Mark Zuckerberg sounded a warning on Friday about the social and political fragmentation caused by America’s opioid crisis, as he ended a nationwide tour to understand the forces that had put Donald Trump in the White House.
At one point the Facebook chief executive officer choked up as he talked about the effects of opioid addiction, adding: “This stuff is really upsetting to talk about.”
His comments followed a year in which he had promised to visit all corners of the US to get out of his normal “bubble”. The well-publicised visits around the country prompted speculation that Mr Zuckerberg was considering a future presidential bid, and while he has said he is not planning a run, he has not explicitly ruled it out in future.
In a discussion at the University of Kansas on Friday, the Facebook boss offered what amounted to a “State of the Union” commentary on what he had discovered about social conditions in the US.
Besides the devastating impact of the opioid epidemic — which he described as the single biggest surprise — he also highlighted the lost jobs and uncertainty caused by technology and free trade.
Referring to the opioid crisis, he said: “One of the things that struck me, that I don’t think we all fully internalise, is how this epidemic has affected people’s attitudes more broadly on policy issues.”
The effects of watching people they know succumb to addiction had made many Americans more fearful about crime and supporters of stronger border defences to stop drugs to come into the country, he suggested.
Meanwhile, referring to the impact of technological advances, he said: “We’re also starting to see they’ve left a lot of people behind. There’s a big gap in the country, and it’s getting bigger . . . I think that’s at the heart of a lot of the politically divisive debates that we have.”
The comments revealed a darker perspective compared to Mr Zuckerberg’s normally upbeat public discussions. But he still said he was optimistic that the issues that had caused the deep social divisions could be overcome, and that building stronger local communities was a key.
The Facebook founder was not challenged on the extent to which the social network had itself been to blame for the deepening social division or social fragmentation. It has come under intense fire in Washington for failing to block Russian attempts to influence last year’s election.
However, he repeated recent promises to make building stronger local communities Facebook’s main goal, and said that the company was intent on helping to prevent foreign influence in future elections.
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