As part of his hours-long Senate testimony today, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had to assure lawmakers that he didn’t fire Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey for his political views. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) asked Zuckerberg about 2016 reports that the company had removed conservative political news from its trending stories box, and followed up with questions about its moderators’ political views. When Zuckerberg said he didn’t ask employees for their political views, Cruz followed up with “Why was Palmer Luckey fired?”
Cruz is responding to a thorny political mini-scandal from 2016, when The Daily Beast reported that Palmer Luckey was secretly funding a pro-Trump political activism group called Nimble America, which was dedicated to the idea that “shitposting is powerful and meme magic is real.” Luckey withdrew from the public eye after the details came out, but it’s never been clear whether he was fired or left voluntarily. He was at Oculus for several months afterward, and “still working in an active capacity” during that time, according to CEO Brendan Iribe.
“I can commit that it was not because of a political view.”
“That is a specific personnel matter that seems like it would be inappropriate to speak to here,” Zuckerberg told Cruz in response to his question. Cruz fired back, asking if it was accurate that Facebook “didn’t make decisions based on political views,” as Zuckerberg had said. “I can commit that it was not because of a political view,” said Zuckerberg. This exchange seems to imply that Luckey was fired, but for reasons that weren’t political. This could still cover a pretty broad range of motivations, and Zuckerberg didn’t offer any details.
The Daily Beast described Luckey as “funding Trump’s meme machine” in 2016, which is an apparent overstatement since the donation was supposedly a fairly small $10,000, and Nimble America’s only clear action was putting up a “Too Big To Jail” billboard. The group’s stated goal was to “get our most delicious memes in front of Americans whether they like it or not.” (Luckey later reportedly donated $100,000 to Trump’s inauguration fund through shell companies named after Chrono Trigger references.) Critics objected to the fact that Nimble America was co-founded by moderators of r/The_Donald, an extreme pro-Trump Reddit forum that’s known for spreading conspiracy theories and virulent bigotry — and the fact that Milo Yiannopoulos, who promoted the white nationalist “alt-right,” had personally endorsed the group and apparently “vetted” Luckey himself.
Luckey is currently running the high-tech defense and security startup Anduril. The question about him was a small part of today’s hearing, but it’s a reminder of one of the issues Facebook will be dealing with as it tries to win back public trust.