Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg’s fight started before Meta’s Twitter rival

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg tried to sound more relevant among the tech elite

(Washington Post Illustration; Washington Post Photos; iStock)

Mark Zuckerberg tried to be cool again – and more relevant to a tech elite caught up in Elon Musk’s online antagonism and offline antics.

Over the past year, Zuckerberg has appeared on podcasts hosted by provocateur Joe Rogan and AI researcher Lex Fridman, both popular among fans of Twitter owner Musk. He posted sweaty action photos on Instagram showing off his jujitsu skills. And this week he accepted Musk’s challenge to a cage fight after reports on Meta creating a competitor on Twitter. The duo have agreed to fight at the “Vegas Octagon”, an Ultimate Fighting Championship arena, although it’s unclear if and when that will take place.

The strategy to portray Zuckerberg as a visionary innovator to a tech-savvy audience losing enthusiasm for his social media empire took years to prepare, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal issues. But Zuckerberg has really accelerated it over the past year, one of the people said, courting the same ‘tech bros’ who were captivated by Musk – who is suddenly Zuckerberg’s competitor in more ways than one. .

As Meta grapples with layoffs and his so far unrealized Metaverse dreams, “I think Mark also feels like he’s not being respected,” said Bhaskar Chakravorti, Dean of Global Affairs at Fletcher. School of Tufts University. The cage match was “a way for him to show that, ‘Look, he’s pissed. He can be a tech brother like the next one.'”

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Meta has long understood that Zuckerberg is more synonymous with its product than other Big Tech companies and has even conducted polls on the CEO’s likeability and whether Facebook’s best days are behind him, one of the people familiar with said. with the company’s communication strategy. Zuckerberg, in particular, is sensitive to being seen as an innovator and interested in what the public thinks.

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Meta’s communications relations team has positioned him as the company’s chief storyteller in recent years, directly announcing many of the company’s products, the people said. It has also meant putting it in front of journalists and influencers they perceive to be influential with early adopters and the tech workforce. The move also coincided with the company’s plans to rebrand itself as Meta and Zuckerberg’s decision to elevate President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg as the company’s top content moderation advocate.

In recent weeks, Zuckerberg has also sought to win back the support of his workers, after tens of thousands of layoffs. The CEO has defended his leadership internally, saying he should be judged on whether the company is progressing towards its business goals. And he’s been spending more time lately talking about the company’s new investments in AI products in a bid to get them more excited about where the company is headed.

Zuckerberg took to Instagram to try and promote this more edgy image. Three weeks ago, he posted a selfie sporting a camouflage vest, announcing that he had just completed the “Murph Challenge”, a popular exercise challenge that involves a heavy dose of running, pull-ups, push-ups and squats while carrying a 20-pound weighted pack.

Jujitsu, over the past two years, has also taken the lead. After it was reported that Zuckerberg passed out during one of his matches, the CEO contacted The New York Times to deny it had happened, according to the newspaper.

In 2021, he posted a video of himself hovering with an American flag on July 4.

“These founders … want to drive their story straight,” said Brooke Hammerling, public relations consultant for tech companies. “The CEO’s story can become bigger than the company itself.”

While Zuckerberg and Musk share many traits as tech CEOs, their public images have diverged from each other in recent years.

Zuckerberg’s image has suffered setbacks after a long series of scandals and political fights over Facebook’s content moderation practices. More recently, Meta faced some major issues in its business which hampered the company’s growth. Its main blue app is losing appeal with younger audiences who prefer the new Snapchat and TikTok apps. Slow post-pandemic e-commerce growth reduced the company’s advertising business. A change by Apple in privacy settings is estimated to have cost the company billions.

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg’s big bet on virtual and augmented reality looks years away from making money, and Meta has been slower to create products in generative artificial intelligence, which has already transformed the tech industry.

Musk, on the other hand, is the richest man in the world, thanks in large part to his stake in Tesla, of which he is the CEO. His rocket company, SpaceX, has won major government contracts, and his decision to buy Twitter last year and pledge to uphold the right to free speech on the social media platform has been hailed by different corners of the tech industry.

Musk’s penchant for tweeting at odd hours and trolling his critics – as well as his crusade against ‘cancel culture’ and the ‘woke mind virus’ – has drawn political conservatives and reactionary right-wing leaders of Silicon Valley. More of the vexing tech crowd followed as Musk downsized Twitter, demanded a return to power and vowed to build a ‘based’ alternative to ‘woke’ AI, borrowing a compliment from factions extremely online from Twitter.

The two billionaires have long spared themselves in public. In 2016, Zuckerberg slammed Musk after a SpaceX rocket exploded and destroyed one of Facebook’s satellites that was part of a project to expand internet connectivity around the world. A year later, the two men exchanged differing views on the risks of artificial intelligence. In recent years, Musk has also advocated for the removal of Facebook and criticized the platform’s role in facilitating the riots at the US Capitol on January 6.

Now the two CEOs are gearing up for another battle. Meta explores building a decentralized social media network as an alternative to Twitter, the news that prompted Musk to take up the challenge to battle.

“I think there’s another side to the viral cage match between the two, which is now that a lot more people are aware that Facebook wants to launch an alternative to Twitter. And they’ll want to check back when it’s announced” , Chakravorti said, “So it’s free publicity.”

Zuckerberg’s commitment to the rivalry could continue to be tested.

After Zuckerberg won two medals in his first jujitsu tournament in May, he took to Fridman’s podcast to discuss his interest in the sport and his vision for Meta. The pair got into jujitsu, swapping opinions on why it’s such a difficult sport and what they’ve learned about life from participating in it.

Fridman also pressed Zuckerberg to say something he thinks Musk did right on Twitter. Zuckerberg said Musk’s decision to make drastic cuts and changes to the company’s workforce had emboldened other tech leaders — including himself — who might have been hesitant to do the same.

“It was probably good for the industry that he made those changes,” Zuckerberg said.

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