"Move fast and break things" has been the motto at Mark Zuckerberg's
Facebook, embodying the Silicon Valley ethos of unapologetically finding
new ways to solve old problems. His latest foray into politics in
Washington, however, might be characterized as "Move fast, play hardball
and be prepared for blowback."
Fwd.Us, the new nonprofit advocacy
group created by Zuckerberg and several technology executives and
investors to push for an overhaul of immigration law, has bankrolled
television ads endorsing the conservative stands taken by three
lawmakers - two Republicans and a Democrat - prompting an outcry from
liberal groups and a call to withhold advertisements from Facebook.
(Also see: Facebook's Zuckerberg launches political group)
uproar, some say, will be a lesson for Silicon Valley companies as they
try to influence emotional political issues like immigration. But the
group's supporters brashly say they were ready for the reaction.
advertising decisions are being made by a very smart team of political
operatives who know that passing major reform will require some
different and innovative tactics," Jim Breyer, a venture capitalist with
Accel Partners and a contributor to the cause, said in an emailed
statement. "I'm proud to support Fwd.Us as they work to pass
comprehensive immigration reform."
The group has faced the most
vocal criticism for television advertisements sponsored by its two
subsidiaries, which are known as Americans for Conservative Action and
Council for American Job Growth. One of those spots takes swipes at
President Barack Obama's health policies. Another lauds the Keystone XL
pipeline, fiercely opposed by many environmental groups.
spots, which ran in several states for a week, prompted strong reaction
from a coalition of liberal organizations that includes the Sierra Club,
the League of Conservation Voters and MoveOn.org. They announced
earlier this week that they would suspend buying advertisements on
Facebook, which they acknowledged was meant to send a message and would
have little economic effect on the company.
Cathy Duvall, director
of strategic partnerships at the Sierra Club, said her group was
especially disappointed to see the technology industry adopt a strategy
that was more typical of old-fashioned, brass-knuckled Washington
"When the ads came out they were politics as usual and
divisive and pitting one issue against another," Duvall said. "We were
really surprised that Silicon Valley would be moving into the political
space by doing the worst of business-as-usual politics."
like other industry-backed interest groups, has said very little about
how much money it has raised and from whom, except to name contributors
on its website. It would say only that it spent in the "seven figures"
on the television spots.
The ads are particularly surprising considering some of the other backers.
Doerr, a venture capitalist, is known for his investments in clean
technology companies, and his wife, Ann, has been a major donor to
Reid Hoffman has described himself as "progressive" in an essay posted recently on LinkedIn, a company that he founded.
Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, in 2010 backed an effort not to roll
back California's global warming law. None of them returned calls and
emails requesting comment, referring instead to Fwd.Us operatives in
"We recognize that not everyone will always agree with
or be pleased by our strategy," said Kate Hansen, a spokeswoman for
Fwd.Us. "Fwd.Us remains totally committed to support a bipartisan policy
agenda that will boot the knowledge economy, including comprehensive
For his part, Zuckerberg has covered his
political bases. He recently held a fundraiser for Chris Christie, the
Republican governor of New Jersey, at his home in Palo Alto, Calif., and
Facebook has hired several former White House and congressional aides
to work in its Washington office.
Zuckerberg has declined requests to be interviewed about Fwd.Us.
Manley, a former chief spokesman for Senate majority leader Harry Reid,
D-Nev., said that the ads may have achieved their goal, but that
Zuckerberg should learn from the negative reaction.
"He is finding
out it can be very, very problematic to get your company involved in
hot-button social issues," said Manley, who now directs the
communications practice at the Washington lobbying and public relations
firm Quinn Gillespie. "There is going to be blowback. You are going to
pay a price for it."
Fwd.Us has been openly criticized by others
in Silicon Valley. Josh Miller, founder of a startup called Branch,
denounced what he called the group's "questionable lobbying practices"
and said he was disappointed that the group had not been transparent
about its intentions. "More discouragingly, the leaders of the
technology industry (and of FWD.us) have built their careers on bringing
meaningful change to the world," he wrote in a BuzzFeed opinion piece.
"They should be doing the same in Washington."
Vinod Khosla, a
venture capitalist who finances some of the same clean energy companies
as Doerr's firm and who was once a major partner at Doerr's investment
firm, said on Twitter over the weekend: "Will Fwd.us prostitute climate
destruction & other values to get a few engineers hired & get
One advocacy group called CredoAction, based
in San Francisco, tried to use Facebook ads to draw attention to the
Keystone XL pipeline TV spot sponsored by Fwd.Us. The ads were
prohibited by Facebook officials, because the company's terms of service
prohibit using Zuckerberg's image in another organization's ad. A
coalition of organizations has also created a Facebook group to agitate
Still, others say the ads signal a calculated
pragmatism. Fwd.Us is led by experienced political operatives, including
Joe Lockhart, a former Clinton administration official, and Rob Jesmer,
a former Republican Senate political adviser.
involved in the effort said the advertisements were vetted with
executives backing it - and that the executives realized before they
were shown that they might alienate certain liberal audiences. But the
group made a decision to back both Democrats and Republicans who support
the immigration bill in order to get it passed.
"We did not just
fall off the turnip truck," the executive said. "There are a lot of
people involved in these organizations that have been involved in
politics for a really long time."
The group emailed statements
from prominent backers, including a former Facebook executive, Chamath
Palihapitiya, who argued that Fwd.Us needs to be "disruptive" in
politics, as in commerce.
"In order to push Washington to do
something different and pass major legislation like comprehensive
immigration reform, groups like Fwd.Us can't just do the same thing and
expect different results," he said. "As part of our work, we're using a
wide variety of tactics, some of which may ruffle some feathers, but we
believe the passage of the bill will be worth it."
© 2013, The New York Times News Service