Mark and Donna Zuckerberg, on left (Photo: Mark Zuckerberg)


Donna Zuckerberg does not have to justify her brother’s power

Why do we expect women to do the difficult work and explain or justify the problematic behaviour of the men in their life, asks Marisa Bate

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By Marisa Bate on

Donna Zuckerberg, the sister of Mark, has written a book called Not All Dead White Men: Classics And Misogyny In The Digital Age. The Greek and Roman scholar has examined how men on the internet have used classical mythology to justify their hatred of women, among other things.  

The giant problem of online misogyny is nothing new. But the fact that a person studying the subject is the sister of the Facebook founder is – to me, at least – very interesting. What kind of conversations does she have with her brother? And, more widely, what happens when your political beliefs raise uncomfortable questions about a family member’s mega success? Does she see her brother as responsible? Does she have a responsibility to call him out?

Speaking to The Guardian, Zuckerberg says social media (which, arguably, Mark Zuckerberg was the architect of) “has created the opportunity for men with anti-feminist ideas to broadcast their views to more people than ever before – and to spread conspiracy theories, lies and misinformation”. “Social media has elevated misogyny to entirely new levels of violence and virulence.”

Has Mark read her book? Do they discuss its theme over Sunday lunch? Can an academic studying the “dangerous” behaviour of men, whose fire is fanned by social media, perhaps get through to her brother in way no one else seems to? What was she thinking when he was hauled before Congress to testify in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and asked what part Facebook had played in Russian interference with America’s election?

The journalist interviewing Zuckerberg was clearly thinking the same thing. “Has she ever taken her brother to task?” Nosheen Iqbal writes. “‘I can see why you have to ask,’ says Zuckerberg with an apologetic smile, ‘but I’m not going to answer that question.’”

Should she have to? Some say yes. After Trump, after Brexit, as families were divided right down the dinner table, activists told us to do the hard work and call out our parents, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, whoever was in our vicinity. They told us to have those difficult conversations and perhaps we are uniquely positioned to persuade others to hear another side of a story. But families, as we all know too well, can be tricky things. Many families happily exist despite politics. So, have we come across a moment in time when the conviction of your politics is more important than the loyalty and dependability of familial relationships? In my own wider family, I know there are things we will never agree on, but I also know if I called them in an hour of need, they’d help me out – no matter what. So, which is more important?

Our proxy to men shouldn’t mean we automatically absorb their wrongdoing

If Donna Zuckerberg cares enough about the dangerous behaviour of men online, should she give Mark, her brother, a hard time? Maybe she does care. Just because she hasn’t told a Guardian journalist what she says to one of the most influential men on the planet doesn’t mean that violent misogyny caused by social media won’t be a topic of conversation this Thanksgiving. Besides, her book in itself makes for a barrage of awkward questions, without her having to say anything explicit at all.

Yet, on the other hand, why should she have to? While I initially balked at the interview, smirking at the impossibility of trying to call out the hateful behaviour of men on the internet when your brother is Mark Zuckerberg, I soon changed tact. Why do we expect women to do the difficult work and explain or justify the problematic behaviour of the men in their life – especially powerful men?

The exchange reminded me of hearing Lisa Brennan-Jobs on The New Yorker Radio Hour earlier this year. Brennan-Jobs had just published a memoir that involved her father, Steve Jobs – a man even more mythologised than Donna’s brother. Podcast host and The New Yorker editor David Remnick was pressing Brennan-Jobs about why she was kind about a man – her father – who was routinely horrible to her. He sounded frustrated. Why, Remnick demanded, did you love your arsehole of a father? Brennan-Jobs is left trying to explain her father’s actions and her complicated relationship to a not-quite-yelling male journalist. And, just like Donna Zuckerberg, when the man is not willing – or able – to answer tough questions, the nearest woman next to them is, in some ways, expected to do the work for them.  

Undoubtedly, it’s always fascinating when (particularly high-profile) families seem to display a range of opinions (the Johnsons spring to mind, now Jo Johnson has resigned over Brexit). And when it comes to the Zuckerbergs, we aren’t even 100% clear what those opinions are because a) there’s a high chance that Mark is actually a robot and b) we have no idea if Donna isn’t a one-woman pressure group, a letter-writing machine as one of the five people on this planet who have Mark Zuckerberg’s actual email address. We also have no idea of their family dynamic. To speculate on families is, in many ways, futile – there tend to be so many secrets within a family unit an outsider doesn’t have a chance of understanding what is really going on.

But in our desperation (and intrigue) to understand the troublesome, reckless and even dangerous behaviour of powerful men – behaviour that can impact on thousands of others – should we really expect the women around them to take on the labour of speaking for them and taking them to task? Or is that, in fact, civic responsibility?

To my mind, the answer lands somewhere in the middle (a relatively unfashionable place these days, I’m aware). There isn’t a person on this planet who doesn’t understand just how messy family dynamics can be and, personally, I don’t think it’s Donna Zuckerberg’s responsibility to persuade Mark Zuckerberg to make the social-media landscape better – I think it’s Mark Zuckerberg's responsibility to make the social-media landscape better. Because, in some ways, expecting women to persuade men to change their behaviour somehow alleviates men of some of that responsibility. If Donna Zuckerberg speaks out, it has to be on her own terms as an expert, a scholar and author, a knowledgeable individual. But our proxy to men shouldn’t mean we automatically absorb their wrongdoing.


Mark and Donna Zuckerberg, on left (Photo: Mark Zuckerberg)
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