Mark Zuckerberg has made millions of friends, but the Facebook founder's first foray into the political policy arena is quickly earning him some enemies.
By seeming to back the controversial Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, the billionaire technology titan has landed in a heated battle with passionate environmental activists eager to attack anyone who supports the project. Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., was the site Wednesday of a rowdy demonstration, with protesters urging Mr. Zuckerberg to backtrack and come out against the Canada-to-Texas pipeline.
Powerful green groups also have taken to — of course — Facebook and mounted anti-Keystone campaigns, taking aim at the 28-year-old billionaire and calling for clarification on exactly what his position is.
"Mark Zuckerberg has made comments in the past recognizing that we need a clean energy future, and there is no reason he needs to trade those principles for a few political points," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune wrote on the group's Facebook page.
The Sierra Club chief isn't the only one puzzled by Mr. Zuckerberg's political persuasion. His party affiliation and positions on specific issues remain mysteries.
He cozied up with President Obama two years ago, inviting the commander in chief to a laid-back town hall meeting at Facebook headquarters. They also had dinner with Apple CEO Steve Jobs and others.
But Mr. Zuckerberg also has been friendly with Republican candidates. He held a fundraiser this year for Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who is widely expected to run for the White House in 2016.
If his actions have raised questions, the commercials spur even more.
The spots can be traced back to Fwd.us, which was founded by Mr. Zuckerberg and includes a number of other larger-than-life technology leaders such as Bill Gates.
They don't overtly call for construction of the Keystone pipeline or for drilling in Alaska. Instead, they seem to use those issues in a complex — some critics call it cynical — effort to drum up support for immigration reform and to provide political cover for members of Congress who support it.
"It's hard to tell what the motives are for these ads. It's a little bit confusing," said Bob Deans, associate director of communications at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "But certainly to suggest that the Keystone pipeline is a good thing is wrong."
Fwd.us didn't respond to requests for comment Thursday, but the organization's previous explanation sheds little light on whether Mr. Zuckerberg backs Keystone.
"Maintaining two separate entities ... to support elected officials across the political spectrum — separately — means that we can more effectively communicate with targeted audiences of their constituents," Fwd.us spokeswoman Kate Hansen told the Los Angeles Times.
The "two entities," Americans for a Conservative Direction and the Council for American Job Growth, are behind the ads, though both groups' funding leads back to Fwd.us.
The Conservative Direction commercial applauds Sen. Lindsey Graham and includes footage of the South Carolina Republican criticizing the president for failing to approve the Keystone pipeline.
The Job Growth ad expressed support for Sen. Mark Begich, an Alaska Democrat who supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Neither Mr. Zuckerberg nor Fwd.us has taken a public position on either of those issues.
The organization's home page says, "Join the tech community in passing immigration reform," seeming to make clear its political intentions. Immigration reform was the stated goal of Fwd.us, classified as a lobbying group, when it launched last month.
The Facebook uproar has added another layer of intrigue to the debate over Keystone, the construction of which continues to be delayed by the White House.
A decision is expected sometime in the late summer or early fall, after a largely favorable State Department environmental review of the project.
Keystone would represent a major step forward for North American energy independence, but environmental activists — such as those in front of Facebook headquarters on Wednesday and the thousands who protested on the Mall in Washington in February — are committed to stopping it.
The State Department is reviewing more than 1 million public comments submitted in response to its environmental review. Those comments included a harsh critique from the Environmental Protection Agency, which blasted State for what it deemed a subpar study of the pipeline.
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