SAN FRANCISCO — Mark Zuckerberg is the public face of one of the world’s most prominent companies.
But now it’s his actions as a private citizen that are making him — and Facebook Inc. — a target of environmentalists and progressive activists, highlighting the pitfalls of political involvement at a level rarely attempted in Silicon Valley.
The 28-year-old billionaire co-founder and chief executive of Facebook has funded a political advocacy group called Fwd.us that has come under fire for spending millions on television ads that support expansion of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Fwd.us is trying to give political cover to conservatives such as Democratic Sen. Mark Begich in Alaska and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina to support immigration reform. The ads underscore the conservative credentials of the lawmakers who may be vulnerable in 2014. But the controversial strategy is not sitting well with the Sierra Club and other environmental groups.
The TV ads don’t suggest that Zuckerberg — or Facebook — supports the causes embraced by these lawmakers. But that a leader of the so-called new economy would tout these lawmakers in a TV ad has drawn a heated response from environmentalists.
On Wednesday a small group staged a noisy protest on Facebook’s Menlo Park, Calif., campus, demanding that Zuckerberg pull the ads. In front of the company’s iconic thumbs-up or “like” sign, protesters in white hazmat suits chanted: “Keystone, take a hike. Facebook dislike.”
“Mark Zuckerberg can’t have it both ways. He can’t be for Keystone XL and for clean energy at the same time,” said Becky Bond, political director of Credo Mobile, a carrier that supports progressive causes. “Zuckerberg and Facebook need to choose. Do they stand for a world in which technology and openness make the world a better place, or will they bank their billions and let cynical lobbyists perpetuate business as usual in Washington, D.C., as the planet hurdles toward climate chaos?”
A Facebook spokeswoman declined to comment.
The small protest took place just before the giant social network reported quarterly earnings that indicated Facebook is making progress on the No. 1 concern of investors: making money from advertising on mobile devices. Facebook said it had first-quarter revenue of nearly $1.5 billion, exceeding analysts’ estimates of $1.4 billion. It had $219 million in net income.
This is the first real test of Fwd.us’ ability to shape the political debate over one of the nation’s most highly charged issues. It comes at a critical moment in the immigration reform debate. A Senate bill would need support from both sides of the aisle to clear the Senate and make it through the GOP-led House of Representatives.
“The advertising, including the harsh and immediate counterattack from the climate change community, underscores the complexity of publicly traded companies and their CEOs frontally engaging in candidate campaigns,” Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said. “Politics is a full-contact sport and when a company jumps into the arena, even if just through the actions of its leadership, it opens up the political brand of that company.”
Fwd.us chief Joe Green was not available for comment, spokeswoman Kate Hansen said.
His group sought to placate critics by pointing out that the group also has a left-leaning organization to support liberal backers of immigration reform.
“Fwd.us is committed to showing support for elected officials who promote the policy changes needed to build the knowledge economy,” Hansen said. “Maintaining two separate entities, Americans for a Conservative Direction and the Council for American Job Growth, to support elected officials across the political spectrum — separately — means that we can more effectively communicate with targeted audiences of their constituents.”
Also adding fuel to fire, Facebook rejected an ad from Credo Mobile that criticized Fwd.us’ political activities because it used Zuckerberg’s image in violation of Facebook’s policies.
“Zuckerberg’s primary goal is to have immigration reform, and this is a very savvy way of making that happen. But invariably there is going to be people who don’t understand, and the inevitable result is going to be this type of brush fire,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
Another ad in support of the bipartisan immigration reform bill features Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), one of the senators behind the bill who has faced criticism for it. That ad also came under fire Wednesday for being misleading.
FactCheck.org of the Annenberg Public Policy Center said the ad attributes quotes supporting the bill to media outlets but the quotes actually come from opinion pieces written by backers of the bill. The ad starts out by saying “conservative leaders have a plan” even though the bill is a bipartisan measure that has been criticized by many Republicans.
Zuckerberg made it official last month that he plans to take a far more visible role on the national political stage with the launch of Fwd.us, which plans to lobby for the passage of comprehensive immigration reform, investments in scientific research and higher educational standards.
The group counts among its members some of the high-tech industry’s most prominent executives, including Google Inc. Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. It has hired a high-powered, bipartisan team of consultants and lobbyists to press the tech industry’s agenda in Washington.
Topping the agenda: raising work visa caps to address what Silicon Valley says is a shortage of engineers in the high-tech industry.
But the group is engaging in the bare-knuckled politics of Washington, and that, observers say, carries some risk for Zuckerberg and other high-profile executives taking part in Fwd.us. Lehane said some of the executives are probably closely watching the fallout from the first round of TV ads. Future ads could be even more politically volatile, for example, taking aim at conservative primary challengers.
“At the end of the day, it is a political and economic cost-benefit analysis that most public companies seek to avoid. For those CEOs who back Fwd.us, they will undoubtedly be evaluating the return on their political investment versus the risk exposure to their companies,” Lehane said.