Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg’s battle started before Meta’s Twitter rival

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has tried to appear more relevant among the technology elite

(Washington Post illustration; Photos by The Washington Post; iStock)

Mark Zuckerberg has tried to make himself cool again – and more relevant to a tech elite taken with Elon Musk’s online contradictions and offline antics.

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

The strategy to pitch Zuckerberg as a visionary innovator to a tech-savvy audience losing enthusiasm for his social media empire has been years in the making, according to people familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters. But Zuckerberg has really stepped up in the past year, one of the people said, courting the same “tech bros” who have been captivated by Musk — who suddenly are Zuckerberg’s competition in more ways than one.

As Meta grapples with layoffs and its so-far unrealized dreams of the metaverse, “I think Mark is also getting a sense that he’s not being respected,” said Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. The cage match was “a way for him to show that, ‘Look, he’s nervous. He can be a tech bro just like the next guy.’

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

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Meta’s communications team has positioned him as the company’s main storyteller in recent years, advertising many of the company’s products directly, the people said. It’s also meant putting him in front of journalists and influencers they perceive as influential among early adopters and the tech workforce. This shift also coincided with the company’s plans to rename itself Meta and Zuckerberg’s decision to elevate Global Affairs President Nick Clegg to be the company’s chief defender of content moderation.

In recent weeks, Zuckerberg has also tried to win back the support of his workers, after tens of thousands of layoffs. The CEO has defended his leadership internally, claiming that he should be judged on whether the company is making progress towards its business goals. And he’s spent more time lately talking about the company’s new product investments in artificial intelligence with the goal of getting them more excited about where the company is headed.

Zuckerberg has turned to Instagram to try to promote the sharper image. Three weeks ago, he posted a selfie wearing a camouflage vest, announcing that he had just completed the “Murph Challenge,” a popular fitness challenge that requires a heavy dose of running, pull-ups, push-ups, and squats while wearing himself a 20-pound weighted pack.

In the last couple of years, Jujitsu has also taken top billing. After it was reported that Zuckerberg was choked unconscious during one of his matches, the CEO contacted the New York Times to deny that happened, according to the paper.

In 2021, he posted a video of himself hover-boarding with an American flag on July 4th.

“These entrepreneurs … want to drive their story directly,” said Brooke Hammerling, a public relations consultant for technology companies. “The CEO story can be bigger than the company itself.”

While Zuckerberg and Musk share many traits as tech executives, their public images have diverged in recent years.

Zuckerberg’s image has taken a hit after a long streak of scandals and political battles over Facebook’s content moderation practices. Recently, Meta has encountered major problems in its operations that have covered the company’s growth. The blue core app is losing appeal among younger audiences who favor newer apps Snapchat and TikTok. Weak post-pandemic growth in e-commerce has cut into the company’s advertising business. An Apple change to privacy settings was estimated to have cost the company billions.

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg’s big bet on virtual and augmented reality appears to be years away from making money, and Meta has been slower to build 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, where he is CEO. His rocket ship company, SpaceX, has won major government contracts, and his decision to buy Twitter last year and promise of free speech on the social media platform won accolades from various corners of the tech sector.

Musk’s penchant for tweeting at odd hours and trolling his critics — as well as his crusade against “disruption culture” and the “woke mind virus” — attracted political conservatives and leaders from Silicon Valley’s reactionary right. More of the contrarian tech crowd followed as Musk slashed Twitter’s workforce, claimed back office and promised to build a “based” alternative to “awakened” AI, borrowing a compliment from extreme online factions of Twitter.

The two billionaires have long saved publicly. In 2016, Zuckerberg criticized 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 traded barbs over their differing perspectives on the risks of artificial intelligence. In recent years, Musk has also advocated deleting Facebook and criticized the platform’s role in facilitating the riots at the US capital on January 6.

Now the two CEOs are preparing for another battle. Meta is exploring building a decentralized social media network as an alternative to Twitter, the news that prompted the challenge to battle from Musk.

“I think another aspect of the viral cage match between the two is that now a lot more people are aware of the fact that Facebook wants to launch a Twitter alternative. And they’re going to want to check it out when it’s announced , Chakravorti said.” So this is free advertising.”

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

After Zuckerberg won two medals at his first jujitsu tournament in May, he went on Fridman’s podcast to discuss his interest in the sport and his vision for Meta. The two men wondered about jujitsu, and exchanged opinions about why it is such a difficult sport and what they have learned about life from participating.

Fridman also pushed Zuckerberg to say something he thinks Musk has done right on Twitter. Zuckerberg said Musk’s decision to make drastic cuts and changes to the company’s workforce encouraged other tech executives — including himself — who may have been hesitant before to follow suit.

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

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