

Minneapolis was in its fourth day of mass protests, which had not relented since George Floyd was killed under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin. Early Friday morning, around 1 am Eastern, President Donald Trump had published a 102-word philippic to his Facebook and Twitter pages. He pledged the support of the US military and appended a hellish augury: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Among Facebook’s leaders in Washington, DC, the gravity of the dilemma this posed for the company was instantly clear. For four years, Zuckerberg had walked an impossible tightrope, attempting to assuage two implacable tribes. At one pole were powerful conservatives for whom it had become an article of faith that Facebook was sabotaging the right. At the other were Democratic legislators—to say nothing of Facebook’s left-leaning employees—who believed the precise opposite, accusing the company of rewriting its rules to pave the way for Trumpism. Now it was as if Trump, gazing up at Zuckerberg’s high-wire act, had yanked down hard on the line.

Facebook may be politically friendless, but Joel Kaplan is not. Most think the influence network he has assembled will be a formidable obstacle for leaders of the techlash. Having spent $20 million last year, Facebook is now running the second-largest lobbying effort by a public company in the US, only shy of Amazon. David Cicilline, the Democratic representative who has led the push for antitrust legislation, describes the salvo as “an armada of lobbyists descending on Capitol Hill.”

“They have a lot of money, a lot of power, a lot of influence,” says Mike Davis, a longtime Republican official on Capitol Hill who founded the Internet Accountability Project. “If these bipartisan bills pass, or even two or three pass, they’re going to get rocked. And it’s going to cost them a lot of money.” In certain ways, a battle of such proportions is the natural culmination of Kaplan’s career, one that has been devoted to defending the most powerful institutions in America. As Davis bluntly puts it, “This will be the biggest fight of Kaplan’s professional life.”

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